“All men by nature desire to know.” This is the standard translation of the first line of Aristotle’s famous work the Metaphysics, but we can get to the heart of the matter by rephrasing it this way: every human person desires to understand. This surprising claim has inspired countless philosophers and indicates the value of philosophy for human flourishing.
What does Aristotle mean? Was he hopelessly naïve?
As any astute reader knows, Aristotle was hardly naive.
However, Aristotle was capable of looking beyond surface appearances. In fact, one of his greatest strengths was his ability to discern the universal within the particular, the permanent amidst the changing.
Despite the intellectual laziness and superficiality that characterizes a great deal of human thought, Aristotle recognized that human nature includes an innate inclination to understand — an underlying desire to understand ourselves and the world around us.
Two pieces of evidence support Aristotle’s claims about human nature. First, it only takes a moment to realize that we are constantly surrounded by the effects of our natural desire to know and understand. All around us we see the achievements of the human intellect. From the literature of Shakespeare and the thoughts of Marcus Aurelius to the information technology that drives the modern world, we have tangible evidence of the power and energy of the human intellect.
Second, the human habit of asking questions and formulating arguments attests to our innate desire for truth. Anyone who is familiar with young children knows all about the human habit of asking questions. Children are innately curious and fired with a desire to understand the world around us. To be sure, this questioning process often becomes muted as we age, but it remains nonetheless. Indeed, even if adults are not as upfront about our questions our lives (especially our intellectual and spiritual lives) remain full of questions. Any reader should be able to verify this from her or his experience.
Accepting and nurturing our desire to understand is very important.
Aristotle’s claim about our natural desire to understand is directly connected to human development and personal growth. If Aristotle is correct — and there are solid reasons to think that this is so — then the exercise of the intellect is an essential element of the human condition. Many modern philosophers, artists, and religious leaders have developed an almost anti-intellectual stance, but Aristotle would see this as highly misguided.
Contrary to a common modern opinion human nature is not a blank slate.
Human nature is real and universal and sets the parameters of human flourishing. Men and women do not flourish by eating glass or neglecting the intellect. In Aristotle’s perspective, the means and ways of human flourishing are very diverse, but there are general conditions — general patterns — that we can find wherever human beings flourish. This is based on the idea that human nature is defined by a collection of powers. These powers are capacities for action that empower and incline us to perform various categories of action — eating, reproducing, forming friendships, et cetera. Human flourishing is achieved through the development and cultivation of our natural inclinations.
Chief among our natural inclinations is the desire to understand and living well as a human being depends on the cultivation of our intellectual power. When we fail to grow intellectually we experience decline, bias, and diminished horizons. By contrast, when we invest in intellectual development we actualize our potential for thoughtfulness, spiritual depth, and increased responsibility — we increase our capacity to appreciate the world and those around us.
The importance of intellectual growth highlights the value of philosophy.
Philosophy is the love of wisdom, and it contributes decisively to our intellectual growth. Put simply, wisdom is the virtue — the constructive habit — of thinking deeply and critically and putting our reflection into practice. Typically, especially when we become adults, our inquiry and questioning become pretty superficial. We stay at the surface and do not reach the level of foundational ideas and ultimate questions. Often we just go with what feels good or what most people think.
The wise man or woman goes deeper and explores questions about the existence of God, the meaning of life, and the nature of the human condition. Exploring these questions is at the heart of what it means to love wisdom. It is the essential value of philosophy. And it is why everyone should be a philosopher.