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

Our last book in the series will be ontology. As we have done with all the other philosophical disciplines, we will start by explaining the name. Like the other names we have mentioned, ontology comes from two Greek words. We are familiar with the suffix -logy, which denotes a science, or a rational, organized body of fundamental knowledge. The prefix On is the Greek word for “being” (it is the present participle of the verb “to be”). Therefore, the name tells us that ontology is the philosophy of being. It has many names besides ontology. Sometimes it is called general metaphysics. Sometimes it is called the summit of all philosophy. It is also called the science of the immaterial. All of these names will be explained in time.

Who is the founder of this study? Who gave us the basic insights we need to study being? Aristotle. If Aristotle had not lived, it is conceivable that the whole world would have run its course without such a thing as the philosophy of being. We owe it to his genius that we have this discipline. To him, it was the climax of what he called metaphysics. The word metaphysics deserves some attention. We should know by now what Aristotle meant by the word physics, as opposed to what most people today mean by physics. To Aristotle, physics is a philosophy, the philosophy of nature ( physis in Greek means nature, corresponding to the Latin word, natura). To this is added the prefix meta, meaning “after” or “beyond.”

Nature is a very important word for us. So much of our Faith, and so much of our natural wisdom, depends on an understanding of the word nature. It is one of the terms that we deal with in every field of philosophy, but which we really study and strive to master in ontology. The first nature that comes to our understanding is the nature of a material being. Since we are men and not angels, the object must be proportionate to what we are. The natures we begin to study are things like water, fire, trees, rocks, air, etc. All of these familiar things have natures. When we put them all together, we get nature in the sense in which it is most commonly used — the natural order. The natural order is nothing more than the order that results from all the different natures of all the material beings functioning together to make our cosmos. That is why cosmology is the other name for the study of nature. We may immediately anticipate the fact (to be proved in due course) that this order of nature reflects to us the power and goodness and wisdom of God. Once we discover that there is a very definite unity and purpose in the order of nature, it becomes a very important philosophic value. (Even in the field of morals we speak of the “natural law,” a manifestation of the truth that God intended our behavior to be such as to fulfill the purpose for which He created us and the universe.)

Aristotle began with the material reality, the ens mobile (the changing being). But in drawing conclusions about the material reality, every once in a while he came to a conclusion of wider and higher application; he conceived a principle of being not as changing (mobile), but as being (being as being). He realized that these principles belonged to a philosophic science above and beyond physics, which he (or his disciples) named metaphysics.

We must explain why ontology comes at this point in our series, as the last course of our philosophic program. The first explanation is that, when we have gotten to this point, we have actually been studying ontology all along. Ontology cannot be ignored or left behind even in the first stages of the study of philosophy. We have been using the language of ontology and its concepts since the very beginning, because there is nothing we can know except being. But there are real reasons why the philosophy of being, as such, should be kept to the end. It is the most profound and the most difficult branch, and we need the other subjects to prepare us for it. It is also the noblest, most elevated, and most contemplative part of philosophy, so we reach it by steps as we reach the pinnacle of a mountain. And finally, a very good reason why we reserve ontology to the end is that it borders the higher wisdom, the wisdom revealed by God. The height of ontology is theodicy, or natural theology. Theodicy studies the divine nature and attributes only as they are known in the light of human reason.

And while ontology is not exactly the most interesting or most exciting matter of study, when one disciplines his mind to its elevated language, he can ascend to great spiritual and intellectual joys. The sound principles of ontology give life and health to all the higher cultural activities. It will be some time before we publish the volume on ontology, and there will be many books leading to its study. For the purposes of this introduction, we can whet the student’s appetite by introducing three ontological pillars: the categories, the transcendental ideas, and the analogy of being.

Aristotle affirmed that there are ten categories of reality: one category of substance and nine of accidents. These ten categories are ten meanings of the verb “to be.” All of them can be expressed by some form of that verb, like “is.” (In our list, each category is followed by an example.) The ten categories are:

1. Substance:
2. Quantity:
3. Quality:
4. Relation:
5. Action:
6. Passion:
7. Time:
8. Place:
9. Disposition:
10. Habitus:

It would be very helpful to learn the ten categories by memory now. They will be discussed more fully in the book on ontology, but with this very sketchy presentation we can refer to them occasionally in the books that precede it without causing much confusion.

In God there are no accidents, so only the category of substance may be applied to God. Thus we can talk about His nature and essence, but not about his age or location. In the natural order, all ten categories adequately divide all material reality. There are other concepts which apply to spiritual realities (even God) as well as to material reality. These are called the transcendental ideas, or transcendentals. We will mention four of them now: Being, One, True, Good.

So the concept “being,” the subject of the philosophic science of ontology, is itself a transcendental concept. But no concept can be applied to God and to a creature univocally (in the same sense). It must be applied analogously. This is the basis for the famous analogy of being, a very important chapter in ontology. Much depends on its proper understanding.

Here is Aristotle introducing the subject of ontology: “There is a science which studies being qua being [qua is Latin for “as.” What it means is that we do not study the cow as a cow, we study the cow as a being. The latter is more interesting if we are contemplative] and the properties inherent in it, [i.e., in being]. The science is not the same as any of the so called particular sciences. They (the particular sciences) divide some portion and study it by itself. But it is for the first principles and the most ultimate causes that we are searching. Clearly they must belong to something in virtue of their very being. Hence, if these principles were investigated by those also investigating the elements of existing things, the elements must be elements of being, not incidentally, but, qua being. Therefore, it is of being qua being that we, too, must grasp the first causes.”

To speak in terms more understandable than the highly abstract language of the philosopher, if we seek the causes of the cow qua cow, it will lead us to another cow. But if we seek the cause of a cow qua being, it will lead us to the first Being — to God. Once we have taken the step from the finite to the infinite (from the creature to the Creator), then we need to know the transcendental concepts and to understand the analogy of being.

The difficulty we meet at this point is that in order to introduce ontology, it is not enough that one has been introduced to the other subjects; he has to have studied them. Many of the terms are extremely simple and common, but we want to know how the philosophers throughout the centuries have used them. Philosophic terms become candles to the mind once defined; otherwise they are not lights but darkness. (Many people get very enthusiastic about philosophy in the beginning. They want to read the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas, but every time they meet a term like the ones we have been introducing, they get discouraged. It is a very rewarding achievement to become a wise man, but it demands humility, perseverance and patience. We cannot do it in a hurry, nor can we afford to get discouraged.)

We shall see when we come to the volume on ontology, that it is the philosophy of contemplation; and contemplation is what makes man happy. Every being considered as being leads us to the First Being, to the Supreme Being.

Let us begin at the beginning and study being as a concept and as a reality. There is a philosopher who had many problems in his system of thought, but who sometimes stated things quite well and succinctly. We are referring to Jacques Maritain (1882 – 1973). (Although we have many reservations about Maritain, his teaching on the foundational levels of Scholastic philosophy is sound, and sometimes brilliant.) He gives, under the topic of ontology, three useful theses which serve as conclusions. Here is the first: “The essence of a thing is what that thing is necessarily and primarily, the first principle of its intelligibility.” “Essence” comes from the Latin word for “to be.” The problem of essence and existence is a major study in the field of ontology. The essence of a thing is its “whatness.” The technical term for this is quiddity, which comes from the Latin word quid, meaning “what.” In other words, when we answer the question, “What is this?” we are talking about essence.

Now, based on what we might call the “predilection for knowing and for being known” manifest throughout the cosmos, all being is intelligible. By intelligible, we mean knowable. “Intelligible” is not a word too often used these days. We hear the words “audible,” “visible,” and “tangible” quite often. They mean, respectively, able to be heard, able to be seen, and able to be touched. They are all part of our sense faculties — specifically, our external senses. They are all powers by which we know. They are powers we share with the animals. To understand what intelligible is, we must graduate to the spiritual order, where man, of all material creation, is alone. All being is intelligible. In his thesis about essence, Maritain refutes the third denial of Gorgias: “Even if there is such a thing as reality, and even if it is knowable, it could never be communicated.”

Another way to affirm that there is reality (and thus to refute the first denial of Gorgias), is to say there are things that truly are (are is from the verb “to be”). God gave us a power to comprehend the “beingness” of a thing, and that “beingness” is essence. The intellect is capable of knowing the essence of all things. When we call it “essence” to distinguish it from “existence,” it is the thing as it is ready to be conveyed to the intellect, or the thing as ready to be known. There is a philosophy called “existentialism,” which is, in effect, a denial of the intelligibility of things. In Platonism, there is an exaggeration of essence as against existence. But, in Philosophia Perennis, there is a wonderful balance between the two.

The other two conclusions of Maritain are, “Our intellect is capable of knowing the essences of things,” and, “The essences of things are universal in the mind; and considered in themselves, [they are] neither universal nor individual. Existence in the material universe is of individual substances.” The senses can only perceive the individual. Someone can touch this piece of wood, but nobody can touch the universal idea of wood. Were he to write a treatise about wood, it does not make any difference whether the wood he uses is in Australia, in Africa, or in any other continent. If it is wood, it is that nature, and what one says about wood will apply to any individual piece of wood anywhere. With the mind we receive the universal essences of things. With the senses we receive the individual. All reality consists of individual substances.

Let us look for a second at humanity. What is humanity? It is John, Mary, Joseph. . . this man and that man. . . this child and that woman. In every order, what exists is the individual substance, the concrete individual substance. Every individual substance has a nature. And that is where the essence is. When we ask, “What is it?” the answer is the essence.

These three conclusions of Maritain (which would be acceptable to any thinker within the tradition of Philosophia Perennis), in summary, are:

1. Reality is intelligible.

2. Our intellect is capable of knowing the essences of things.

3. Existence is individual, yet our mind can capture the universal essence or nature of things.

This is the optimism of Philosophia Perennis in opposition to the pessimism of the modern skeptics, and in opposition to the classical denials of Gorgias and the sophists.

Working these conclusions into a logical system results in the famous Scholastic solution of the problem of universals. One cannot begin to be a philosopher until he has answered that problem correctly. So much of modern philosophy which has tried to get to the top of the ladder without taking this first step has ended in absolute insanity, totally confused, and completely wrong. The modern mind does not have the patience or the humility to grow as God intended man to grow in wisdom, by going step by step.

Rationality is the lowest level of intelligence. There are two higher levels, one of which is infinitely higher. The intelligence of the angels is far above ours, but the intelligence of God is infinitely so. We must remember it is our dignity that we are rational beings when we look down on the snakes and the chickens and the cows and the dogs. But when we look up towards the angels and the intelligence of God, we must be humbled. Rationality is intelligence functioning within the difficulties and hindrances of matter. And if we want to be true philosophers, we have to do it patiently, humbly, and grow as man should grow. We cannot take the jump from the ground to the top of the ladder. Everybody who has tried to do it has ended up in catastrophe. In philosophy we climb the ladder from the material to the immaterial, from the contingent beings to the necessary Being — to Him Who introduced Himself as I Am Who Am. We see that all the beauty and order we find in the universe must reflect a greater beauty in the Origin and Source of all being.

The saints could fall into ecstasy contemplating a blade of grass. We can find something like that in the story of every one of the saints. And it is not just that they perceive the wonderfulness of a universe in which there are hungry cows together with grass that is ready to be grazed. It is that they see in the blade of grass, as a being, reflections of the transcendent attributes of the Supreme Being — that is, of the goodness, the wisdom, and the love of God, Who is the source and principle of all being. In other words, when we study the transcendentals, we study the attributes of the Supreme Being as they are reflected in the universe that He made. We will finish this chapter with an observation by Eric Gill (1882 – 1940), a convert to the Catholic Faith.

Gill was an artist and a philosopher in England. Like most English philosophers, he had his idiosyncrasies, but he was an interesting man who had some very profound things to say. Here is one of them: “What places man as lord of creation is not his cleverness or his ingenuity, not his power of ratiocination, not even his perseverance or his courage. His claim to superiority is based solely on his power of contemplation. He alone of all terrestrial creatures is able to recognize being.” Man is the only being on this earth — as a matter of fact, the only being in the material universe — that can abstract from materiality and conceive the principle and foundation of all contemplation. And that is wisdom. Holy Scripture says of wisdom, “Receive my instruction and not money. Choose knowledge rather than gold. For wisdom is better than all the most precious things. And whatsoever may be desired cannot be compared to it” (Prov. 8: 10-11). That is what we are all supposed to do.

Let us suppose we were to tell people watching a game between the Red Sox and the Yankees that someone is giving a lecture on being. Would they leave the stadium and run to hear the speaker? Not likely. None of us can be wise without knowing something about being. Yet, very few people really believe that “wisdom is better than the most precious things.” Count Edmond Czernin, a Hapsburg loyalist, once passed Braves Field in Boston, where he heard a maddening noise coming from the stadium. When he was told there were twenty thousand people watching a baseball game, he said, “If only we could take their attention away from that ball and direct it toward Our Lady!” Our Lady is the Sedes Sapientiae, the Seat of Wisdom.