Tuesday, 11 July 2017

The Intellectual Life

This blog is largely intended to be a sort of journal of my pursuit of wisdom, and my endeavors to live the intellectual life. I intend to record here, not only the fruits of my studies, but their purpose and meaning: the meaning of the intellectual life itself, in particular that of a Catholic young man in the twenty-first century. I hope to give some of my first attention, on this blog, to defining what I mean by the intellectual life itself, and how I personally shall aspire and endeavor to live it. 

There are many aspects of the intellectual life; and since it is the life of that peculiar and freakish creature known as a man, it necessarily involves quite literally all the aspects of the life belonging to man as such. The philosopher David Hume, misguided though he was in many ways, was not at all wrong when he wrote: "Be a philosopher; but amidst all your philosophy, be still a man." The intellectual life is not simply the life of a part of man, namely the intellectual part; it is the life of a whole man. To be an intellectual is not to be broken into parts, some of which are to be tended, others neglected. On the contrary, the genuine and true life of the intellect overflows into all parts of the man, informing his whole life, benefiting him in every aspect of his being. As Aristotle and the Scholastics commonly stressed, it is not merely the intellect of a man that knows; it is the man. In every act, it is the whole man that acts; and no truly human activity precludes any other human activity - the exercise of no single human faculty ought to hinder the exercise of any other.

All human action, from the loftiest contemplation, down through the practice of the moral virtues, personal and social, to the least labor performed by rough and worn hands, is perfected when it is inspired by the true apprehension of the good, the noble, the holy. It is the duty of the intellectual not merely to produce great discoveries by science or study, but to hold the true, good, beautiful, noble, and holy, ever in the eye of his mind; and because he is also a man it is his duty ever to act only in accord with what he sees, to desire the good that he knows, to seek it, to attain it, and to possess it, by only the best means that he can know. It is consequently his duty not to neglect any sphere of life that touches him as a man; for it is as a whole man that he must first of all live. The intellectual life does not disregard this, does not escape it; it is wholly rooted in the ground of real existence, with all its grime and grittiness. 

Because of its so necessary connection to life, not only must the intellectual not forget the smaller, mundaner aspects of his existence, so as to grow in perfection in even such things, but he must also cultivate his intellect itself so that it may become, not a mere tool for the formulation of concepts, propositions, and syllogisms, but a beautiful image of the Truth which is its object. The beauty of the intellectual life, the wisdom which the philosopher loves, is not something to be merely apprehended and analyzed by dry and cold calculation. Certainly the philosopher must know how to reason; but he must know more how to experience that which is the object of his pursuits. To be caught up in the abstract and the conceptual is to reduce reality to a thing of the mind, whereas the true intellectual seeks something outside of his mind, something outside of himself; he seeks ecstasy, the madness of inflamed love, an encounter with the most beautiful reality that sweeps him off his feet and lets him soar. This is life; the syllogisms of the rationalist are not life. 

At this height of contemplation, the intellectual life gives way to the act of worship. It is religious in its essential trajectory. It is a straining of the eyes towards the vision of the blindingly beautiful divine light, and of the heart towards the madness of divine love. The philosopher, in soaring to mystical ecstasy, falls also to his knees, overwhelmed by the majesty which commands his homage. In the intellectual life thus conceived, man comes face to face with his relation to God, his littleness before God.

But even in order to soar thus towards ecstasy, the philosopher must keep his feet on the ground. He lives a paradox, by staying in touch with the earth in order to fly to heaven. But it is an entirely sensible paradox, not a contradiction. Just as the man is an integral whole, though constituted with parts in hierarchical relation to each other, so is reality itself an integral whole, in which the noblest beings communicate themselves to and through the very lowest. Indeed, this is the entire reason why the intellectual must not lock himself away within the prison of his mind, but go out of himself and have a care for other men, for other creatures, for activity, for his body, for the earth. For the wisdom which he seeks has hidden itself in the smallest insect, the most mundane task, the face of a friend. Heaven, though above the earth, is hidden in the earth; one need only have the eyes, or the intellect, to see it. But one must see it precisely as it is in the earth itself. "The Kingdom of God is among us." 

The true intellectual life has no use for Cartesianism, for which matter and bodies are essentially irrelevant to the inner life of the intellect, except insofar as the intellect imposes meaning upon them. Matter is but mere extension, measurable and manipulable for arbitrarily imposed needs - and the intellect possesses complete power to arbitrate such needs, and to apply itself in measuring and manipulating matter for them. Reason has now suddenly become God: supreme arbiter of ends and means, supreme bestower of meaning and even of truth. Because its role is now to create, to make truth, to impose meaning, its value is solely practical. Knowledge is only for the sake of power over nature - this is the aim of Baconian science, the partner of Cartesian philosophy. In an attempt to deify the reason, the rationalists have fallen into utilitarianism, reducing the intellect to nothing but a mean to arbitrary, useful ends. There is no more meaning - no more goodness, truth, and beauty - intrinsic to the world, only use. This phenomenon represents a different kind of paradox: in seeking to deify the intellect - a noble aspiration, initially - by denying the real value and meaning of the world, the rationalists have accomplished nothing but a never-ending obsession with merely worldly desire and utility, with no hope of fulfillment. By denying real meaning in the world, it has affirmed the world as something meaningless. By affirming their own reason as the first cause and source of all meaning, they have denied themselves the opportunity to really know the meaning and truth of things, and they have locked themselves in a prison of never-ending desire.

The true intellectual does not deify his reason from the outset, nor does he deny the world its meaning. Rather he affirms the world so that he might eventually rise from it unto true deiformity of intellect, thereby fulfilling the deepest desire of his heart. For "all men by nature desire to know." Whereas the Cartesian-Baconian, technological philosophy finds itself denying the intrinsic value of concrete existing things, and therefore the intrinsic value of knowledge and contemplation for its own sake, the true intellectual affirms the value of the concrete, the particular, and thereby opens himself up to the delight of gazing upon the universal truth, possessing the good, resting in the beautiful. And he finds this truth, goodness, and beauty, in the very particulars which surround him in the world; whereas the merely technological man finds himself bogged down in these same particulars, with no hope of fulfilling his innermost desire for knowledge. For him, reason is everything because it is power, and power is everything because activity and utility - the manipulation of matter for arbitrary and endless desires - are everything; and everything is ultimately nothing. But for the true intellectual, activity and utility and matter and the whole world are meaningful because there is a Truth beyond them that is to be had, a Good to be enjoyed, a Beauty to be contemplated.

Much more than this is encompassed in the interests of the intellectual man; for, again, all the interests of the human being are included in his pursuit. But the modernism fathered by Descartes and Bacon, which has further degenerated in the convolutions of Kant, (Darwin?,) Hegel, Freud, and Nietzsche, offers no promise of fulfillment. Only the perennial wisdom of the Ancients, the universal tradition of mankind, embodied in nature, divine revelation, and authentic culture, can start man on the path towards knowledge. Hence, in my pursuits, I will have primary recourse to the sources of this perennial wisdom: the ancient wisdom of Plato, Aristotle, the Neoplatonists, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas, and their disciples and comrades in the quest for wisdom. (This is by no means to deny any truth or insight to the moderns. No man in the pursuit of knowledge can totally escape from the testimony of truth which he receives from nature and tradition, no matter how vehemently he seeks to distance himself from it. It is the wise man's role to sift the chaff from the wheat in the careful reading of all philosophers, to discover what little gems of wisdom and virtue might be discovered even in the folly and vice of the wayward mind. In this, I will follow the guidance and method of St. Thomas: "Do not consider who the person is who you are listening to, but whatever good he says commit to memory.") 

The fundamental philosophical orientation of this blog will be Thomist, but I am committed also to being open to as wide a range of traditions as I can become acquainted with, so long as they seem to offer a real bounty of truth. Above all, the tradition of the Catholic Church, East and West, is my tradition, my heritage, and the Magisterium is the safeguard of my intellectual development, and faith the guide to my reason. 

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