Reflections on Knowledge, Beauty, and Wisdom

[Taken randomly from Brother Francis’ lectures, with a minor amount of editing.]

Some things have to become part of our knowledge through acquaintance, so to speak. Knowledge becomes impossible if everything needs a definition.

If someone were to ask you a question and say, “What does this mean?” And you say, “It means this or that.” And he asks, “And what does this or that mean?” You can see the possibility of these questions and answers going on forever.

We cannot fully know what knowledge is because that is probably one of the last things we will discover. The supreme end of man is a question of knowledge. The highest form of knowledge is vision, and the greatest thing that could be seen is God. And when we see God, we not only know what God is, but we know what it is to know.

While we cannot understand that fully this side of Heaven, when we study the Blessed Trinity we get plenty of insight as to why we are “knowing beings” and what knowing is all about. Saint Hilary of Poitiers, the very first Doctor of the Church to die, and one of the most exquisite thinkers the world has ever known, said: “Truth is declarative being.”

Once a thing exists, it is somehow declaring itself to a possible knowing mind. You ask, “How strong is this impulse toward declaring itself?” There are some beautiful flowers in the woods. Nobody is looking at them! But do you know they are broadcasting their beauty every second of the day. They never stop! Even when nobody is looking, there is the hope that some eyes will finally come and look at them.

One of the most important principles that has been undermined by the positivist scientists is the concept of purpose or teleology. Part of wisdom is to restore the teleological aspect of reality. The human mind does not full grasp what things are, but it can understand why they are. We see that they have a purpose. There is a purpose for everything!

If there is a purpose, the purpose has to be intended and only a mind can intend. When you discover the purpose of things, you are led inevitably to the mind that has determined the purpose. Things have purpose. There must be a mind that put them into existence and gave them purpose.

The bee can go through the forest and will avoid every harmful, distasteful substance until it discovers the tiniest little bit of nectar. We know that it is guided by some instinct given to it by an intelligence. But the intelligence is not in the bee, it is in the Creator that put the bee into existence.

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Knowledge is also related to that thing called beauty. Nobody can perceive beauty who does not have the faculty of knowledge. That should be evident. The greatest secret of the universe is its beauty.

Beauty is the one thing that does not need a recommendation. You don’t have to have a certificate to say, “This picture is beautiful.” You just look at it. You do not recommend beauty. If you do not see that the object is beautiful no one is going to argue you into believing that it is.

One professor friend of mine wanted to educate me to the “beauty”of modern art. He spent a whole day trying to do it. “Look at how this cubist picture captures the real beauty of the thinking mind,” he said. “So all these distorted perversions of reality are supposed to be beautiful?” I thought. I had to pretend I was convinced because he had invited me out for a meal. As I said, beauty just manifests itself immediately the normal eye.

The greatest secret of the universe is its beauty. There are beauties on all levels. The beauty most people talk about is the sense beauty that is purely in matter. O, the beauty of a sunset! But, who would want to spend a whole eternity on Prospect Hill, watching an eternal sunset? [Prospect Hill, in Harvard, Mass., has a famously beautiful view of Mt. Wachusett, photos of which can be seen on Panoramio,. There is also a postcard image of it that’s about 100 years old. In evoking a familiar scene of great beauty (it was right down the road from where he lectured), Brother Francis was showing the limits of material beauty compared to the spiritual.]

Now what is that eternal ecstasy that we will achieve by vision? It is the beauty of God! Saint Thomas defines beauty as Id quod visum placet. (That which pleases by its being seen.)

You see now that knowledge is connected with all the highest values. Id quod visum. Visum means being seen. There are other ways of knowing that do not involve seeing, but they are far less perfect media for knowing. You may ask, “Do you know Mr. So and So?” And I say, “Well, I have heard about him. Maybe I called him on the phone once.” I do not feel I know him until I have seen him. In seeing, the object seen has become part of you.

With all the thinking that men do, what is the highest purpose of the act? It is to bring us to the greatest knowledge that we could possibly have. And that is wisdom.

But how many people today are using that greatest power that God gave them in the way God intended them to use it? What percentage would you say? I wish I could say 1%. I wish I could say one in a million. You wonder why Holy Scripture says, “The number of fools is infinite”? The Bible does not say anywhere that the number of the wise is infinite.

If we are even aware of the value of wisdom and are dedicated to it that is a tremendous grace. It is a very great grace to be interested in wisdom, which is the most excellent knowledge of the highest things.