Universitas, Number 9, September 2001
In an age when usefulness and "relevance" often dictate the value of things some ask what is the value of philosophy or any kind of speculative knowledge. This is of interest to us at the Centre as our work is in the apostolate of the intellect.
In answer to this one might begin saying that philosophy as knowledge of the truth does indeed have practical applications or "uses". In fact there are parts of philosophy which are practical in their object, such as ethics and the philosophy of art.
In the practical order knowledge of the truth enables us to live a better moral life. "The truth will set you free" (John 8:32). Much unhappiness can come from fears, scruples, doubts and uncertainties in questions of conscience, of religion, of relationships and so on. A clear understanding of morality and of religious truths can provide a basis for a normal, fulfilling life as there is no confusion about why we exist and what we ought to do to attain happiness. Moral problems are a common cause of anxiety and depression. Knowledge of the truth is the first step for those of good will to peace of mind and heart.
Another cause of strife is intellectual error. Whether it is a question of philosophical errors which threaten sanity or theological errors which can undermine faith, the truth provides a sure defence. The importance of apologetics, both in philosophy and in religion, is not to be ignored as errors, which are often quite speculative, can have disastrous practical effects on both individuals and society.
To those who place love above knowledge or say that love is all one needs it should be noted that love necessarily presupposes knowledge. Of the unknown there is no desire. As every knowledge is followed by a proportionate inclination, it is important that the right knowledge be had so that virtuous inclinations will follow.
In consideration of knowledge as a fitting good, that is, a good to be desired for its own sake, we recall that it is perfective of man's highest power, his intellect. The repose which the mind enjoys in the contemplation of a truth is an end in itself and is more a 'be' than a 'do'.
The perfection of the soul which is had in the possession of knowledge is of the highest order. Through knowledge, as Aristotle explains, man can become all things. We are limited physically to the perfection that we have as individual creatures. It is a great perfection but there is still much greater which we lack. We can make up for this poverty through acts of understanding because in knowledge the knower becomes the known, not physically but cognoscitively. In this way we can attain the perfection of the universe.
But there is more. This union of knower and known attains its highest expression in creatures in the vision of God face to face in heaven. St Thomas teaches that the happiness of heaven consists in the knowledge of God because knowledge is possessive and happiness is possession of the perfect good. The blessed possess God the Holy Trinity most perfectly in the beatific vision giving them perfect and eternal happiness. Grace is said to divinise the soul, giving a participation in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). Through the light of glory, that most perfect of knowledges and the perfection of grace, is realized the full implication of those profound words of Thomism: through knowledge the knower becomes the known. In the beatific vision we can attain, in a participatory way, a perfection greater than that of the created universe.
Andrew Nimmo is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.
This article posted September 2001. It was published in Universitas, No. 9 (2001).
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