Why Teach Philosophy?

October 15, 2019
Source: District of the USA

When we think of philosophy, our reaction is often akin to John Calvin’s when his father proposed to rad to him from the Dialectical Metaphysics as a bedtime story. Are we dealing with something fit only as a remedy for insomnia?

It is easy to view philosophy as something which is pointless for our day to day life – and perhaps even harmful to it. In one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates presents the story of Thales, who was so engaged in studying the heavens as he was walking along that he fell into an open pit. Instead of paying attention to the mundane reality in front of him, he was lost in useless speculation on a world infinitely removed from his real and vital concerns, or as Socrates says, quoting a serving girl mocking Thales: “He was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet.”

If philosophy (metaphysics, logic, rhetoric, etc.) is apparently so remote from life, why then do we insist on teaching it at all at Immaculate Conception Academy?

Well, philosophy is neither dull, vain, nor harmful. In fact, it represents the most human of all activities possible for man. If we consider nothing more than its name, which is translated as the “love of wisdom,” we immediately see that it engages the most noble of our faculties in the best way. Wisdom in its highest form is the contemplation and understanding of the highest causes of reality; it permits us to be able to begin to answer the most fascinating “why” questions which are so characteristic of guileless children. This is what Aristotle had in mind when he wrote,

It is through wonder that men now begin and originally began to philosophize; wondering in the first place at obvious perplexities, and then by gradual progression raising questions about the greater matters too, e.g. about the changes of the moon and of the sun, about the stars and about the origin of the universe.

Furthermore, philosophy – especially metaphysics, which is the consideration of the highest causes through our reason – is the precursor to true theology. As we consider the world, we become capable of concluding certain realities about its author, as St. Paul clearly teaches in his letter to the Romans: “For the invisible things of God are clearly seen from the creation of the world, being understood by the things that are made. His eternal power also and divinity” (Rm. 1:20). Therefore, to grasp deeply and thoroughly the truths of the Faith requires some mastery of the principles of philosophy.

This is not to say that philosophy, properly understood, is easy. Indeed, it takes much more work and patience over a long course of time to grasp basic principles of reality, to clear our minds of false opinions and judgments, and to see the relations between different aspects of the world. Furthermore, since it is a bit removed from our day to day experience, it can on occasion seem abstract and be less spontaneously engaging than other subjects (this is all the more true when children’s imaginations have been poisoned by so much screen time). However, all things that are worthwhile require effort, and once a man has begun to taste the delight which seeing the truth about reality brings, he will find it far more appealing than other pleasures.

Nor is this to say that we study philosophy primarily because it is useful. In fact, we can even say we study it precisely because it is useless. By this, I do not mean that philosophy sheds no light on what we should do here and now - ethical philosophy, for example, is concerned uniquely with the best way to live.    Indeed, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre noted, "That it is a terrible error to think philosophy is not practical. It is exceedingly practical, exceedingly real."

So, what do I mean when stating it is useless? I mean that philosophy – the love of wisdom and contemplation of truth – is something that is worth doing for its own sake, without any consideration of the advantages it might bring us. In this way, it is a foretaste of our heavenly life, which – as Our Lord so clearly states – will consist in the essentially in the knowledge of God and Jesus Christ. Everything we do in life is meant to prepare us to know and to love the Word of God Himself, the highest Wisdom ever revealed to man.

In Christo Sacerdote et Maria,
Fr. Jonathan Loop