In principio. Chaerephon, a friend of Socrates (c.470-399 b.C.) asked the Oracle at Delphi, “Is there a man wiser than Socrates?” No, there was not, and why so? The Oracle's message to all was — know thyself ! and Socrates knew there was much he did not know, therefore, he knew much. In Athens there were many paid teachers: Sophists, as Plato would call them. They played with language, debated the dialectic, declared knowledge and morality relativistic and power triumphant. Socrates showed them up with persistent questions and sought no gain. He was an irritant to them and to many of the powerful.
Some of this questioning began the Socratic maieutic (obstetrics), the dialogue that helped the student bring to term his innate thought. Ideas and knowledge were real and had meaning.
Socrates was found guilty for corrupting the youth and for impiety against the religious system. His immorality was judged as an enemy of the state, and through his trumpeting of contempt for his prosecutors and jury, he was sentenced to death.
Socrates had integrity, a love for reason, knowledge and wisdom and, presumably, had a concept of a higher or perhaps a unitary, omniscient god. His love of virtue was inherited by his student, Plato (428-347 b. C.). These virtues were real and their essences were the universals of forms. These forms (ideas) were what was truly true, truly real. Forms were the original source where men’s souls came and returned to. In Plato, absolutes were reality and the sensual world was a shadow of them in degrees of fullness. Justice was the unifying force of the world, and in The Republic, the perfect society had no written law, for the law of arete (virtue) was knowable to all. The harmony of men's souls with the universals were virtue. The supreme universal was that of the Good.
Aristotle (384-322 b.C.) was a student of Plato. He saw the physical world as being fully real. The study of science was a key to knowledge. A system of tight deductive logic through the reasoning of the syllogism (e.g. All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore, Socrates is mortal.) is the method of thought. There is a causality of action, of movement and there is ultimately a prime (first) mover.
The school of Stoics were concerned with ethical morality. The sole virtue was the good. Virtue was to live by reason and suppress all else.
Diogenes of Sinope (412?-323 b.C.) was the most noted of the Cynics, and believed virtue existed more in action than in theory and the good was not to be found in the petty or in vanity. His legend has him searching Athens in the daylight with his lamp, accompanied by his dog (caon = dog, cynic) looking for an honest man.
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 b.C.) was one of many Roman jurists ending with the Justinian Code of the 6th century. “The people's good is the highest law”, is from his De Legibus. He states in his writings descriptions and instances of the natural law. In it we have this universal pre-existing standard, that Plato identified with Justice. The codification of man made law ought be this. Aequitas (Roman god of fair dealing) is the mythic personification of equity. Epikeia is Greek for equity.
- Wisdom is glorious, and never fadeth away, and is easily seen by them who love her, and is found by them that seek her. — Wisdom vi. 13.
- That he should order the world according to equity and justice, and execute justice with an upright heart: — Wisdom ix. 14.
Up to this point, we have progressed through 1700 years of human time and have seen certain ideas holding extreme value and that are universal and unchanging and are divinely deposited, let us call them — absolutes. From man to man and place to place their essential existence is self-evident and acknowledged, although their exact composition and relation are tweaked, so that, philosophical expositions are not identical. We have only given examples from the western civilization of our shared heritage, but there are similar strains existing from India, China and elsewhere that would further bolster the encyclopedic nature of this argument.
A common metaphysics and epistemology runs from the ancients, to the mediaeval scholastics and to our modern and current age, yes, this can fairly be called a perennial strain of thought. Aquinas, the dumb ox, the common, universal and angelic doctor can be considered the ne plus ultra, not only of the schoolmen, but of all thinkers. To quote Chesterton, “On a great map like the mind of Aquinas, the mind of Luther should be almost invisible.” He bears the standard against the anti-rationalists that came in the centuries after. In the Summa theologica, he goes beyond two million words and abandons this work after a supremely ecstatic mystical experience and explains to a fellow friar, “All my works seem like straw after what I have seen”, such was the immediacy of revealed personal experience, but the validity of the arguments stand. So much of what he wrote is the very warp and woof of the fabric of catholic philosophy, that people recognize it as truly Catholic, but do not attach it to St. Thomas. At the Sorbonne (University of Paris) he regularly engaged in public disputation on a particular question, or on any topic, or on any question. In an answer he would often include other positions, their objections, replies to objections in a string of premises, conclusions, syllogisms, and further tight reasoning to end with the conclusiveness of a geometric proof. Aquinas wrote poetry that is still vital, including limericks, but his philosophical writing is done in an exacting code in point by point canonical fashion, e.g. “the second part of the first part”, “first reply to the third objection”, and so on.
These maxims show up in the method of Maria Montessori (1870-1952): “Nothing is in the intellect which was not first in the senses”, often becomes her's, “from hands to mind.” The mind, “knows by composition and division”, from the general is drawn particulars and these are brought back to the general with greater understanding. The truth is distilled into simpler components where the mind understands that level of meaning and this knowledge is the base for further accretion, for nothing is learned from new information that is not attached to some previously known, this could only be accepted as faith or opinion — not reason.
The scholastic philosophy is wedded to the Catholic understanding of grace. In man’s fall, he was not fully corrupted as Montessori states, “in spite of the moral disorder brought about by original sin, there still remains in human nature a great potentiality for goodness.” In the New Testament we are often likened to children and their care is a serious stewardship:
- But he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depths of the sea. — Matthew xviii. 6.
The principle of subsidiarity is mentioned in the Philosopher’s (Aristotle) Politics, and in Thomas’ view, as well in Dr. Montessori’s, the family and the state are natural societies, but the primacy is to the family. The state is there to supply what the family cannot and not to abrogate or replace what the family does for itself. To draw this to today: educational vouchers would be a proper exercise of government in that the family’s legitimate desires are supported.
In the Summa (II-II, q. 10, a. 12) Thomas shows that a Christian state does not have the right to Christianize the children of Jewish parents, and further, other coercive measures are surely circumscribed by the natural law and the “use of right reason.” In this he is in the tradition of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) for a law that is not just is not a law but is tyranny. There is proper authority but not absolute authority. Aquinas, as does Dante (1265-1321) and Suarez (1548-1617), argues against the absolute state whether in an individual or a government. This is also seen in Albert Camus’ The Rebel (1951). The first word a man says is “No.” This is in direct contrast to Hobbes’ Leviathan (1654) which grants the state all.
These ethical virtues are moral absolutes and are the very characteristic of integrity, and as Socrates died for them so did Christ and the list of martyrs do not end, see Latin American headlines, today, that go unnoticed. Those of less than a generation ago which were given with a little more narrative in English America, were such as El Salvador’s: Oscar Romero, four American churchwomen, six Jesuits and many unknown poor in one small country that was an American client state. To stand for truth and justice is sometimes heroic beyond belief, education is to help us maintain our individual integrity vis-à-vis the society, government and the world, if so it becomes necessary. Remember Polonius’ advice to Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “This above all -- To thine own self be true.”
Other Thomistic principles include, man has a natural inclination to learn, one learns easier with joy than without joy, one can learn by discovery (inventio) unaided, he can also learn with a teacher (disciplina) and here the teacher is similar to a physician (they can both be called doctors, eh!). A teacher must believe in the value and interest of his subject as a doctor believes in health. (Gilbert Highet, The Art of Teaching). Knowledge exists in potency within the mind but does not become actualized until something acts upon the mind. Learning proceeds from the self-evident (per se nota) in particular circumstances (ad determinatas materias) to conclusions, which become new points of origin. “The human mind has a natural knowledge of being ... foundation of our knowledge of first principles.” (Contra Gentiles) There may be many intermediaries, but the ultimate teacher is God. Wisdom is the perfection of reason.
To summarize Thomistic thought, we use the motto, “verum, bonum, pulchrum” -- the true, the good, the beautiful. The true is always true. Nothing exists without taking some part in beauty and goodness in some degree, a thing is beautiful in proportion, integrity and splendor.
Twentieth century Thomists include: Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), Etienne Gilson (1884-1978), Joseph Pieper (1904-1997) [who wrote Leisure: The Basis of Culture (1948) which is a curative to the protestant work ethic, which has too much work and not enough ethic, and hearkens to the reflective and festive classical and catholic past], and Ralph McInernay b. 1929. The elegance of the argument still compels and continues to make converts.
Student's Prayer by St. Thomas Aquinas
Creator of all things, true source of light and wisdom,
origin of all being,
graciously let a ray of your light penetrate
the darkness of my understanding.
Take from me the double darkness
in which I have been born,
an obscurity of sin and ignorance.
Give me a keen understanding,
a retentive memory, and
the ability to grasp things correctly and fundamentally.
Grant me the talent of being exact
in my explanations and the ability to express myself
with thoroughness and charm.
Point out the beginning,
direct the progress,
and help in the completion.
I ask this through Christ our Lord.