The path of ancient philosophy is not a dry academic subject; it is not primarily a system of beliefs (although it certainly includes beliefs); it is not just an erudite recollection of the history of ideas. Rather, philosophy in its ancient and original meaning is a path to be followed. It is a way of life that leads to understanding, personal growth, and interior peace.
The old way of philosophy is suggested by the very meaning of the term “philosophy.” In its original Greek setting, philosophy literally means “the love of wisdom.” Philosophy is a form of love. This may be surprising to those who associate philosophy with tedious scholarly articles, but philosophy existed before the rise of the modern university, and it will continue after its demise.
Like any form of love, philosophy involves desire and commitment. Indeed, Plato describes philosophy as something erotic in the sense of the philosopher’s ardent passion for wisdom. Grasping this point goes a long way towards discovering the real meaning and value of philosophy. However, more needs to be said because love is diversified by its object. Loving football, loving your country, and loving your spouse are all very different.
Philosophy is distinguished from other forms of love by its object, namely, wisdom. Accordingly, in order to understand the true meaning and value of philosophy, it is important to understand the meaning and value of wisdom. Here we meet a difficulty because philosophers differ on the precise definition of wisdom. Nevertheless, drawing broadly on classical sources it is possible to identify a core meaning of wisdom.
Wisdom is the supreme intellectual virtue. In classical philosophy, virtue is an active habit that contributes directly to human flourishing. An intellectual virtue is a habit of mind, a way of thinking that develops the cognitive capacities of the person. In this perspective, wisdom is not primarily a finished system. Rather it is the habit of thinking deeply, comprehensively, and critically, and it is the supreme intellectual virtue because it helps us to think well— to think with true excellence. Aristotle and his followers defined wisdom as the science of first causes and first principles. In the twentieth century, Bernard Lonergan updated this approach, making it more accessible and suited to modern sensibilities.
According to Lonergan cognitive development and personal growth may be achieved by following four basic rules: (a) be informed; (b) be intelligent; (c) be critical; (d) be responsible. These rules are not arbitrary; they are grounded in the dynamic cognitive processes that actualize, elevate, and develop human consciousness. The wise man or woman is broadly informed, deeply intelligent, rigorously critical, and habitually responsible.
Be informed. Experience is important, but we need to do more. We should not just let events accumulate. Rather we should sometimes suspend the flow of experience and reflect carefully and broadly. And we should reflect not only on our own experience, but also on the experience of others. This approach to life requires attentive reflection, making distinctions, and the rigorous collection of data (what is given in experience); it leads to an informed perspective and nuanced description. The informed person is grounded in what actually occurs; he is grounded in the relevant facts of the matter; he is not ignorant. In short, he pays attention.
Be intelligent. Don’t just know that something happened, but define it and explain it. Create an intelligible interpretation of experience. Address the questions “what is it” and “why is it so?” In doing so, the human person aspires towards understanding. Experience is not just one thing after another, but an array of data that may be synthesized into an intelligible whole or narrative. To the person of understanding, reality is not opaque or dark, but a luminous whole, which inspires contemplation, clarity, consistency, and interior peace.
Be critical. Understanding is important, but as Lonergan suggests “insights” are a dime a dozen. We should not just adopt the interpretation that pleases. Rather we should come as close as possible to reality. We must engage in critical reasoning. Of any interpretation, we should ask ourselves, but is it true? How do you know? Sometimes this is a disturbing process, but it is inevitable if we are to avoid laziness and delusion. Critical thinking brings us closer to reality, grounds rational deliberation, challenges assumptions, and exposes bias.
Be responsible. An informed and tested interpretation should be put into action. The application of observation, intelligence, and critical reasoning to action is the logical and natural extension of human consciousness. To do otherwise subverts the dynamic flow of the human spirit and introduces a contradiction within the center of the human person. The price for to doing so is inauthenticity and blindness. Instead, the wise man employs his informed and critical interpretation of the world to action, and in doing so acts with clarity, prudence, and accountability. He is fully aware of what he is doing and why it is the thing to be done. He does not act from impulse or bias but on the basis of reality and insight.
It is possible to love and pursue wisdom in the modern world — to live as a lover or wisdom. The wise man or woman observes rigorously, interprets deeply, judges critically, and decides responsibly. This is a difficult path to be sure. Propaganda, coercion, emotional bias, neurosis, marketing, and social pressure all threaten to subvert the love of wisdom. But this side of heaven there is no perfect state of rest. We may experience moments of transcendence and achieve a measure of stability, but there is no final stasis for human beings in this life; there is only motion, and the motion of our lives has only one of two trajectories. The trajectory of our lives will be marked either by an arc of growth or a spiral of decline, superficiality, and egoism.
The love of wisdom is a path of growth. You can follow this path. Growth or decline are your only options. The choice is up to you.
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