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The Forever (Catholic) Philosophy

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How do we know what’s real? For that matter, how do we know what we know? An introduction to philosophy in the Catholic tradition is a great place to look for answers.

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If you are looking for an accessible introduction to philosophy in the Catholic tradition, James M. Jacobs’ new book, Seat of Wisdom, is a great place to begin. To be sure, any entrance into philosophy takes patience and hard thinking, and Jacobs’ book is no exception, but anyone willing to put forth the effort will surely gain a richer understanding of reality and the meaning of human existence—and human rights.

The Catholic philosophical tradition, also known as “perennial philosophy,” has its roots in the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. The term “perennial” indicates both that it deals with timeless wisdom and that its core insights have been sharpened by a long line of philosophers over the course of millennia. The tradition began when the Greeks used reason to discover the unity underlying the diversity in the world around them. To see what they were getting at, consider that the things we experience are both “one” and “many.” For example, the various branches and leaves of a tree constitute its many parts. Yet those parts are unified by the wholeness of the tree itself. Thus, there is both diversity (or “manyness”) and unity (or “oneness”) to things in the world. Moreover, this pattern is not confined to any particular thing, like a tree, but also extends to classes of individual things, like a group of trees. For instance, each tree in a forest is unique in size, shape, and its quantity of branches and leaves, and yet we nevertheless know that each one is in fact a “tree” and not, say, a dog, a cloud, or a blade of grass. In other words, trees in a forest are both many (in their diversity) and one (in that they all equally count as “trees”). This “one-and-many” dynamic, then, pervades reality, and making sense of it constitutes the core of a branch of philosophy known as metaphysics.

However, ever since the Enlightenment, philosophers have tended to deny one side or the other of this equation. That is, modern philosophy has rejected either the oneness or the manyness displayed in the world. This has resulted in a reductionist view not only of reality but also of the human person. As Jacobs puts it: “The problematic reductions in metaphysics arise from accepting one truth so as to minimize or exclude the other. Either the philosopher emphasizes the sameness of being (a position known as monism) and reduces all differences to a mere illusion, or he emphasizes the difference between beings (a position known as pluralism), which makes the universe unknowable because there is no common principle of intelligibility.”

Unlike these modern reductionist approaches, however, perennial philosophy accepts both truths and builds on the foundations laid by early philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle, to account for them. Plato understood the “one and the many” through his theory of the Forms. To understand his view, consider the forest once more. What explains the unity of the trees? According to Plato, each tree shares or “participates in” the Form or essence of being a tree, or “treeness,” which is why we recognize that a forest is composed of “trees” rather than dogs, clouds, or blades of grass. The Form of a tree gives individual trees both their unity and their intelligibility, and since it is immaterial, unchanging, and eternal, Plato believed that Forms have more reality or “being” than things in the world, which are material, changing, and temporal, and that therefore the Forms must exist in a realm separate from the material world we inhabit.

Plato’s student, Aristotle, accepted the reality of Forms but disagreed with Plato about where they exist. Aristotle argued that the forms must exist within the very structure of the world itself, rather than in another realm. Furthermore, he argued that individual things, or what he called “substances,” are composed of both form and matter, the form being the essence or nature of a thing, while matter is what receives and individuates the form. Take the tree example above. In Aristotle’s view, a tree is a substance that is composed of form (“treeness”) and matter (that which has the potential to receive the form). To put it in more Aristotelian jargon, the form of a tree “actualizes” the matter (of, say, an acorn), making a potential tree an actual tree (a substance). Form and matter are thus co-constituents of things and necessary principles for making sense of reality.

Subsequent philosophers down the ages built on these general metaphysical outlines, including Plotinus, Augustine, Boethius, and the Scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages. But the most important contribution came from philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas, who combined Aristotle’s form-matter structure with Plato’s “participation” framework. Aquinas’ key insight was his existence-based metaphysics. That is, more fundamental to reality than Plato’s Forms or Aristotle’s substances is the nature of existence itself. As Jacobs puts it:

Plato had used the idea of participation to explain how the Forms as essences relate causally to changing material things: brown things participate in the Form of brown; tall things participate in the form of Tall; just things participate in the Form of justice. One of the problematic assumptions in this argument is that Plato assumes that the Forms of brown, or tall, or justice necessarily exist. It is clear, though, that none of these finite realities has toexist. Indeed, the only thing that must exist is existence itself. Consequently, Thomas argues that things that do not have to exist (such as the Forms) only exist by virtue of participation in existence.

Furthermore, for Aristotle’s part, he argued that forms actualize the matter of individual substances (as we saw above). But Aquinas points out that the same principle can be applied to essences themselves—that is, the potential of any form is actualized by its participation in the act of existence, and the more a form participates in existence, the more real is the being who has that form. In other words, there are degrees of being depending on the degree to which the essence of a thing participates in the act of existence. In this way, Aquinas combines Plato and Aristotle to draw a distinction between the essence and existence of things. Moreover, with this distinction in hand, Aquinas demonstrates why a being whose essence is existence, or God, must exist. Though his metaphysics can be quite abstract, the gist of it is as follows. If essence and existence are distinct in everything we experience, if all things in the world receive their existence from something other than what they are (their essence or form), then there must be a being whose essence simply is existence on which all things depend. For without such a being imparting existence to the things in the world around us, things would not exist. But, because we do indeed experience things, we know that they do in fact exist. Ergo, a being whose essence is existence must exist, and this we call “God.”

Jacobs proceeds to walk the reader through these deep metaphysical caverns because, as he explains, metaphysics is fundamental to everything else. In fact, whether one realizes it or not, one’s metaphysics ends up shaping one’s views of everything—from anthropology (or view of the human person) to ethics.

For example, the nature or essence of a human being is classically understood as a “rational animal.” However, if one denies that forms or essences are objectively real, then there is no such thing as human nature (as the terms “rational” and “animal” have no ultimate meaning); and if there is no such thing as human nature, then there is no such thing as human rights; and if there is no such thing as human rights, then who has what rights can be decided by any given society. This is precisely what has happened over time, which has led to some bizarre consequences. For instance, Jacobs explains that “in recent years, Belgium has extended human rights to chimpanzees and Bolivia has granted human rights to forests. Once we ignore how natures ground reality, we are liable to invent the most groundless fantasies.”

No less importantly, Jacobs covers other terrain that follows from metaphysics, like epistemology (or how we know reality), morality, the nature of evil, political philosophy, as well as philosophy of mind and free will. Although the beginner may find some sections more challenging than others, at the very least he or she will walk away from the book with a stronger appreciation of both the depth and reach of perennial philosophy in the Catholic tradition. For that, it is a highly recommended read.

David Weinberger

David Weinberger is a freelance writer and book reviewer on topics related to philosophy, culture, history, and economics. Follow him on Twitter @DWeinberger03. Email him at [email protected].