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June-July 2012

The Dictatorship of Relativism has launched a furious assault against the bedrock notion of Absolute Truth. Disengaged from reality, preferring fictions like "gay marriage," the modern mind has turned in on itself. Self-contradiction has been normalised. To withstand and counter the anarchic blitzkrieg, an understanding of philosophical fundamentals, as neatly presented in this text of a talk delivered in Sydney, has never been more urgently required.



Fr Black, in his brilliant introduction to this series of talks on Christian Civilisation, referred to the necessity of leisure as being the basis of any authentic culture. His thesis being that, if man is totally preoccupied with the idea of making a living, he has no time for any other ideas which must form the foundation of any solid civilization or culture. For man to develop his full potential, he must have time to think.

We must stress at the outset that thinking must not be for its own sake, because it is thinking for its own sake which has, in a large part, contributed to the decline of civilization that we experience daily in our lives. The great mathematician and grossly overrated philosopher Rene Descartes, in his much quoted abominable aphorism, stated: “Cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am). The purpose of this talk is to show: “Non 'cogito ergo sum' sed 'sum ergo cogitare possum'” (Not 'I think therefore I am' but 'I am therefore I am able to think').

Sanity & Reality: Thinking about Things
If thinking is not for the sake of itself then what is it for. Very simply, thinking is for the sake of things. Think and thing go together. It is not by chance or whim that these old Saxon words sound so similar. Our sanity depends on our thought being connected to reality, that is, what our thinking is must correspond to what things are.

The great German Thomistic philosopher, Josef Pieper, wrote a small but highly significant work entitled Leisure, the Basis of Culture. Why would a philosopher be concerned with culture? Does not the mere mention of philosophy invoke ideas of irrelevancy and uselessness? Does it not put one to sleep? Most certainly modern philosophies will do just that. Be assured, if I succeed in putting you to sleep this afternoon, it will not be because of modern philosophy.

Why can I say this? Because, true philosophy and thinking about things are essentially the same. By separating thought from things, one separates philosophy from reality. What is this thing called philosophy that allows me to make such claims and, to many modern ears, such outlandish claims.

Sophistical Spin Doctors vs Lovers of Wisdom
Let us now look at what philosophy is. The best way to start is to look at the word itself. The English word philosophy comes from the Latin word philosophia, which comes from the Greek word φίΛo. In Greek philo means to love and sophia means wisdom. Hence, the nominal definition of philosophy is the love of wisdom. But, why only the love of wisdom. But, why only the love of wisdom, surely we ought to be able to say that philosophy is wisdom and leave it at that. To see why, we must turn the clock back to the fourth century before Christ.

At that time there were men wandering through Greece called sophists who, not only considered themselves to be wise but, for a fee, were prepared to teach others how to become wise like them. Rather than wisdom, what they really taught was how to get on in the world, the right things to say to influence people and become successful — what is pejoratively known today as sophistry.

The spin doctors of today are their intellectual descendants. In opposition to the sophists, there was a man who was too humble to call himself wise but preferred to be known as a lover of wisdom, i.e. a philosopher. That man, of course, was Socrates, the teacher of Plato, who, in turn, was the teacher of Aristotle. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Four Causes: Case Study
If philosophy is the love of wisdom, then what is wisdom itself. Wisdom is knowledge through the highest causes. A look at the causes of St Mary’s Cathedral [Sydney] will clarify this.

One of the causes of St Mary’s is its stones, for if you take away the stones, you no longer have a cathedral. But, of course, a pile of stones is not a cathedral.

Another one of the causes of St Mary’s is the arrangement of the stones or the design of the cathedral. Of course, somebody had to arrange the stones in accordance with a design or plan. This requires another cause, the builder. The builder, in turn, does not build a cathedral just for the sake of building a cathedral, he wants to make a living and support his family. Hopefully, the chief builder, the Archbishop of Sydney, wants to build his cathedral for the greater glory of God.

This example of St Mary’s Cathedral is an illustration of the four causes of Aristotle:

There are two intrinsic causes. Firstly, the material cause, what something is made of, the stones in the case of the cathedral, and secondly, the formal cause, that which makes something be what it is — i.e. the design of the cathedral. In addition, to these two intrinsic causes, there are two extrinsic causes. Firstly, the efficient or agent cause, that is, who or what puts the form into the matter, the builder of the cathedral, and secondly, the final cause, the end or purpose of something, the greater glory of God in the case of the cathedral.

It should be noted that the final cause is the first in the order of intention and last in the order of execution. That is to say, the first step in the building of St Mary’s Cathedral is the desire to have a cathedral. The last step is a brand new spanking cathedral.

Philosophical Parts
While it is true to say that philosophy is interested in everything, it is also true to say that philosophy is more interested in why things are, rather than what things are; whereas the empirical sciences, for example physics and chemistry are more interested in what things are, rather than why things are.
The preoccupation of philosophy is with things or being, and why there is something rather than nothing. The raison d’être of philosophy is being.

Philosophy can be divided into three parts: instrumental, speculative and practical:

1. The instrumental part of philosophy is logic. Logic, like philosophy, is a science. Unfortunately today, the word science is limited to the empirical or experimental sciences. Science, however, is much broader than this. The English word “science” comes from the Latin word “scientia” which means knowledge in the broad sense, that is, knowledge through causes. Logic is the science of thinking. Philosophy is the science of being or things. Philosophy uses logic as an instrument to aid us to think correctly about things. As I stated earlier, philosophy is for the sake of things not for the sake of thinking.

2. The speculative part of philosophy is primarily concerned with being rather than doing. The word speculative comes from the Latin word “speculari” to observe. In speculative philosophy we are looking at things. Speculative philosophy can be divided in turn into “Physics” and “Metaphysics”.

Physics here means natural philosophy, not the experimental science of the same name. Here we are concerned with being as it is moveable or changeable. Physics can be in turn divided into Cosmology and Philosophical Psychology. Cosmology deals with things such as space and time, matter and form, substance and accidents, the four causes and so on. Philosophical Psychology deals with beings that can move themselves, that is, with living things. In a certain sense, it is the science of the soul because all living things: plant, animal and man have souls, though not of the same sort. Plants and animals have material souls, whereas man has a spiritual soul.

Metaphysics, the other part of speculative philosophy, as the name implies, takes a deeper look at being than what physics does. It is divided into Defensive Metaphysics, Ontology and Natural Theology:

  • Defensive Metaphysics defends the knowability of being. This is very important in an age which denies any objectivity in knowledge and claims that there is no absolute truth and that everything is relative.
  • Ontology is the science of being as it is being. Here the nature of truth, goodness and beauty is examined.
  • Natural theology deals with the cause of being, that is, of course, God.

In Natural Theology, everything that reason can know about God can be found: the proofs for the existence of God; the nature of God, in so far as he is one being. It is to be contrasted with sacred and revealed theology where, not only truths about God, known by reason, can be found but also truths that only God could know and has deigned to reveal to us. A prime example of this is the doctrine of the Most Blessed Trinity. Unaided human reason could never in a million years or a month of Sundays ever come to a knowledge of this most sublime doctrine. The same goes for the Incarnation of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

3. The practical part of philosophy is primarily concerned with doing rather than being. Practical Philosophy can be, in turn, divided into Moral Philosophy or Ethics and Poietics. Ethics is about what one ought to do. Poietics is about how one ought to make things, that is the philosophy of art.

True Philosphy = Christian Philosophy
Given the history of philosophy and indeed of the world, it must be hard to believe that there can be such a thing as a “Christian Philosophy.” After all, didn’t the great Roman statesman, Cicero, say that there is no nonsense which some philosopher somewhere has not uttered. So many philosophers, so many philosophies, how can there even be a true philosophy. There must be a true philosophy because truth is one. Things exist or they do not, causality exists or it does not. Even if the true philosophy were not existing now, it could still be assembled by taking all the truths from the various false philosophies. Truth cannot contradict truth and hence there must be, and there is, a true philosophy. It is the philosophy of Aristotle as perfected by St Thomas Aquinas.

But how can we say that this true philosophy is a “Christian Philosophy.” After all, Christianity is revealed by God, philosophy is discovered by reason. Christianity depends on faith and authority. Faith and authority have no sway in philosophy. Since God is both the author of grace and the author of nature, there can be no contradiction between truths of the supernatural order and the natural order. True philosophy is “Christian Philosophy” because the author of its truths is God and since Christ is God, true philosophy must be Christ’s philosophy.

Understanding the Supernatural
We also call true philosophy Christian philosophy because philosophical truths help us to understand better supernatural mysteries. Keeping in mind that, unlike Almighty God, we can never completely understand His mysteries.

Philosophy helps us to understand the mysteries of the Blessed Trinity and the Incarnation by clarifying our notions of person and nature. A nature is what something is, a person is who someone is. Who is Christ? The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. What is Christ? God and man. In the Blessed Trinity we have three whos and one what. It is philosophical psychology that aids our understanding of these two great mysteries of our faith.
In the Most Blessed Sacrament, under the appearance of bread and wine, we have the body, blood, soul and Divinity of Our Lord. We know that the substance is Christ and that the appearances or accidents are the shape, colour, taste, smell and so on of bread and wine. Our understanding of substance and accidents is the same as that of Aristotle in the fourth century BC.

Our doctrine of the matter and form of the sacraments is borrowed from cosmology. All creatures except for angels are composed of primary matter and substantial form. Primary matter is what can be a body, substantial form is what makes it be a particular body, that is, either a rock, flower, cat or man. Now, of course, the matter and form of the sacraments is a little different to this. For example, in the sacrament of Baptism, the minister, by saying the words, that is the form, when pouring the water, that is the matter, actually washes the soul cleansing it of original sin.

Sacred Theology: The Measure of Truth
It also has to be conceded that Sacred Theology is a big help to philosophy. This is because, if any philosophical opinion contradicts a truth of Sacred Theology, then we know that it must be false. If some philosopher tells us that there is no such thing as right and wrong, we don’t have to listen to his arguments to know that he is wrong. God has given us the Decalogue to tell us right from wrong. God cannot lie, therefore the philosopher is wrong. The only reason we can have for listening to his arguments is to point out the errors in his thinking. We see that Sacred Theology is a negative corrective to philosophy, preserving it from error.

True Path Between Two Extremes
How then does “Christian Philosophy” differ from other philosophies besides the obvious difference that non-Christian philosophies are riddled with errors. True philosophy steers a path between two extremes. The extremes of nominalism and idealism:

1. The advocates of nominalism claim that the only knowledge we have is sense knowledge. We can only know what we sense. This restricts our knowledge to particulars. While we can know Sylvester the cat, we cannot know what cat is because we can only sense individual cats. We cannot know what truth is because we cannot see, hear, taste, touch or smell truth. This is, of course, sheer nonsense.

2. The advocates of idealism claim that the only things we know are our ideas. This means that our minds are divorced from reality. What we know are thoughts, not things. Sense knowledge is considered to be illusory. We are not sure if there are things outside our mind and even if there are, we could not know them. One extreme variant of idealism is solipsism which asserts that the only thing that exists is oneself. One adherent of solipsism wrote to the London Times lamenting the fact that no one held the same views as himself. If you think all of this is nonsense, you are on very safe ground.

Christian philosophy avoids these two extremes by sticking to Aristotle’s dictum that, while all knowledge begins in sense, it does not terminate there. In knowledge, we begin by sensing singular, e.g. we sense various types of trees. We notice their leaves, colours, growth, reproduction and so on. By abstraction, we understand what a tree is. Our understanding of tree does not depend on its being a particular size, shape or colour.

In fact, man has two sorts of knowledge, sense knowledge and intellective knowledge. This is so because man is a rational animal. He is composed of a material body and a spiritual soul. His body has the external senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell; the internal senses of sense consciousness, imagination, memory and instinct. His soul has the faculty of intellect whereby he can abstract universal ideas from sensible singulars. By the same faculty, he can make judgements about the truth and falsity of individual propositions. Also, from known truths, he can reason to new truths. By his sense knowledge, man is like the other animals of creation, by his intellective knowledge, man is like the angels and God.

To Think Like God
So, I come again to the title of this talk, “What is Christian Philosophy?” I hope I have made clear that Christian Philosophy is authentic philosophy, that is, true thinking about everything. To say that it is true thinking is to say that one’s thoughts should conform with reality. To answer the question of Pilate: “Quid est veritas?” (What is truth?). Truth is the conformity of mind with reality, of mind with thing. Even better, truth is what is. The point is, that our minds should conform to things not the other way round. For only God makes things conform to His mind. Things are determined by the mind of God. The things that He has made determine our minds.

It is not for nothing that the old penny catechism asked: “How do we know that there is a God?” The answer, of course, is “We know that there is a God by the things that he made.” Things were made to lead us to Him. There is no creature without a creator. Clear thinking about things ought to lead us to the Thinker who has called things into being without exerting any effort. The Superior Thinker who has only one thought distinct — but not separate — from Himself, the Word generated from all eternity; the love of these Two Persons, eternally spirating a Third Person, the Holy Ghost.

Let us thank this Almighty Triune God for giving us this faculty of thinking about things and let us pray that we more and more conform our thinking to His thinking.



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