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

Logic is the science and art of correct reasoning. This is the definition from which we will be working throughout this course. It will be explained in greater detail later. Logic is also one of the seven Liberal Arts, and it is under this aspect that we will first study it. The Liberal Arts are classically categorized this way:

The Trivium:

The Quadrivium:Arithmetic

The seven Liberal Arts — divided into the three disciplines of Trivium and the four disciplines of Quadrivium — form part of the traditional wisdom which has been handed down from the ages of Faith. These arts work in harmony with scholastic philosophy (Philosophia Perennis) to give the man who would be wise his basic intellectual formation. Liberal education is contrasted with specialized or professional education, the latter being that which prepares a man for a craft or profession whereby he may render a service to society and thus earn a living. Without diminishing the nobility of service, from the Catholic point of view there is implied in the attribute “liberal” another great value: namely, the education of man as a free person; as a value in himself; and for his own perfection and happiness. A person being educated liberally is truly treated as a prince or princess.

In contrast to liberal education we may talk of servile education, which we may also call ministerial education. Both are necessary, noble and can make us virtuous. For this reason Christians do not despise service. Man is meant in this life to serve, and especially to serve his fellow men. This is why we call the Order of the priesthood ministerial. Our Lord taught us this value when he said to his disciples:

The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and they that have power over them, are called beneficent. But you not so: but he that is the greater among you, let him become as the younger; and he that is the leader, as he that serveth. (Lk. 22: 25,26)

When a man seeks training to be a dentist, he does so because he is going to take care of his fellow men’s teeth and somehow make his living doing it. This is training him for a service. When a man is trained to be a smith, this is also to do some service — some human need for which he is going to provide. It is technical knowledge, and it is acquiring skills that are useful to society. The kind of good that is aimed at in non-liberal education is the useful good, also called utililty. Utility is truly a good, but it is not the highest good. This last statement cannot be emphasized too much, because somehow one of the biggest fallacies that exists today is the fallacy of utilitarianism. This fallacy can be simply defined: It is the exaltation of utility over all else. This fallacy has reached such a critical state that utility is the only good about which most of those we call “thinkers” actually think.

One of the prophets against utilitarianism in America was Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau said that this country’s biggest problem is preoccupation with means; we never think of ends. People in America are so excited because they have connected Maine to Texas by wireless, but what if Maine and Texas have nothing to say to each other? We build roads and bridges. People are rushing to the right and to the left, rushing everywhere. And where are they going? They are not going to, they are going from. They just want to move. This is a country of means, one of utilities, and one of efficiency. The most pointed way to say it is this: Efficiency has taken the place of wisdom, and utility has come to be the highest good.

When a man is educated liberally, he is being prepared to be a value in himself. He is being prepared for the joys of knowing for the sake of knowledge, for contemplation, for being perfect. This perfection is not moral perfection but ontological perfection to be developed according to all the potentialities in him.

God created man in need of education. Animals don’t need it; everything that an animal needs to be a perfect animal is built into him genetically in his instincts. A dog cannot learn how to achieve canine perfection. No bee has to go to school to learn how to build a hive. There is no improvement from century to century in bee-kind. There was no Gothic style of bee hives. Man is different. Man is born with many potentialities, all of which require perfecting (that is what a potentiality is: something that is inherently imperfect and needs something to put it in act). That is the sole purpose of education. Our faculties have to become our virtues and skills. (These terms; faculties, habits, virtues and skills, are terms that will be defined when we come to them later on in the course. We are starting to use the language of philosophy here so that it will not be entirely new when we use it later in the course.)

Let us for a moment consider grammar, logic and rhetoric. What do they teach us? One teaches man to write: The word grammar comes from the Greek word meaning to write. One teaches man to think: The word logic comes from the Greek word for thought. The last teaches man to speak convincingly: The word rhetoric comes from the word meaning “to speak.” Immediately we should notice that these three functions are necessary for every man no matter what he is going to end up doing the rest of his life. No matter what specialization, no matter what the service is for which he is going to prepare, if he is educated, man should be able to write well, to think well, and to speak well. These are human perfections.

It would be foolish to say, “We don’t need to teach him how to think; he’s only going to be a politician,” or “he doesn’t need to speak well to be a doctor.” If someone wants to be a doctor, he has to have the power of convincing people who seek his services. Something of rhetoric has to be there. The politician also has to learn to think. He has to have some ability at logic.

As for grammar, the best way to become a good writer is to become acquainted with the most excellent writings in history. One may think that there is no great difference between writing and speaking; that, since in both cases words proceed, they are really the same thing. But there is a very great difference. If people had not sat down to write excellent masterpieces we would not have grammar. People would somehow manage to understand each other without it. Writing down a sentence gives it a certain endurance that speaking it does not. The written sentence almost demands that it be analyzed as a sentence, whereas the spoken sentence is dealt with as part of a larger expression of thought. Somebody could discover this book two centuries from now. He could try to build all kinds of theories based on what is written in it, like what kind of a man the author was. There is a responsibility here. One starts to weigh, to criticize, to structure, to introduce not merely utility but beauty. Therefore suddenly, when language is written, the laws of the language become manifest. The different kinds of words must be explained. Then we discover that some words are nouns, some are verbs, some are adjectives, some are adverbs, some are pronouns, etc. . . That is the interest in grammar. It begins when people are writing. As we said above, the best method for teaching grammar is to begin reading prose and poetry, masterpieces of all time. Then the laws of the language will make sense.

With rhetoric there is included a certain amount of the study of grammar. When one studies the masterpieces of writing, he is learning both the laws of the language and also how to be convincing. He learns how to be attractive, how to communicate value and conviction, and how to express truths. (We will define truth a little later, because logic is mainly involved with truth.)

There are three transcendent values. They are truth, goodness, and beauty. These will be discussed a great deal in this course. All culture, all civilization is found in the true, the good, and the beautiful. They are the ideals that guide the minds of men to excellence. For now, let us leave the other two and talk about truth.

Truth is defined as the conformity of the mind to reality. Actually, all the logical sciences are merely to teach us how to conform our minds to reality. We say philosophy can prove the immortality of the soul. This is a fact whether anyone knows it or not, whether anyone admits or denies it. But when we know this reality, we have a truth in the mind. A spiritual soul (and a rational soul must be spiritual) is immortal. (The connection between rational and immortal is another thing that is in the realm of good philosophy. When we prove the soul of man is rational, we are at the same time proving it has a tremendously important ontological attribute not found in the soul of a plant.)1

The notion of conformity that we have just introduced in our definition of truth is very important. It would be detrimental to the student of philosophy to pass over this term superficially.2

Conformity is a governing principle in all three disciplines of the Trivium. A writer is seeking conformity between his mind and his expression. He wants to be able to express himself correctly. What is written and also what is said conform to what he thinks. The rhetorician is seeking a conformity of the mind of the person or persons to whom he is talking with what is in his own mind. The conformity in rhetoric is between mind and mind. It is different with logic. The logician is seeking the conformity of his mind to what is — i.e., to reality.

Logic is therefore that discipline which teaches a man to think. One of the biggest problems in the world is that everybody thinks he knows how to think. It was the fatal assignment of Socrates to try to convince the people of Athens they really did not know how to think, even though they thought they did. As a result, the Athenian democracy condemned him to drink the hemlock. Socrates’ fate shows how difficult it is to bring people to realize that they need to study logic. It is true, of course, that for ordinary affairs God gives us some kind of an instinctive bee-like ability to take care of our problems, but knowledge and wisdom on matters of great importance — apart from survival — are not in the realm of instinct. When it is a question of religion, of education, of thinking correctly about the structure and nature of a state, of the laws that should govern the state, or of establishing the sciences, human beings just cannot think the way the fly flies, or the fish swims. This type of thought is not instinctive. It requires the patience to start from the beginning, learning the simplest concepts, and from there building up to the more complex. This ability is a tremendous distinction for man. It is what sets him apart from the beasts.

There is in man an infinite ability to perfect his faculty of reason. It is, though, the humility of man to develop his faculty of thought by this learning process. When compared with the nine choirs of angels, whose knowledge comes intuitively, man is lowly. He must work by the sweat of his brow even to think. The study of logic is, therefore, a humbling thing. First, we must admit we can learn to think better than we do. Second, we must be willing to go through a very childlike discipline: to begin from the beginning to learn the alphabet of thought, always proceeding patiently.

The world today is being destroyed by many forces. The only way to begin to repair the damage is to seek the ultimate cause. Trying to solve proximate causes will only prolong the problem unless effort is made to correct the ultimate causes. To do this one has to know those processes by which ultimate causes are determined. This is why we need philosophy. Philosophy never stops with the proximate causes — it seeks the ultimate cause.

The ultimate and real cause for the subversion of our civilization is the folly of proud thinkers, people who thought they could bypass the simple childlike disciplines of logic and start talking about the higher subjects. They thought they could short-circuit logic. In the end, they not only cause catastrophes to themselves personally, but — if they are men of genius — to the whole world. Nobody can do great harm that does not have great genius. A simple person that cannot even sell peanuts would never cause the kind of damage that is ruining the world today. The real culprits are the people who have been given great talents but foolishly misused them. We must then conclude that the fact that this logical discipline has disappeared from our colleges and from our schools is at least part of the reason why we are educating people into atheism.

Holy Scripture teaches, The fool said in his heart, ‘there is no God!’ (Ps. 52:1). According to the word of God, then, we are educating people not to wisdom but to foolishness. With this in mind, we can introduce logic now by defining it. Logic is the science and art of correct reasoning. This definition will be expounded upon in greater detail later. For now, let us look at what is meant by the words “definition” and “division” when used in logic.

In logic we learn what it is to define. We also learn what it is to divide. These are two fundamental disciplines of logic. A definition is an expression expounding the nature of a reality or the signification of a term. Definition is concerned with simpler, more abstract, and therefore more intelligible concepts.

To divide means to classify. Division is an expression distributing a whole into its parts. When we classify a concept, we break that concept down into smaller parts. For example, if we wish to classify virtue, we first say how many types of virtue there are, then we break those types into sub-types. We will distinguish natural virtue from supernatural virtue, justice from prudence, etc. In a written text such as this, it is hard to spot a definition when first looking at the page, because a definition looks like any other sentence. But division is more easy to see. In the later volumes in this course, the reader will be able to see many diagrams that look like upside down trees. These represent division.

Now that we know the distinction between definition and division, let us examine more closely the definition of logic. It is the science and art of correct reasoning. There are two values in the definition: science and art. Each of them has to have its own definition. Science is knowledge through causes and principles. Scientific knowledge which results from the methodical pursuit of the causes and principles of things is more certain, more accurate, better ordered and more teachable than the ordinary knowledge of common sense. This usage of the word science is not the same as that which is known to most people today. The common application of the word “science” is to what are really the empirical sciences, biology, chemistry, mineralogy etc. Classically, however, “science” is methodical knowledge as it applies primarily to philosophy, theology, and to other higher disciplines.

Art, now, is a very important value in scholastic philosophy. In modern thinking, just as science has been reduced to the empirical sciences, art has been reduced to the plastic arts and the performing arts. But the word Ars in scholastic philosophy applies to the doing well of a thing. The scholastics talk of things like cooking and carpentry in terms of artistry. The making aspect is the art of the thing. Art is the ability to perform a complex operation successfully with correctness, facility, and speed. In other words, we not only learn some general principles, but we also learn how to apply them and how to think well according to them. Therefore, logic is not merely a science, but is also an art. The complex operation in logic consists in thinking correctly about important, difficult, and deep matters.

Let us illustrate this definition of art with a concrete example: When one wishes to learn the piano, he learns what notes on the written page correspond to what keys on the piano. He learns what the symbols on the page mean in terms of pitch, rhythm, expression, etc. If he can play a simple scale in his first week of studying the piano, he is not yet an artist. When he has the art, it becomes almost an instinct. What is at first the agonizing process of turning black ink into sound, becomes second nature. This is not an instinct that spontaneously arises like the bird building its nest. Piano-playing is an instinct that has to be developed. The powers that God gave us can be perfected to achieve marvelous things, but the perfection has to come through discipline.

To end our introduction to logic, we will discuss the three attributes of logic: Logic is liberal, normative, and reflexive. The first attribute, liberal, has already been discussed, but it would not hurt to briefly summarize it. It is liberal because it educates man in something that belongs to human nature as such, not because he is going to be a doctor, not because he is going to be an architect, not because he is going to be a policeman, but because he is man.

The second attribute of logic is normative. It is a normative science and a normative art. Normative simply means the pursuit of how something ought to be done, not how it is usually done. Logic teaches us how to think, it doesn’t teach us how we naturally think left to ourselves. There are other sciences that deal with thought under different aspects, but the role of logic is to teach us how we should think, how to think correctly. As a normative art, it teaches us how to think well. Here an example from another normative art would help to explain the distinction: When one studies the art of cooking — which is a normative art — he does not study how people burn food, or how they make it bland; he studies how to cook well.

The third attribute of logic is reflexive. Logic is a reflexive art. By reflection here is meant the turning of something on itself. In the case of logic, it means thinking about thought. There is a tremendous importance in the ability of the human mind to reflect. There are only two ways by which we demonstrate the spirituality of the soul: abstraction and reflection.3

The fact that man is responsible morally follows upon these two faculties. Reflection is very important because it is a spiritual activity. No animal can reflect. If one placed a chicken in front of this book, it would look at the same black and white letters that we humans see, but it could not abstract from the symbols and know what is being said. Neither can the chicken reflect on its own thought. Men can do both; we can think about the sentence we just read (abstract), and then think about the thought itself (reflect).

Logic is the first important study we approach in philosophy. It is our first great value. As we proceed with our study, we must remember that keeping values in their place is one of the primary functions of the philosopher. Sapientis est ordinare: It is the function of the wise man to impose order. The purpose of philosophy is to give order. And order is putting first things first, putting everything in its proper place of importance.

Fifteen conclusions from the study of Logic

1. All men by nature desire to know. (Aristotle)

2. Truth is conformity of our mind to reality, or of our mind to the mind of God.

3. All human activity begins with thought.

4. Only truth is constructive thought; all error is subversive or at least sterile.

5. Truth in the natural order prepares the mind for the supernatural truth.

6. All that makes man good, noble, happy, depends on his thought. We possess by nature truth-seeking powers, but there is also in us a tendency to go after falsehood.

7. O ye sons of men, how long will you be dull of heart? (Psalm 4:3)

8. All change, for better or for worse, must begin with a change in the way people think. Those who say, “I do not care how a man thinks, it is what he does that makes the difference,” are guilty of a great fundamental error. Nothing makes more ultimate difference in what a man does than how he thinks.

9. In the final analysis, a man’s life is a success or a failure depending on the acts of his mind. Two men could be equally handsome, equally pleasant, and, at least on the outside, equally virtuous; and yet one of the two could be wise while the other a fool. The difference: what each of them affirms or denies in his mind as the truth about life and reality.

10. Wisdom is the perfection of knowledge about the most important truths accompanied by an inclination of the entire human nature to live and act accordingly. Considered absolutely, wisdom is the highest ideal for human life and as such is incapable of full achievement on this earth. But while remaining an ideal, it does establish a direction and a scale of values; we can usually tell when knowledge is more or less perfect, well or ill ordered, concerned with what is truly important or failing to put first things first.

11. Wisdom implies a mind in conformity with reality as it truly is, not merely as it appears. Therefore a basic attribute of wisdom is profundity, and most people miss it by way of being superficial.

12. There is a superficial outlook on reality which reduces it to what appears to the senses, to a mere process in space and time, which therefore denies or ignores the invisible realities (substance, God, the soul, etc.), denies immortality, denies the moral order, denies a purposive and personal Providence ruling the universe. Many people are caught in this superficiality; but even more people, while not holding explicitly its principles, still conduct their lives as if they do.

13. “A supernatural soul does not deal with secondary causes.” (Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity)

14. “Felicity is the activity of man’s most perfect power.” (Aristotle)

15. You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (John 8:32)

1 Speaking about the soul of a plant may be a bit premature here. But by way of introduction let us say that plants have souls. They do not have immortal souls. We shall see this more clearly when we come to that part of our course called psychology, which is the study of life (and everything that has life must have a principle of life: a soul). To state it simply: The soul of a plant is not an immortal soul because it is not a rational soul. The same truth holds for animals.

2 Philosophy studies things that the superficial consider unimportant. This is one of the benefits of philosophical training; it is meant to prevent us from being superficial. This is one distinction between a person who has had philosophy and one who has not.

3 Abstraction will be treated in detail much later in the course.