Philosophia Perennis Vol. I: An Introduction to Philosophy as Wisdom

Wisdom is twofold to us men. There is a supernatural wisdom which can only come from God, and a natural wisdom, one that could be achieved by the good use of our minds. We should all try to acquire these two types of wisdom.

Supernatural wisdom is contained in Holy Scripture and in the traditional teachings of the Church. All of Holy Scripture may be considered as a book about wisdom, because all of its seventy-two books talk more about wisdom than any other subject. Moses pointed to the Scriptures and said to the people of Israel: “This is your wisdom and understanding in the sight of the nations” (Deut. 4:6). So the people of Israel received a wisdom that can only come from God, and can only be received through a supernatural act of Faith. This is supernatural wisdom; and while our present course is primarily about philosophy or natural wisdom, we must first give the honour of place to the wisdom revealed by God.

There are seven books in the Old Testament; namely, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticle of Canticles, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus, called in a very special way books of Wisdom in order to distinguish them from other books that specialize in Sacred History or in Prophecy. And in the New Testament, there are twenty-one books called doctrinal or Wisdom books. They are the fourteen epistles of St. Paul and the seven epistles by other Apostles. It would, then, be true to say that while the seventy-two books of the Bible are about wisdom, there are twenty-eight of them that major in it.

We will examine a few lines from one of these doctrinal books, namely, the Epistle of St. James. In his capacity as first Bishop of Jerusalem and Apostle to the Jews, St. James addressed his famous epistle to the Jews in the Diaspora (i.e. those Jews who left Palestine and spread throughout the world). In this inspired Epistle we get a good taste of Divine Wisdom. This is how the Epistle of James begins:

James the servant of God, and of our Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting. My brethren, count it all joy, when you shall fall into divers temptations, knowing that the trying of your faith worketh patience. And patience hath a perfect work, that you may be perfect and entire, failing in nothing. But if any of you want wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men abundantly. (James 1:1-5.)

St. James was writing to the Jews in the Diaspora, but the Holy Ghost, Who is the principal author of the Epistle, was teaching, through this message to the Jews, all generations everywhere. So let us pretend to be the Jews of the Diaspora and appropriate the Epistle as if it were addressed to us.

It is not easy to rejoice when you get trials. But St. James, or rather, the Holy Ghost, is telling us that if we are truly Christians and truly have the Faith, we should be happy when God sends us trials. And trials seem to be a necessary adjunct of having the Faith. This is especially true in times when one has to fight for the Faith. One should count it all joy because, whether we like it or not, that is part of true wisdom.

St. James also recommends patience. “To fight for the Faith in our time, you need the patience of Job,” was the favorite saying of a wise man of this century. If we receive our trials with joy, we will have patience, and patience hath a perfect work (James 1:4). Patience is the virtue of perfection. Every good artist knows that to be true. It is supremely true in that greatest of all arts: the art of becoming a Saint.

The inspired author of the Epistle goes on to say: But if any of you want wisdom, let him ask of God (James 1:5). Evidently St. James did not believe that too many people want wisdom. Yet all who read this volume presumably want wisdom, otherwise (we think), it would go unread. So let the reader pay good attention to the Scripture, and seek wisdom prayerfully of God. This book cannot give anyone wisdom; however, if the reader prays enough, our volume could be God’s tool in showing where and how to seek for it. God is generous: He giveth to all abundantly, and upbraideth not (James 1:5). All He asks is that we ask for it — and seek earnestly.

Wisdom is the most perfect knowledge of the most important truths in the right order of emphasis, accompanied by a total, permanent disposition to live accordingly.

By stating this definition of wisdom, we have already started the course on logic, because the first technique of logic consists in the defining of concepts like “wisdom.” The first logical step is to place the concept to be defined under a more generic notion. For example, “wisdom” in the above given definition is first placed under the more universal concept of “knowledge.” Wisdom is knowledge. The wise are those who know. But although wisdom is knowledge, not all knowledge is wisdom. Here is a secret that is a key to understanding the distinction: Some of the greatest fools on this earth have a great deal of knowledge. Knowledge by itself does not guarantee wisdom. Wisdom is a perfect knowledge. This fact tells us immediately that in knowledge there are degrees of perfection. When we have the Faith, and we thank God if we do, we know some tremendous truths — e.g. the truths we proclaim in the Apostles Creed which we recite daily to start the Rosary. We know these truths with absolute certainty, and yet the knowledge of Faith is not as perfect as the beatific knowledge of the blessed in heaven. It is said of St. Teresa of Avila, to take one example, that she almost had the Beatific Vision, that in her mystical life there remained just one thin veil keeping her knowledge of Faith from becoming the full and perfect knowledge of vision.

Wisdom is the most perfect knowledge of the most important truths. This lets us know that there is a hierarchy in the order of the sciences and the whole realm of knowledge. Our Church is hierarchical, and as Catholics we know that our universe is also hierarchical, and that there is a hierarchy of value in all things. All knowledge is good and desirable, but there is a knowledge of trivialities and a knowledge of very important matters.

There are very important truths revealed by God that we must accept on the authority of God revealing and the Church teaching in His name. Such truths include the reality of three Divine Persons in the One, eternal nature of God; that the Second Person of the Trinity became man; that our Lord is truly present in the Eucharist; that Jesus Christ truly rose from the dead and that all men will also rise from the dead. All these truths and many others, especially those pertaining to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Her Immaculate Conception, Her Assumption into Heaven, etc. could never be known by men if God had not revealed them.

But there are also very important truths that men can arrive at by the use of the powers that God gave us. One of these truths is the immortality of the human soul. This tremendously important truth will be discussed and proved in the course on philosophic psychology. All we need to say now is that while experimental psychology (what is most often meant by psychology today) studies mental phenomena, rational psychology studies life and the hierarchy of living things. The Greek word Psyche means soul, and the soul is the principle of life in all material living things. Even plants have souls, though not immortal ones. The same is true of animals lacking reason. Only the souls of men, being rational and spiritual, are immortal.

All these matters and concepts will be discussed at length in our course on psychology. At the present, we are taking the immortality of the soul as one example of a very important truth that can be known by natural reason. We say in our definition of wisdom — and philosophy is natural wisdom — that it is about important truths. To illustrate this clearly, let us consider the difference between a man who knows that he is going to live forever and another man who does not. The man who knows that he is going to live forever knows also that every other person he deals with, all his brothers and sisters in humanity, are also going to live forever. This will make a profound difference in his relations to all other men, what he thinks about them and how he acts toward them. In addition, without this knowledge it is impossible to have a system of ethics, psychology, cosmology, or ontology. Therefore, the immortality of the soul is an important truth which will bring one closer to achieving true wisdom.

Sometimes even trivial truths can have a momentary importance. When one is kept from entering his house because of a locked door, he needs to know where to find a key. For a moment even that trivial fact — the location of a key — becomes very important for a practical reason. But once the door is opened he forgets about the key. He does not want to contemplate its hiding place for the rest of his life. But there are truths endowed with more than transitory importance, truths whose very contemplation makes us happy. These truths make us happy because they anticipate the ultimate purpose of our existence: the contemplation of Truth Himself, God. There are many names for this ultimate purpose: Salvation, Eternal Beatitude, Heaven, the Beatific Vision.

In the Scholastic tradition, philosophy (natural wisdom) is called ancilla theologiae or the handmaid of theology (supernatural wisdom). The philosophy we learn in this course, philosophia perennis, grew in the shadow of the Catholic Faith, and has as its standard of importance the issue of salvation.

The series which this volume introduces consists of eight philosophic courses. The truths we arrive at in these several courses we ascertain by using our intellect and our will as God intended us to use them. What we learn in logic, cosmology, psychology, ethics, epistemology and ontology, is no more supernatural and meritorious than what we learn in mathematics. However, error in these philosophic sciences is always a hindrance to God’s revelations while truth is always a help. This is the import of the famous adage “grace builds on nature.”

Sound philosophy proves (1) the existence of God, (2) the immortality of the human soul, (3) the freedom of the will. Error in these important matters can close the mind to all revelation from God.

The First Vatican Council defined: “If anyone should have said that the One, True God, our Creator and our Lord, cannot be known with certitude by those things which have been made, by the natural light of reason, let him be anathema” (Denz. 1806).

This means that since Vatican I, it is a formal heresy to hold that the human mind is not able to know the existence of God. This heresy is tantamount to saying that God creates an intelligent being incapable of discovering Him. Now this knowledge of God is not sufficient for salvation. Though it is necessary, it alone is not sufficient. (To say otherwise would make one a Pelagian.) This ability to know carries with it a responsibility on the part of man: an obligation to use this faculty. Those who have reached the age of reason are culpable if they do not know that there is a God, and even more culpable if they deny the existence of God.

A missionary going to a pagan land where the Gospel has never been preached cannot blame a pagan when meeting him for the first time for not knowing about the Incarnation, about the sacraments, or about the fact that the Holy Scriptures were inspired by God. All these are truths of the supernatural order. We know them because God revealed them and the Church teaches them in His name. But the missionary is entitled to blame pagans — even berate them — if he finds that they do not even know that there is a God. They should have found that out with their own minds before the arrival of the missionary. Like all natural virtue, the achievement of knowing God through natural reason is praiseworthy, but not sufficient for salvation ( it is for this purpose that the Church has missionaries).

It is supernatural wisdom that is both necessary and sufficient. It comes to us from God, and we receive it by the docility of the will. It is presented to us by the inspired author of the Book of Wisdom:

Wherefore I wished, and understanding was given me: and I called upon God and the spirit of Wisdom came upon me: And I preferred her before kingdoms and thrones, and esteemed riches nothing in comparison of her. Neither did I compare unto her any precious stones: for all gold in comparison of her, is as a little sand, and silver in respect to her shall be counted as clay. I loved her above health and beauty, and chose to have her instead of light: for her light cannot be put out. Now all good things came to me together with her, and innumerable riches through her hands. (Wisd. 7: 7 – 11)

But why philosophy?

Having shown the paramount importance of supernatural wisdom, why need we occupy ourselves with philosophy? In a way, in the full development of the following courses, we shall be trying to meet the challenge of this question. Since God has bestowed on us a wisdom we receive in the light of grace, why need we seek wisdom in the light of natural reason?

These are a few considerations in favor of the cultivation of philosophy as part of wisdom:

First, God gave us our natural powers of intellect and will, and He is pleased to see us use them well. Indeed it is in the possession of these powers that men are made “in His image and likeness.”

Second, it is natural for men to raise the questions dealt with in philosophy. When these questions are not answered correctly through the sound method, they are likely to be answered by error (and this is subversive of Faith and morals, as we shall make abundantly clear). To give one example, sound philosophy proves that the human soul, being rational, is spiritual and therefore immortal. A mind equipped with this truth is more receptive of the truths of revelation. A mind which rejects this truth will fall into philosophical error, heresy, and — most likely — moral corruption.

Third, sound philosophy provides clear, defined concepts and sound methods for expressing accurately the revealed truths of the Faith. For example, the Church uses the concepts of “substance,” “nature,” “person,” etc., to express and defend the mysteries of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Eucharist.

Fourth, God reveals the truths necessary for salvation, and man can go to Heaven by accepting with childlike simplicity these revealed truths. But if we want to have a culture guided by Faith and reason, the disciplines of sound philosophy become indispensable. A Catholic culture on this earth requires just laws, a sound philosophy of education, good family values, noble art standards, etc., and only sound philosophy can provide such principles.

Fifth, the experimental sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy, etc.), and the mathematical sciences are the foundations of the technological age in which we find ourselves literally immersed. Philosophy differs from these sciences.

While they seek proximate causes and are interested in practical results, philosophy seeks ultimate causes from a more universal point of view. Philosophy is more speculative (even more contemplative) and more detached. Philosophy, therefore, can evaluate the realm of validity of each science and prevent the false generalizations which we associate with the dangers of scientism. So, to extend the scholastic metaphor “philosophy is the handmaid of theology,” we may add that at the same time, philosophy is the queen of the arts and sciences.