The Four-Fold Wisdom

Brother Francis began his eight-part philosophy course with words to this effect: “We are starting a course on wisdom. And when it comes to wisdom, only a fool can think himself a worthy teacher.” He stated this with his characteristic humor and self-effacement, but also to impart a deeper lesson, which is that the true philosophers called themselves “lovers of wisdom” (which is what philosopher means), rather than “wise men.” These latter, the sophists have given their name to the various forms of intellectual charlatanism we call “sophistry.”

This important lesson that comes to us from the Greeks is something we can happily super-naturalize by saying that divine wisdom is (or ought to be) the lifelong pursuit of a Christian, one that we should pursue without ever thinking we have it completely. Only in beatitude, when we see Wisdom Himself in the Face will we reach its plenitude. I will herein explain this pursuit in terms of the four-fold division of wisdom I mentioned last time: Wisdom is the study and discipline of sacred doctrine (theology), a virtue of the speculative intellect, a gift of the Holy Ghost, and, finally, wisdom is a Person. In proposing this schema, I follow St. Thomas’ teachings in the Summa Theologiae.

As sacred doctrine, wisdom is a systematized objective deposit, that is, a science whose principles are truths that are infallibly known, since they come from supernatural revelation, but which are methodically ordered and explained according to human reason. This is why we call philosophy  ancilla theologiae, the handmaid of theology.

As a virtue of the intellect, wisdom is the habit by which one judges rightly of things according to their highest causes. It is “subjective,” in the sense that this virtue, like all virtues, inheres in a “subject” (like you or me); while the sacred science of theology is “objective,” being fundamentally a deposit of truths that exist independently of our minds.

As a gift of the Holy Ghost, wisdom is the divinely-infused good habit of soul by which we judge rightly of things pertaining to the divine law, and, secondarily, of all things inasmuch as they relate to the divine law. Unlike the virtue of wisdom, which works in a human mode, the gift of wisdom is super-human and it operates by uniting our mind to the eternal Mind of the Law-Giver Himself.

Lastly, Wisdom with a capital W is a Person. He is none other than Our Lord Jesus Christ, the eternally uttered Word of God, whom St. Paul calls “the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (I Cor. 1:24).

Sacred Doctrine. In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas refers to theology as “sacred doctrine,” and asks whether this doctrine is the same as wisdom. This he answers in the affirmative, and with very compelling reasons:

This doctrine is wisdom above all human wisdom; not merely in any one order, but absolutely. For since it is the part of a wise man to arrange and to judge, and since lesser matters should be judged in the light of some higher principle, he is said to be wise in any one order who considers the highest principle in that order: thus in the order of building, he who plans the form of the house is called wise and architect, in opposition to the inferior laborers who trim the wood and make ready the stones: “As a wise architect, I have laid the foundation” (1 Corinthians 3:10). Again, in the order of all human life, the prudent man is called wise, inasmuch as he directs his acts to a fitting end: “Wisdom is prudence to a man” (Proverbs 10:23). Therefore he who considers absolutely the highest cause of the whole universe, namely God, is most of all called wise. Hence wisdom is said to be the knowledge of divine things, as Augustine says (De Trin. xii, 14). But sacred doctrine essentially treats of God viewed as the highest cause — not only so far as He can be known through creatures just as philosophers knew Him — “That which is known of God is manifest in them” (Romans 1:19) — but also as far as He is known to Himself alone and revealed to others. Hence sacred doctrine is especially called wisdom. [Emphasis mine.]

St. Thomas makes it clear that theological science is not the same as holiness or moral rectitude. A man may have, through study, the knowledge of what is right or wrong behavior. Hence, he can judge about those things, since one of the tasks of wisdom is precisely to judge. However, the holy man — who is possessed of wisdom that is the gift of the Holy Ghost — judges rightly concerning virtue by his inclination towards moral goodness. According to St. Thomas, it is the gift of wisdom by which “the spiritual man judgeth all things” (1 Corinthians 2:15).

Ideally, the student of sacred doctrine will also be a holy man, too. Thus, a doctor of the Church is one possessed of great learning and great sanctity.

Intellectual Virtue. We commonly speak about the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. We also frequently consider the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, and the host of other moral virtues that are held up by these “hinge” virtues (cardo means hinge). Some of these moral virtues would be humility, patience, chastity, and meekness. St. Thomas categorizes other types of virtues as well, including the intellectual virtues. They are good habits of the intellect, and have nothing to do with the will, which is where the moral virtues reside. The three intellectual virtues are knowledge (also called science), understanding, and wisdom. Knowledge pertains to conclusions, or what we might call “facts.” Understanding pertains to principles, so it is deeper than mere knowledge. Wisdom is deeper yet, as it pertains to causes.

To say that causality is a very important concept in St. Thomas’ teaching would be a supreme understatement. We’ve already seen him say, considering theology, that “he who considers absolutely the highest cause of the whole universe, namely God, is most of all called wise.” So it is no surprise to read that the Dominican doctor tells us that the intellectual virtue of wisdom “rightly judges all things and sets them in order, because there can be no perfect and universal judgment that is not based on the first causes.” Brother Francis insisted that wisdom is the deepest knowledge, and here St. Thomas agrees. Principles are deeper than conclusions (thus understanding is superior to knowledge), but causes are deeper still than principles, which is why wisdom is superior to understanding. In fact, St. Thomas says that wisdom judges all science because of the lofty vantage point of causality over principles and conclusions.

Gift of the Holy Ghost. The seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost are not virtues. They are another kind of operative habit — a disposition — by which the activities of the various theological and moral virtues are perfected. Because of their docility to the promptings of the Holy Ghost, we see in the great saints a much more palpable operation of the gifts, but all the baptized that are in the state of grace are possessed of the gifts, because they have the great Gift Himself, the Third Person of the Trinity, dwelling in their souls.

St. Thomas says that “he who knows the cause that is simply the highest, which is God, is said to be wise simply, because he is able to judge and set in order all things according to Divine rules. … Now man obtains this judgment through the Holy Ghost, according to 1 Cor. 2:15: ‘The spiritual man judgeth all things,’ because as stated in the same chapter (1 Cor. 2:10), ‘the Spirit searcheth all things, yea the deep things of God.’ Wherefore it is evident that wisdom is a gift of the Holy Ghost.” This gift differs from the intellectual virtue, which is attained by human effort. The gift is infused, or “descending from above” (James 3:15). Another way it differs from the intellectual virtue of wisdom is that the gift judges rightly concerning divine things “by a kind of connaturality,” meaning that our souls are united more intimately to God by the gift, and not merely possessed of a certain mental refinement. The principle of this connaturality is charity, which St. Thomas says is the cause of the gift of wisdom. One who does not have charity — one in mortal sin — may have the intellectual virtue of wisdom by his mental cultivation, but he does not have the “connaturality” with divine things that comes from wisdom because he is not united to God by charity. About this, the book of Wisdom (1:4) says, “Wisdom will not enter into a malicious soul, nor dwell in a body subject to sins.”

One interesting question St. Thomas asks is whether wisdom is both speculative and practical, or only speculative. Another way we might ask this is whether wisdom is contemplative and active, or only contemplative. He answers it is both active and contemplative, practical as well as speculative. This is due to the very excellence of wisdom, by which we are given to judge of divine things in themselves, and of all things in light of the divine law. Wisdom contemplates the divine law and directs human actions accordingly. This would explain the fact that many saints not possessed of great learning or experience in practical affairs became much sought after for counsel by important men of affairs. A concrete example here is St. Catherine of Siena, an illiterate, whose lofty supernatural wisdom made her counselor to high-ranking statesmen and churchmen.

One last thing about the gift of wisdom: It corresponds to the seventh Beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Aquinas quotes St. Augustine saying that “wisdom is becoming to peacemakers, in whom there is no movement of rebellion, but only obedience to reason.” The further explanation St. Thomas gives is both subtle and enlightening, as he touches upon the “merit” (peacemaking) and the “reward” (divine sonship of this Beatitude):

The seventh beatitude is fittingly ascribed to the gift of wisdom, both as to the merit and as to the reward. The merit is denoted in the words, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Now a peacemaker is one who makes peace, either in himself, or in others: and in both cases this is the result of setting in due order those things in which peace is established, for “peace is the tranquillity of order,” according to Augustine (De Civ. Dei xix, 13). Now it belongs to wisdom to set things in order, as the Philosopher declares (Metaph. i, 2), wherefore peaceableness is fittingly ascribed to wisdom. The reward is expressed in the words, “they shall be called the children of God.” Now men are called the children of God in so far as they participate in the likeness of the only-begotten and natural Son of God, according to Romans 8:29, “Whom He foreknew . . . to be made conformable to the image of His Son,” Who is Wisdom Begotten. Hence by participating in the gift of wisdom, man attains to the sonship of God.

Eternal and Incarnate Wisdom. St. Thomas’ explanation that we achieve divine sonship by being conformed to the image of God’s natural Son, “Wisdom Begotten,” leads me to my final consideration. Jesus Christ is the eternal and incarnate Wisdom. He is the eternally-uttered Word spoken of by St. John the Evangelist. He proceeds from the Father as His Thought, His Idea, His Divine Self-Knowledge, His Wisdom.

About the generation of the Son, I wrote this in an article called Trinitarian Processions:

The Son’s generation is of an entirely spiritual nature. The Son proceeds from the Father as his thought, his understanding, his adequate and necessary self-knowledge. Because he proceeds by way of intellection, he is called, especially in the Johanine corpus, the “Word” (Logos, Verbum). Now a word is produced by an intellect or a mind. This is true even of human words, which, before they are ever spoken or written, are mental concepts or ideas in the mind. [We use the word “conception” in relation both to ideas in the mind and to human persons. Thus, I conceive the idea of a tree in my mind, and a mother conceives a child in her womb. The conception of the Second Person of the Trinity unites these two notions of the word.] The Catechism of the Council of Trent explains that “as our mind, in some sort understanding itself, forms an image of itself, which theologians express by the term word, so God, as far as we may compare human things to divine, understanding Himself, begets the eternal Word.”

St. Thomas posits that “Word” is the Son’s proper name in that it identifies his unique manner of procession. In so arguing, the Master of Aquino draws a strict identity of meaning between the two names, “Son” and “Word”: “For it [Word] signifies an emanation of the intellect: and the person Who proceeds in God, by way of emanation of the intellect, is called the Son; and this procession is called generation.”

There are two other names given to the Son which connote a generation of intellection or thought. The first of these is “Wisdom.” In the Old Testament wisdom literature, the word is used as a personification of God’s Wisdom (see Wis. 8; Prov. 8, Ecclus. 24). In the New Testament, it is applied to Our Lord, e.g., in 1 Cor. 1:24, where St. Paul calls Christ, “the wisdom of God.”

In time, Eternal Wisdom became man, Incarnate Wisdom, and thus made it possible for us to become by grace what He is by nature, sons of God. Said another way, Wisdom came down from Heaven to make us truly wise.

I will conclude this already too long Ad Rem with the recommendation to our readers to read Love of Eternal Wisdom the sublime work by Saint Louis Marie de Montfort. This work is more fundemantal than True Devotion to Mary, and it more clearly illumines the practice of total Marian consecration.

“But if any of you want wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men abundantly, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” (James 1:5)