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The Importance Of Philosophy

August 3, 2022 Featured Today No Comments

By JOHN YOUNG

Cicero said that there is nothing so absurd that some philosopher has not said it. We can see the truth of this when we glance at the variety of opinions held by philosophers from early times to the present.
Some have believed that only matter exists; others have denied that matter exists. Some have thought that the existence of God is evident; others are convinced that atheism is true. Some have thought we are mere animals; others that we are spirits who would be better off without bodies. In ethics opinions have differed widely as to the kind of life we should lead, with Epicureanism opting for pleasure and Stoicism for duty.
If we dismiss all these and say that we should not philosophize, then we are faced with a dilemma put forward by Aristotle. If you say we should not philosophize, how are you to prove your position? Only by doing the thing you say should not be done, namely by philosophizing!
In fact, philosophy deals with the most important questions we can ask, although some have reduced it to an analysis of language. (Bertrand Russell said that some have reduced it to a study of the various ways in which silly people can say silly things.)
Philosophy as traditionally understood deals with the most fundamental questions, and studies them by the use of reason alone, apart from Divine Revelation. It studies the material world, the nature of man, the natural moral law, the existence of God.
While some philosophical questions have no implications for religion or for Divine Revelation, others are closely connected with Divine Revelation, and the answers proposed by philosophers can either help or distort their understanding of God’s Word.
When we look at the controversies of today we find that many opinions stem from philosophical errors; in fact I believe most do. Materialism and relativism distort the thinking of many people, and these errors are grounded in false philosophies.
Errors about the nature of knowledge are at the root of many philosophical errors. For instance, the view that we can’t get beyond sense knowledge excludes any knowledge superior in kind to that had by irrational animals, and therefore excludes any knowledge of God: We could no more know than our pet dog whether God exists or what He is like if He does exist.
Because of the close connection between Divine Revelation and the questions philosophy discusses, the Popes have promoted philosophy which harmonizes with, and throws light on, the doctrines revealed by God. Above all they have endorsed the philosophy of which St. Thomas Aquinas is the greatest Master. Popes from the fourteenth century on have explicitly recommended his philosophy.
Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Aeterni Patris in 1879 with the purpose of prescribing the philosophy of St. Thomas in Catholic colleges and universities. The Pope points out that the constant use of philosophy is required for the development of Sacred Theology (n. 50), and that St. Thomas had “…Fashioned a body of philosophy which is complete, sound, unified and ever powerful, in that it is based on principles so solid and universal that they penetrate and even anticipate all times and change” (n. 64).
Vatican II wanted students for the priesthood to study the faith under the guidance of St Thomas (Decree on Priestly Training, n. 16).
In his book An Introduction to Philosophy Jacques Maritain has a chapter on “Philosophy and Common Sense,” in which he shows how true philosophy is a development of our common sense knowledge. It proceeds from principles which are self-evident and facts whose truth is obvious.
We can see how this works out in the famous Five Ways of proving the existence of God set out by St. Thomas: Summa Theologiae, part I, question 2, article 3.
Each of these Ways takes a fact obvious to our senses (for instance, in the First Way the existence of movement) and views that fact in the light of two self-evident principles: one principle applicable to all Five Ways, the other different for each Way. Logically, a person who rejects any one of these arguments for God’s existence must either reject an obvious fact or a self-evident principle.
If God had not given us Divine Revelation the most profound knowledge we could have attained would have been philosophical knowledge, for it deals with the most fundamental things; and this would have been precious; but we do have Divine Revelation, which is a safeguard in our philosophical thinking, preventing us from falling into error.
And while there are many philosophers who would lead us very badly astray there are sound philosophers, and we should take these as our guides – St. Thomas above all. But most people need to approach him initially through some of his followers.
Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange OP, who died in 1964, is among the most eminent. As is Jacques Maritain (died 1973). At the present time Peter Kreeft and Edward Feser are among those who are sound guides.
A final comment. If a philosophical position involves a denial of genuine common-sense knowledge we can be sure there’s something wrong with it. James Boswell, in his Life of Johnson, tells us of Samuel Johnson’s reaction to the claim of philosopher George Berkeley that the material world does not exist.
Berkeley’s view was going the rounds of intellectual circles, and Boswell suggested to Johnson that he should answer it. Johnson replied by kicking a large stone until he rebounded from it, and replied: “I refute it thus!”

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