The True Philosopher is Not Wise

Pythagoras’ original definition of the philosopher (a lover of wisdom) was in deliberate contrast to that of the sophist (one who claimed to be wise). Socrates was continually sparring with the sophists. These men would only dispense their knowledge for a fee and emphasized the pragmatic use of logical and rhetorical technique. They equated “wisdom” with mere cleverness. Obviously a true philosopher will display great learning and discernment. He seeks wisdom with the proviso that it can never be fully possessed because it is infinite, and man is a finite being. Our wisdom is always on loan.

Another humbling point is that there are really very few new philosophical ideas out there. The ancient Greeks experimented with such “novel” theories as atheism, materialism, hedonism and even communism. Yet as Josef Pieper reminds us in The Philosophical Act (see previous post), the mainstream of Hellenic intellectual life was religious in its origins. The idea of philosophy being “emancipated” from theology and moral custom did not occur until the “post-Christian” period. The pre-Socratic thinkers were often at odds with popular religion. But this was only because they sought “to return to a more primitive” theology shed of Homeric mythology. Plato was explicit on this point: “Knowledge came down to us like a flame of light, as a gift from the gods.”  It is a tradition “handed down by the ancients.” Pythagoras and Plato believed that only divinity can possess complete knowledge or wisdom. But an awareness of the imperfection of human understanding, Pieper believes, is not an excuse for ignorance or despair.

Rationalists like Hegel attempted to redefine philosophy as a complete reordering of the universe according to our limited, subjective perceptions. Others, like the pessimistic Schopenhauer, responded at the other extreme. In one sense, Schopenhauer was on the correct path we he said that human desires could never be fulfilled. His answer was to negate these desires completely. Pieper does not believe this necessary. To philosophize correctly is not to indulge in novelty or doubt. Instead it is to wonder. It is this same sense of wonder that is at work in poetry and art.

“Since the very beginning,” says Pieper, “philosophy has always been characterized by hope. Philosophy never claimed to be a superior form of knowledge but, on the contrary, a form of humility, and restrained, and conscious of this restraint and humility in relation to knowledge.” For the Christian “the greater truth” is to be found when we experience reality as a “mystery” rather than something to be grasped “by means of some transparent and marvelously clear system.” For this reason “philosophical thought does not become simpler merely because one can cling to the norm of Christian revelation.” But it is “truer and does fuller justice to reality” because it imposes what Aquinas understood as the via negativa (the “negative norm”). This is similar to the Socratic approach wherein we learn from what do not know, to know better what is still left for us to understand.

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