Published in Motions: University of San Diego School of Law, 39 (October 2003), 6-7.
James V. Schall, S. J.
Department of Government
Georgetown University, DC, 20057-1200
ON THE THINGS THAT DEPEND UPON PHILOSOPHY
“Thus it is not unusual to meet people who think that not to believe in any truth, or not to adhere firmly to any assertion as unshakeably true in itself, is a primary condition required of democratic citizens in order to be tolerant of one another and to live in peace with one another. May I say that these people are in fact the most intolerant people, for if perchance they were to believe in something as unshakeably true, they would feel compelled, by the same stroke, to impose by force and coercion their own belief on their co-citizens. The only remedy they have found to get rid of their abiding tendency to fanaticism is to cut themselves off from truth.”
– Jacques Maritain.1
“Some dogmas, we are told, were credible in the twelfth century, but is not credible in the twentieth. You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays. You might as well say of a view of the cosmos that it was suitable to half-past three, but not suitable to half-past four. What a man can believe depends upon his philosophy, not upon the clock or the century. If a man believes in unalterable natural law, he cannot believe in any miracle in any age. If a man believes in will behind law, he can believe in any miracle in any age.”
– G. K. Chesterton.2
What can it mean to suggest that things can “depend” on philosophy? And what things might these be? Philosophy, after all, is “for its own sake.” Philosophers, moreover, even in classical times, were considered to be rather odd or eccentric. To “depend” on them was, to say the least, to be quite rash. Even St. Paul associated philosophy with “foolishness,” and in Athens, it was said to be difficult to distinguish the philosopher from the fool. To the normal man, both philosopher and fool seemed to be distinctly peculiar.
Yet, this same “normal man,” who might greet the professional philosopher as suspicious, must also himself be conceived to be a philosopher, to be interested in philosophic things. John Paul II, in Fides et Ratio, put it well,
The truths of philosophy ... are not restricted only to the sometimes ephemeral teachings of professional philosophers. All men and women ... are in some sense philosophers and have their own philosophical conceptions with which they direct their lives. In one way or another, they shape a comprehensive vision and an answer to the question of life’s meaning’ and in the light of this they interpret their own life’s course and regulate their behavior (#30).
We suspect that the whole world, including philosophers trained and untrained residing within it, might rise or fall on whether the truth is known and upheld. Everything, in some sense, depends on it. The very definition of philosophy is the love of wisdom, the highest form of philosophy. The philosopher was not a god. He did not, like the gods, “have” wisdom. He could only “seek” it. He was a man characterized by a quest, a quest not just for the seeking, but for the finding of what he sought, the truth.
There was a time in our culture when we spoke of a familiar figure known as a “gentleman doctor,” or a “gentleman lawyer,” or a “gentleman farmer.” The American founding fathers, indeed, were usually both gentlemen lawyers and gentlemen farmers, if not all gentlemen doctors like Benjamin Rush, who, in fact, started out to be a lawyer. The noble notion of “gentleman” or “gentle woman,” notions we so much associate with Burke, Newman, and Samuel Johnson, have become less intelligible to us. In an egalitarian age, everyone is a gentleman. It sometimes seems that everyone likewise is becoming a lawyer. Josef Pieper, however, wrote,
In Plato, there is a concept of slavery which no social changes, no emancipation of the slaves, can wipe off the fact of the earth. This conception is rooted in the belief that what is truly human is never the average. The standard by which truth and falsehood, good and evil, are measured, is not alone the divine, but also the human. To put that more exactly: the standard is what man himself is capable of being, and what he is called upon to be.3
The average and the excellent are not the same thing even in a fallen world in which everyone is not expected to be perfect. Both the ordinary man and the philosopher, it seems, because of their common humanity, have need of something beyond philosophy, redemption, perhaps.
Such expressions of a more excellent way of being what one is were, however, designed to suggest that “ordinary” doctors or lawyers were not, as such, “gentleman lawyers or doctors.” Moreover, the gentleman doctor or lawyer was not the same as the man exclusively “learned in the law or medicine.” The specialist, the one who knew more and more about a particular discipline with the time it takes to learn such things, was not what was meant by the “gentleman” lawyer or doctor. There was a certain unsettlement of the soul in knowing so much about so relatively little. Somehow there was a wisdom beyond, but not exclusive of, a profession.
These latter “gentlemen” were so designated because they knew something more than their own profession. They actually read poetry and history. They knew of Nietzsche as well as of St. Bernard. They might play the cello or write short stories. They played golf or handball. Being skilled or being learned in a given profession was not conceived to be a complete life, granted the worthiness a particular field. Those who only knew their own area of expertise were practitioners, journeymen or masters, to use the medieval terms. The “gentleman” lawyer or doctor not only know where his own profession fitted into the scheme of things, but he was also interested in the very scheme of things itself.
Plato often refers to the fact that the doctor’s craft, as craft, is limited by what it is to be healthy, something the doctor does not create but only serves. Once a person is healthy, the doctor’s task is over. The great human question is not how to make us healthy, however important that is at times, but what to “do” when we are already healthy. Health addresses health, as Aristotle put it. When we are healthy, we pay little attention to what happens inside us. Rather we want to know and to act in a world of incredible abundance and variety.
In The Republic, Socrates refers to the case of a certain Herodicus, a physician trainer, a sort of team doctor, I suppose. This good man spent his whole life tending to his own health. The result was that he stretched out his death into “a lengthy process.” He could not cure himself. The result was that “he lived out his life under medical treatment, with no leisure for anything else whatever. If he departed even a little from his accustomed regimen, he became completely worn out, but because his (medical) skill made dying difficult, he lived into old age” (406a-b). Without a Christian sense of the value of suffering, this sort of leisureless life was thought to be rather fruitless as it participated in none of the activities of leisure for which we are originally intended. Life is not merely staying alive. What do we do when all else is done is a philosophic question of far greater significance..
Very few if any human beings, moreover, can be really specialists or skilled in more than one or two areas or sub-areas, or even sub-areas of sub-areas. The list of specialities under, say, tax law alone approaches infinity. No doubt, we live in a world in which we need many skills in all areas of life so that we might be skilled in our own field without losing the advantage of participating in the goods that others specialists present us. Understanding this need is what stands behind the notion of precisely a “common” good., a notion thought to save both the common and the particular good The novelist Walker Percy, a gentleman doctor, if there ever was one, even a “Southern gentleman doctor,” remarked, in an interview:
What I was protesting ... was the view of so many, not merely scientists, but also writers and artists, that only scientists and only science is interested in telling the truth. Provable, demonstrable truth, whereas art and writing have to do with play, feeding the emotions, entertainment. I’ve always held that art and even novels are just as valid as science, just as cognitive. In fact, I see my own writing as not really a great departure from my original career, science and medicine, because ... where science will bring you to a certain point and no further, it can say nothing about what a man is or what he must do.4
Obviously such reflections come from a man unsettled by the narrowness of his profession. He doubts a scientific philosophy that prevents his mind from dealing with truth wherever it is found. He is concerned about methods or epistemologies that do not, by their own structures, allow truth to be found at all.
Boswell tells us that in the Spring of 1768, he had published his book about Corsica. He then returned to London only to discover that Samuel Johnson was in Oxford, with his friend, Mr. Chambers, who had become Vinerian Professor, at New Inn Hall. On arriving at Oxford and being treated with gentility by Mr. Chambers, Boswell inquired of Johnson, in his capacity as “a moralist,” whether “the practice of law, in some degree, hurt the nice feeling of honesty.” Recall that Boswell himself was a lawyer. The gist of Johnson’s reply was, “Why no, Sir, if you act properly. You are not to deceive your clients with false representations of your opinion: you are not to tell lies to a judge.”5 Boswell’s question obviously implies that, in the practice of law, one might well be tempted to misrepresent one’s opinion to clients or to tell lies to judges, in short to “hurt the nice feeling of honesty,” that presumably every man should have, lawyer or not. The lawyer, Johnson implied, is already involved in philosophic questions by his very professions.
The question of the “use” of philosophy, of whether philosophy, in other words, is, as many suspect, “useless,” is itself a question of philosophy. It is of some importance to know if our solicitor thinks it legitimate to lie to us, his clients. Yet, the pages of Plato abound with adversarial suspicions that the answer to the question of whether philosophy is “useful” is negative. The philosopher, as we have indicated, is popularly looked upon as a rather tweedy, odd character, hardly capable of negotiating his way down the street. He is a subject among the masses who observe him of much humor and pleasantry.
Even Socrates portrayed himself, at the beginning of his trial, as someone who had not been much concerned with public or practical affairs. He claimed to have had little clue about how to present himself before the law. “Gentlemen, if you hear me making my defense in the same kind of language as I am accustomed to use in the marketplace by the bankers’ tables, where many of you have heard me, and elsewhere, do not be surprised or create a disturbance on that account. The position is this: this is my first appearance in a lawcourt, at the age of seventy; I am therefore simply a stranger to the manner of speaking here” (17c-d). The philosopher, in fact, did not succeed in defending himself before the Athenian court, though his trial still goes on in our books if we read them, as we should. Judged by its external consequences, philosophy appeared in fact to be rather useless to Socrates, however eloquent to us his speech before the lawcourt now appears to be.
None the less, philosophy has always prided itself on being itself “beyond use.” It claims to be something, to repeat, “for its own sake.” We do not want it for some other purpose but itself. Indeed, we want other things for it, for philosophy, not the other way around. Through it, we know where things, including ourselves, belong in the order of things. Even if philosophy had no “use,” we would, like beauty or sight, still want to know it. It is one of those things which, after it has been proved to be good for nothing further, we still want. Utility – the asking, “is it useful?” – is itself a consideration of moral philosophy, one of the “goods” to which we can legitimately tend, but not necessarily the highest one. The subject of utility already appears in Aristotle’s Ethics. (1156a22 ff.) and Cicero’s De Officiis.
Everyday we are surrounded by things that are merely useful, but still we are glad that we have them, the hammer to pound the nail, the razor to shave our beard, even perhaps lawcourts, to render what is “due” to us. The elevation of “utility” to the highest ranks of philosophy in the 19th century – the Epicureans had already conceived much of this in ancient times – has not been particularly “useful” either to politics or to philosophy, though it has provided occasion to clarify exactly what we mean by the usefulness of something. Paradoxically, “utility,” as a philosophy, as a knowing what it is, is not useful. Things that are useful to us, moreover, apples, for instance, might, in themselves, be simply beautiful, or rotten. An infinite string of utilities ends up by undermining utility itself, by having ultimately nothing for which anything is really useful. A universe of utility is a universe with no real meaning, granted that much of our lives are spent with useful things. One dubious attraction of a philosophy that logically makes the world meaningless, however, it that it exempts from responsibility and allows us to what we will.
Chrstof Cardinal von Schönbron once remarked that Thomas Aquinas was the first man who was ever canonized simply for thinking. What else can this affirmation mean except that thinking in itself is a worthy activity. Indeed, it is the activity that most distinguishes us as the kind of being we have been given. The opposite of thinking is not to think at all. The opposite of thinking rightly is thinking but not rightly. While it is true that we praise the being who has the natural capacity to think, as well as the process or activity of what it is to think, what is important about thinking is not the faculty or the process of thinking, but what in fact is concluded, what is thought about, the truth that is affirmed.
We are interested in Thomas Aquinas, therefore, not because he had a mind, or because his mind worked like all human minds work, but because of what he thought with his mind. We are concerned with the truth that he affirmed, a truth we too, if we follow him, come to re-affirm in reading him. We are concerned about what he said about the soul, about virtue, about law, about metaphysics, about God. Truth is not Aquinas’ truth, even when he is the one who leads us to see that something is true. Truth cannot, as such, be “owned” by anyone. It is free and freeing. But the “freedom” of truth is not the power to make it into its opposite and still call it true.
“Every demonstrable proposition is, de jure, communicable without limits,” Yves Simon wrote to this point of solidity of truth.
But it often happens that the understanding of a fully demonstrated proposition or even that of an immediately obvious one, requires conditions which are not commonly satisfied in any society. De jure some propositions of metaphysics and ethics are no less communicable than any theorem of geometry or law of biology.... At philosophical conventions deaf men make speeches for other deaf men, and blind men play pantomimes for other blind men, and this will never prove anything against the intrinsic communicability of philosophic truth.6
Using Platonic terms, truth is to say of what is that it is, of what is not, that it is not. We are given minds precisely to make such affirmations. We have a longing to know precisely the truth and cannot be settled with anything less.
The world’s worst tyrants, moreover, were often men of thought, not just brutes, as we sometimes think. As the Greek writers depicted them, they were often handsome, charming, witty. The difference between the philosopher-king and the tyrant was not that one thought and the other did not. The tyrant had intellectual capacities every bit as high and powerful as the greatest philosopher. This is why he was so dangerous. Indeed, it was often his philosophy that compelled the tyrant into politics. The tyrant differed from the philosopher because of what he willed, not because of any native difference n intellectual capacity.
A city, to be a city, with its variety of things to be done, goods freely to be put into being, cannot be composed solely of philosophers (or tyrants), at least if we assume philosophers are specialists who devote their whole lives to their unusual trade. Philosophers are not shoe-makers, or airline pilots, though we might well expect, in their own ways, that shoe-makers and airline pilots know something of philosophy, of the truth of things. If, however, an airline pilot is, philosophically, a theoretic pessimist, who has published books on the virtues of suicide or on the political value of terrorism, if he is someone who does not think that life is worth living, we do well to fly with another airline. This is one case where philosophy might be rather “useful,” both if we did or if we did not agree with that philosophy, if we wanted to kill ourselves or if we wanted to stay alive.
When Socrates proceeded, after the prodding of the young potential philosophers, Adeimantus and Glaucon, to build a city in mind or speech in order to find where injustice came into the city, he proposed, as a building block, a principle of specialization, whereby each member of the city was to be free to devote himself to what was most fitting for him to do (369a-c). But this separate contribution of each was not seen as a principle of absolute separation or isolation but of cooperation. Most worthy things needed time and talent to come to fruition. “And because people need many things and because one person calls on a second out of one need and on a third out of a different need,” Socrates continued, “many people gather in a single place to live together as partners and helpers. And such a settlement is called a city. Isn’t that so? ... And if they share things with one another, giving and taking, they do so because each believes that this is better for himself” (369b-c). It is better for oneself that he is not be required to do everything, for it he did have to provide himself with everything, he would receive very little of anything compared to what he might have with the help of others. “Man is by nature a political animal,” as Aristotle put it.
The common good includes, as it were, also our private good, as Socrates implied. Indeed, as the Athenian says in The Laws, “the proper object of true political skill is not the interest of private individuals but the common good. This is what knits the state together, whereas private interests make it disintegrate. If the public interest is well served, rather than the private, then the individual and the community alike are benefitted” (875a-b). The philosopher is the one who knows this common good as precisely common, as making the private goods also to be what they are. The common good is not some sort of overarching alien good separate and distinct from the reality of private goods, which are in fact goods.
This principle of specialization has appeared in many forms in the history of political things. In the famous Encyclical of Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno (1931), it was called the principle of subsidiarity (#79-80). Yves Simon, in his A General Theory of Authority, called it the principle of “autonomy” – “by the principle of autonomy, any pursuit that a particular unit is able to carry out satisfactorily ought to be entrusted to precisely such a unit.”7 On the political level, arrangements like federalisms or confederations have likewise sought to preserve this twofold advantage, the participation in a larger good while retaining the value of the smaller unit both for its members and for the excellence of the product. In order for the whole to be the whole, the parts must be the parts. Or to put it another way, the preservation of the parts is itself one of the main functions of common authority. The collapse of parts with their own relative autonomy is but another definition of tyrannical uniformity.
The main purpose of philosophy insofar as it is political philosophy is the work of persuasion – for this is the way philosophy must proceed, this is its main and, as it were, only weapon. Who is persuading whom? The lesson of both the trial of Socrates and the trial of Christ is that the city can kill the philosopher, if it chooses to do so. It always has the raw power to do so. The philosopher’s protection is not more power. The philosopher’s ultimate protection is what he thinks about death, as Socrates put it at his trial. Most often cities choose the actions they will put into effect within their limits in the form of laws and their execution. As in the case of Socrates before his Athenian accusers and in the case of Christ before Pilate or Caiphas, the question arises whether the politician is persuadable, open to listen to and follow the philosopher. If he is not, the philosopher is dead.
The significant difference between the two rather similar Platonic characters Thrasymachus in The Republic and Callicles in the Gorgias had to do with how they listened to the philosopher. Thrasymachus held, much in advance of Machiavelli, the notion that justice is power, the interest of the strongest. However, the result of his discussion with Socrates in the first book of The Republic was that he had no more arguments to defend his own position. Thus, reluctantly, he saw that he could not hold it and became in turn rather benevolent and friendly to Socrates. In this case, the philosopher moves the politician, or at least the sophist.
Callicles, on the other hand, in the Gorgias, never seriously discusses the question of whether philosophy is important to the politician. Philosophy is merely something we amusingly study in college, but we quickly put it aside when we come to exercise actual power. When in the course of his conversation with Socrates, Callicles sees that he cannot defend his own view, he refuses to continue the conversation. Conversation is the only weapon of the philosopher against the politician with the power to kill him. When the politician refuses to continue any discussion about the rightness of his procedure or ideas, we know that the philosopher is dead, though we don’t know whether death is the final word even for the politician. That he suspected it was not constituted the content of the last book of Plato’s Republic, wherein the question of ultimate rewards and punishments comes up.
Thus it is that the possibility of philosophy to some extent depends on the success of the political philosopher in directly or indirectly rendering the actual politician benevolent. This approach does not forget that basically the politician is suspicious, and sometimes rightly so, of the possibility of the philosopher undermining the moral foundations of the polity, of the existing city’s explanation of itself to itself. The experienced politician, at his peril, has to know the damage caused by unworthy philosophers in the city. In Greek thought and history, Alcibiades, the most charming of the tyrants and of the young men around Socrates, is forever the symbol of the validity of this concern. And we should not forget, following the Symposium, that Alcibiades was even the most dangerous threat to the integrity of Socrates, of philosophy itself. Both the philosopher and the politician who do not love truth after their own lights are dangerous both to philosophy and to the city, indeed to themselves.
We know, of course, again thanks to Plato, that philosophy does not have to succeed in convincing the politician to let him live for it, philosophy, to conquer. Had Socrates, instead of drinking the hemlock according to the law after a formal trail, chosen banishment instead, or to cease to philosophize, or to escape from jail, as he was free to do, philosophy would not have triumphed. Many a “philosopher” who ends up violating the Socratic principle that “it is never right to do wrong” drops into obscurity.
Following a remark of Chesterton, I have entitled these reflections, “On the Things that Depend on Philosophy.” If we can put it this way, it is by our philosophy that we see the world, not by our eyes, unless our eyes themselves, in their seeing, are directed by a philosophy that affirms of what is, that it is. We can divert both our eyes and our minds from seeing what is there, what is to be seen or known. Whether a philosophy is true or not does not depend on whether it is ancient or modern, from this land or that, whether it is Monday or Tuesday. It depends on its understanding of things, on its willingness to be measured by things of which it is not itself the cause.
Does democracy, does a legal system, depend on a philosophy that denies that the theoretic truth cannot be known? Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that democracy does depend on a philosophical position that specifically denies that truth is possible, indeed that affirms that truth is dangerous in politics. In an obvious sense, of course, truth has always been considered to be dangerous, specifically to falsity. Truth and falsity themselves belong to a philosophical system that maintains that they are not the same, even when there is a disagreement about what specific thing might be true and what false. Part of the purpose both philosophy and polity is to find this out, what is true and what is not. The “truth” that there is no “truth” founds all skepticism and grounds it in what cannot be coherently thought.
Within the philosophical system that, as part of its own tenets, denies that truth is possible in order to suggest that all things are possible, the major danger to this system is any view that maintains that “absolute truths” exist and can be known. Generally, this latter position is said to be “fanatical.” Thus, one who holds that truth is to say of what is that it is, and of what is not, that it is not, is a fanatic. Here, one uses his mind to deny the purpose of mind, which is to affirm the truth of things. Evidently, the philosophic view that there is no truth is seen to be itself a conclusion that is necessary to protect from the influence of other positions. What other positions? Those that recognize that there is error and evil that have to be identified and acknowledged as precisely what they are, evils and errors. Tolerance as a “theoretic” philosophic position means that any philosophy that recognizes that, in the order of things, including human things, there are things wrong, or evil, is by definition false and dangerous. To insist on it is fanatical.
However, if there are other views that would allow people to live at peace with each other that did not involve the denial of the possibility of truth, the presumed alternative “either no truth or no democracy” would be false. What is interesting about the remarks of Maritain that I cited in the beginning is his awareness that the theory of tolerance that sees itself only as based on the denial of truth is itself a “fanaticism” since it refuses to admit the validity of arguments about the truth.
The logic of this remark is worth spelling out: since one cannot conceive a theory in which people of different persuasions can tolerate each other, then, to make no theory dangerous to another, one must deny that any theory is true. As Maritain pointed out, such people understand truth only as something that, if it exists, “must” be imposed. Thus, to continue the argument, if they thought that there were a truth, they would, by their own theory, have to hold it. In order not to be forced into this terrible alternative, what they do, in self-defense, is to deny that there is any truth possible on any terms to anybody. Such a view of democracy, then, results not from a surfeit of philosophy but from a lack of it.
And this observation brings us back to the question of what is philosophy? And where can it exist? Clearly existing polities can embrace, as the foundation of their laws, that there is no truth. That is the truth that they hold as “self-evident.” Therefore, all things are permitted. If anything is not permitted, it not because there is anything objectionable about it, but just that this polity wills this view. Some other polity, with equal logic, wills its opposite. There is no polity in speech or argument that would address the premises of any actual polity, because that alternative would in theory threaten the foundation of the actual polity..
Usually, the view that all is permitted is modified by the notion that what “harms” others is not permitted. If I have a “right” to do something, it seems like others have an obligation to allow us our rights, particularly if our rights are based on nothing but some arbitrary decision or law that admittedly has no truth as its foundation. Ironically, this view that all is permitted combined with the notion of “harm,” has worked to expand the powers of the state, not to lessen them, since the state now has no theoretic limits about what is its competence.
In conclusion, let me again recall the sentence of Chesterton: “What a man can believe depends on his philosophy, not on the clock or the century.” Within all professions – law, medicine, clergy, farming, politics, craftsmanship – there is need of those who are also devoted to what is. Philosophers are not the only ones affected by answers to philosophical questions. Indeed, the very existence of revelation suggests that not even philosophy can answer all philosophic questions. In the course of his short active life of about twenty five years, Thomas Aquinas is said to have asked some ten thousand questions. What is significant about Aquinas is not that he asked the ten thousand questions. What is significant is that he also answered them. If philosophy is a quest, it is also a search for answers. It does not depend on the time or the century.
“What is truly human is never the average.” “You are not to tell lies to the judge.” “At philosophical conventions deaf men make speeches for other deaf men.” Science “can say nothing about what a man is or what he must do.” “The truths of philosophy ... are not restricted to the sometimes ephemeral teachings of the professional philosophers.” “The standard by which truth and falsity, good and evil, are measured, is not alone the divine, but also the human.” What is significant about Aquinas is not that he asked ten thousand questions. What we can believe does indeed depend on our philosophy.