Having devoted my professional life to teaching philosophy, I came the conclusion that this field has a “dramatic” side. The professor who, following Socrates, is interested “in nothing but the truth” and is convinced of its objectivity, has the onerous and “dangerous” task of convincing students that “they know not.” Having admirably fulfilled this mission, “the wise old man of Greece” (as Kierkegaard called him) was rewarded by losing his life.
The “love of wisdom” is radically different from most academic fields. In other branches of knowledge, the student enters the classroom convinced that the professor has a factual knowledge much superior to his own, and that, “knowledge being power” (Francis Bacon), he will greatly benefit by taking his course, and thereby be better equipped to make “good money,” which, according to one of the “top notch” professors at Hunter College of CUNY, is the one purpose of “education.” Today the most attractive and promising fields are computer sciences and electronics.
Greatly different is the student’s approach toward a course of Introduction to Philosophy. As “the love of wisdom” is concerned with questions that every human being is bound to raise, by the time he enters college, he has pretty much made up his mind on questions such as the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, truth, moral values, and the purpose of human existence. He assumes that he knows the ideas he has adopted might have been inoculated in him by his education, his background, the culture in which he was born, or by the books which accidentally fell into his hands. At any rate, he will enter the classroom convinced that the only thing a philosophy teacher ought to do is to teach him the history of philosophy, emphasizing the rich multiplicity of views that famous thinkers have had on all key questions, and making it clear that each one is decide for himself what is best adapted to his life style. The gamut of possibilities goes from radical skepticism, to relativism, to the various forms of empiricism, idealism to pragmatism, to analytic philosophy with special emphasis put on “modern” philosophers who best reflect the “needs” of modern man. One thing to be avoided at all cost is to claim that there is a truth, valid for all men, and that all should endorse. This is dangerous because, in fact, it deprives thinkers of their “freedom of thought” and leads to intellectual totalitarianism – the philosophical bete noire of most modern thinkers.
If the professor teaching the course happens to be interested in “nothing except the truth,” he will inevitably challenge his students’ ideas on key issues by confronting them with the awesome test of truth.
They will most likely resent it for the obvious reason that, starting in grammar school, they have been told that all philosophical questions are up for grasp, for they are not based on “scientific proofs,” and are therefore a matter of opinion. It is up to the individual to decide for himself what are the ideas which best fit his life style, his culture, his craving for “self-fulfillment.” Nobody has the right to dictate what he should think, and how he should live. To do so is nothing short of arrogance, and inevitably will lead to abominations such as the Inquisition.
That this is a fact was one of the first things that my students “taught” me at the very beginning of my career, when I was teaching Veterans in the Hunter Bronx Buildings. One of them entered my classroom dragging his feet and obviously resentful that Introduction to Philosophy was on the core curriculum. He looked so despondent that I could not help but remark: “You do not seem very pleased to have to take this course.” His answer was: “Why should your ideas be better than mine?” A very pertinent remark indeed if the question of truth is eliminated. As I told him that the value of an idea depends upon its agreement with truth, he looked at me in utter amazement.
Science offers us factual information about the material universe, the world revealed to us through our senses. Granted that every truth is to be respected there is, however, a crucial hierarchy among them. Many need not be known (the reproductive system of fleas, for example) unless there is a professional reason for studying the particular field. Some of them are practically important: to ignore them can be life-threatening. It is common knowledge that a high percentage of accidents take place within the home. Ignorance can be responsible for fires and explosions.
But the field of what can be known is so huge that any great scholar or scientist must acknowledge on his death bed that he has only scratched the surface. The dying man might also raise the question: “Has the information I have painfully acquired through my life helped me answer the one question that I am now raising; what will happen to me after death? Is there such a thing as immortality? Is there a God that I shall see face to face when I take my last breath?” In other words, there are truths we should be concerned with. They are valuable not for pragmatic reasons, but because they are concerned with what matters most.
To overlook their crucial importance in a truly human life, is nothing but foolishness, but scholars can be very foolish. There are truths which give meaning to life; granted that the knowledge accumulated by great scientists is impressive, this knowledge does not shed light on the most important questions of human existence. This has been highlighted in Victor Frankl’s, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” This book deserved its huge success, for it raised the right questions. No intelligent human being should remain unconcerned about them. To neglect to raise them not only betrays a grave lack of intelligence but moreover, a tragic disregard for what it means to be a personal being.
As mentioned, the popular view is that each individual should answer these vital questions for himself. Being highly “personal” opinions, they have validity only for the person endorsing them. The very word “truth” is thrown out of court, because it is meaningless when applied to non-material reality, which cannot be subject to the “objective” test of scientific experimentation.
To claim that there is a philosophical truth which has universal validity is nothing but “intellectual totalitarianism.” It is not only arrogant, and “anti-democratic,” but is purely arbitrary.
The phenomenal development of empirical sciences “gloriously” proves the validity of scientific knowledge. This is why they keep progressing, whereas philosophy does not get anywhere.
After some twenty six centuries, it keeps raising the same questions proving the inanity of the problems raised. Freedom of thought should reign supreme. In other words, what can a philosophy teacher give his students who have already answered all these questions to their satisfaction? All that he is supposed to do is therefore to give them information about the incredible variety of answers philosophers have given through the centuries. The huge variety of outlooks should prove that it is a field in which there is no “truth.”
This new “dogma” – for modern man has “wisely” discarded the “old” mediaeval dogmas which inevitably led to the Inquisition – places anyone who, like Socrates, is interested in “nothing but the truth,” in a highly vulnerable position.
How is a modern “disciple” of Socrates to challenge the popular conviction that experimentation alone can grant certitude to the human mind?
The obvious weakness of this claim is that this has never been (and never can be) experimentally proven. It is a purely “dogmatic” claim without any foundation.
Experimentation is limited to the huge world of material objects, but obviously cannot be applied to objects which do not belong to the physical universe. This obvious truth should shake the foundation of radical empiricism.
Moreover, there are questions which condemn the intellectual sanity of the person raising them. Chesterton’s admirers will not be surprised to find out what “the king” of wit has made luminous. In his hands, it was an intellectual sword that waged war on stupidity.
What would we say, he tells us, of someone aiming at shooting a hole through our memory of last Monday? “This will trigger laughter. It is plainly stupid.” In the same line of thought, what would we say if a wife claimed that her very authoritarian husband has a will weighting two hundred pounds, whereas she, his submissive wife’s will is hardly ten pounds? Convinced of the crushing superiority of Plato’s mind over Hume’s, no sane person would claim that it is probably some 500 miles longer.
The empirical method, valid as it is when applied to matter, is meaningless when applied to spiritual realities.
Once the experienced teacher has succeeded in making his students listen to his refutation, (this call for “the art of teaching”: catch students’ attention) one big step is already taken. But more is needed.
Students should now be led to realize that they have fallen victims to what I shall dub “trompe l’oeil” philosophers. These “thinkers” are characterized by their flamboyance, their eloquence – qualities highly appreciated by the masses which prefer brilliancy to truth. He who has the “gift of gab” is more likely to convince the hoi polloi than the arguments offered by a truth-loving thinker who is less eloquent. If the teacher succeeds in convincing his students to honestly ask themselves whether they have not been caught into the subtle nets of “sophists,” another important step has been taken.
Analogy with physical eye sight can also challenge students to learn to be “critical” in the positive of this term: it is does not mean to be “negative” but to learn to wisely weigh evidence, as opposed to theories.
A high percentage of human beings do not enjoy perfect eye sight. They need corrective glasses to make up for this deficiency. What about our intellectual vision? How many of us would dare claim that they have never erred in their lives? They would become the butt of laughter. That “errare umanum est” is a universally recognized truth. He who is conscious that his intellectual faculties are limited, is much less likely to fall into error than the person cursed by the conviction that he never errs. The student must be led to acknowledge that there is such a thing as “intellectual and moral blindness.”
There are things that we do not see. We need help to overcome and correct this serious deficiency. That we all suffer from some form of intellectual and moral blindness is an eye-opener that will enable us to perceive many truths that we had not perceived; thereby they will come a step closer to “the love of wisdom.”
But the truth-lover’s task is not yet over: another crucial truth should be highlighted. Everybody accepts a scientific truth because it is based on “proofs.” But if something needs to be proven, it indicates that its “truth” is not evident. The obvious conclusion is that if everything needed to be proven, nothing could be proven: each proof would rely on another proof…and infinitum…
There are things which are so luminous that it is not only stupid but, radically impossible to request a proof for accepting their validity. That two contradictory propositions cannot be true simultaneously, is luminous. He who challenges this truth proves thereby that his intellectual faculty is seriously impaired. Because the validity of the proof rests upon the fact that it’s contradictory would be false. It is the task of the philosopher to make his students aware that this is not the only reason for challenging the possibility of reaching truth in non-scientific questions. It might not even be the main reason.
No one studying any science approaches it with intellectual wishful thinking: “I ardently hope that the number of angles of a triangle should be equal to three right angles,” and then fall into depression upon studying Euclid. Such a person urgently needs psychiatric help. Students must be led to realize that there are “neutral” truths and “sensitive” truths. Let me explain: all truths call for respect. But very many of them have no bearing on our personal lives, that is, of how we should live.
The student must acquire the intellectual and moral courage of asking himself why he has endorsed certain views, and strongly reject their contradictory. I recall my raising the question of the immortality of the soul – a classical philosophical question that Plato already discussed in his famous dialogue Phaedo. A student was clearly upset by my arguments in defending it, and at one point declared in front of the whole class: “the worst thing that could happen to me would be if you could convince me that I have an immortal soul: then one day I will be held responsible for my actions.” This tragic honesty is deeply revealing. It is plainly not possible to convince someone of a fact the consequences of which would be subjectively disastrous for him. It is impossible to convince anybody who fears to see a truth, that it is true, and that therefore, it should be gratefully accepted. It is often impossible to convince anybody that he has behaved immorally and should not only acknowledge it, but regret it and ask for forgiveness.
Our knowledge related to empirical sciences and mathematics is “neutral” knowledge. This is definitely not the case with key philosophical questions as my student’s remark proves eloquently. I shall call them “sensitive truths” and have a “commanding character.” “Thou shalt not…” All such truths are unpalatable to man’s fallen nature. We “instinctively” tend to obscure our vision and then “honestly” deny them. If there is a God, creator of heaven and earth, a Person of infinite perfection, our response should be adoration and obedience. These two words are poison to man’s pride as proven by Nietzsche who wrote that if there were gods, how could he stand not to be god himself? Ergo, God does not exist.
“Non serviam” was Lucifer’s tragically eloquent response to His Creator.
Logic, because of its closeness to mathematics, is the easiest course to teach. The topics which are the thorniest are metaphysics, when it raises questions about the existence of God and the immortality of the soul and ethics which is a bloody battlefield It is hopelessly difficult to convince a disciple of Aristippus, for whom “good” is identified with pleasure, (mostly pleasures of the flesh) that some of them are morally evil. It is hopelessly difficult to convince a woman not to abort her child, when she claims passionately that she alone is to decide what she will do with her own body. How wise Plato was when he underlined that one of the main aims of education is to teach a child “to achieve victory” over pleasure. May I suggest that the martyrs who have “conquered” the most excruciating pains, have never in the course of their lives, been defeated by pleasure?
Indeed, some activities are linked to pleasure: food, drink, to mention those already experienced by a child. There is such a thing as pleasure of the palate. But one thing is to enjoy food (and thank God for his gift), another is to “major” in this field and go from this enjoyment to gluttony, and once being on this slippery slope to make a “god of one’s belly” as mentioned by St. Paul. The victims of this addiction have lost their moral freedom, and for the sake of satisfying their craving, will justify cheating a poor man of his hard-earned money for the sake of having dinner in a five stars restaurant. Alas, this has happened.
Once a person is no longer capable to control his greed, the door is open to all sorts of perversions, mostly in the sexual domain where one profanity easily leads to another. How is one to convince a rapist that his actions are an abomination? He clearly enjoys his revolting desecration of another’s secret. His trump card is: “I enjoy doing it.”
How is one to convince a professional liar (who is so good at this trade that he has never been caught) that truth calls for respect? How is one to convince a talented swindler that he is harming his neighbor and his own soul? He will have the ready-made argument that by cheating another person, he is in fact re-establishing justice, for his victim has made his own money by robbing someone else.
If the student who – deep down longs for truth – perceives that precious philosophical truths will inevitably remain invisible to those who dread to perceive them, he might, with God’s grace, re-examine his “lifestyle” and realize that he who chooses to live in lie and illusion, is his own worst enemy as already mentioned by Plato.
A truth-loving philosopher has superb intellectual tools at his disposal. Whether these tools will convince those that are morally blind depends on God’s grace, and their willingness to be joyfully defeated. Is one willing to see?
Hearing that Christ had entered Jericho, a blind man kept calling him. The Savior came to him and said: “What do you want?” He answered: “That I may see,” and Christ opened his eyes. May I suggest that this blind man’s ardent desire to “see” should be our model in our intellectual life? It is my firm conviction that this prayer, when sincerely uttered, is never left unanswered.
Alice von Hildebrand is a lecturer and an author, whose works include: The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002) and The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand (2000), a biography of her late husband. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory by Pope Francis in 2013.