On occasion, but it should be with great frequency, within the context of a class discussion or even a lesson at Church, the topic of wisdom is discussed. Frequently, but it should be on occasion, the definition is put forth as practical or applied learning. It is at times like these I desired that Thomas Aquinas’s definition of wisdom had won the day in Western civilization. In truth, the Liberal Arts would have done much better through the ages if his definition had been the one people lived by and taught.
For Thomas, and most Philosophers until the modern world, Philosophy was essentially the “love of wisdom.” To engage in the the practice of philosophy was the faithful pursuit of wisdom wherever it might be found. The primary understanding of truth was saying of a thing what was and not saying of a thing what was not. In a larger sense, wisdom was an understanding of the truth of things. Philosophy was not navel gazing and not ideological manipulation, but it was a diligent quest to understanding the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Thomas asserts (and I paraphrase) in the Summa Contra Gentiles I, 2: While humans are finite, among all the human pursuits, the pursuit of wisdom is the ultimate end, and it is the most noble, and the most useful, and that pursuit that can provide the greatest joy. Through Philosophy, we humans are more like God and can apprehend the truth of things which calls us to a better life.
It is also worth noting that among some of the greatest Philosophers in the Western intellectual tradition, there was no one more committed to prayer. Thomas, as a grand example of this, not only sought wisdom as part of his brilliant, intellectual, and knowledgeable endeavors, also, daily, prayed for wisdom.
This may surprise post-Enlightenment people that prior to the Enlightenment, wisdom was closely connected to reason. For them to reason, reflect, imagine, conjecture, was part of what it meant to act faithfully in accordance with being in the image of God. As it related to the four causes expounded by Aristotle and adhered to by Thomas, wisdom is an understanding of the final cause. Sadly, this has all but been lost in science and philosophy today.
Is it possible that one reason Philosophy is ridiculed by so many today as irrelevant and outdated is because it lost its way a few hundred years ago and has never fully found the way back to the path. If philosophy was still about the blending of the theoretical and the practical, the reflection and the proper moral action, one can imagine that there would be many who would come to love and live wisdom.
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The featured image is “Apparition of the Host to Saint Thomas Aquinas” (1735) by Francesco de Mura (1696–1782) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.