The Comfort of Philosophy: Can ancient truths help save modern society?
Boethius, a sixth-century Roman statesman, was in the prime of his life when his political career was brought to a sudden and ignominious end. Running afoul of corrupt politicians, he was falsely accused of plotting against the king, Theodoric, whose favor he had long enjoyed. Boethius fell, literally overnight, from a life of learned leisure into Theodoric’s dungeons. He was executed, but not before he had penned a work that would reverberate across the centuries. The Consolation of Philosophywas one of the most widely read books of the Middle Ages, a multiple-century bestseller. It cemented Boethius’s own legacy and taught medieval Europe the value of the discipline that he loved.
The book opens with the hapless Boethius sitting in his cell, lamenting the terrible injustices of fate. He is joined there by a beautiful woman, clothed in a rich but somewhat tattered dress, who identifies herself as Lady Philosophy, the personification of the pursuit of wisdom. She chides him for his self-pity and engages him in an extended discussion of free will, the vicissitudes of fate and the workings of divine providence. By the end of the discourse, the character Boethius has gained a greater sense of perspective on his situation. The debate reminds him of the limits of human reason and helps him to trust God’s providence once again. Lady Philosophy ministers to Boethius by meeting him where he is, using his God-given intellect to lead him to a place where he can relinquish his resentment and fear and find peace.
We would be fortunate to have such accompaniment today. We need that peace, desperately. Americans are as lonely, anxious and isolated as we have ever been. In material terms we are, in general, richly blessed; but socially and spiritually we are impoverished. Our nation is dangerously polarized politically, and we have diminishing trust in our compatriots and our government. The pervasive feeling of social disintegration makes the future feel grim.
Boethius would have related. Born into an aristocratic family in the final years of the Roman Empire, he well understood how human potential could be blighted by corruption and social dissolution. He realized, too, that he was living on the verge of widespread civilizational collapse, and accordingly much of his life was dedicated to a sustained effort to mitigate the damage by preserving great works of philosophy.
What if this philosophic tradition is, in fact, the gift the world most needs from the church in this time of anxiety and doubt?
Boethius did more than any other person to translate and comment on the works of Plato and Aristotle; it was his gift to a distant future that no one could yet glimpse. Boethius’s final hours are that much more poignant because we know that we are seeing the end, not of one man only, but of an entire culture. Nevertheless, the Consolation is not a work of despair. Lady Philosophy’s comfort is accentuated for the modern reader by the knowledge that Boethius’s dearest hope would be realized in centuries to come. Europe wouldrediscover the great thinkers of antiquity, with his own scholarly work serving as a crucial bridge between the ancient and medieval eras.
But can ancient philosophy be the tonic that we need today? Some skepticism is forgivable. In our own day, we face gripping questions about social justice, identity and privilege, democracy and representation, and the desecration of the natural world. It is perhaps hard to imagine finding answers to questions like these in dusty academic tomes. Most Catholics are probably aware that their faith has a longstanding philosophical tradition, but the benefits of this tradition for the daily lives of the average Catholic may not be obvious.
What if it happened, though, that this rich tradition did contain, if not ready-made answers for modern problems, then at least a space within which answers could be fruitfully cultivated? What if it were not too late to elevate our communities and universities into vibrant centers of Catholic intellectual and cultural life, reminiscent of their medieval forerunners? What if this philosophic tradition is, in fact, the gift the world most needs from the church in this time of anxiety and doubt?
A Home for Scholarship
Universities, in a form we would currently recognize, have existed since the Middle Ages, and they were, to a large extent, built by Catholic philosophers. This may seem today like a bit of trivia, but the footprints of medieval thinkers are still visible. At a modern university graduation, doctoral regalia still typically include a dark-blue tam, marking the color of philosophy. We still callour highest degree earners “doctors of philosophy,” even if they studied ornithology or hotel administration.
Faith and reason converged in medieval Paris in a way that proved transformative, not just for France and Catholicism, but ultimately for the entire world.
These vestiges of an older world should remind us how philosophy once created the university, even as it shaped and defined the church. Philosophical knowledge is more than just an abstraction. But for the medievals’ robust belief in the power of truth, and the capacity of human reason to uncover it, the university could never have been born. European Christianity could have developed in a more fundamentalist way, falling under the control of authoritarian patriarchs and corrupt politicians like the ones who executed Boethius. Fortunately, faith and reason converged in medieval Paris in a way that proved transformative, not just for France and Catholicism, but ultimately for the entire world.
The fact that this happened in Pariswould have been quite startling to Boethius and his contemporaries. When Bologna founded the world’s first great law school in 1088, that was more explicable. Italy was still a hub of high culture, and it made sense to examine the foundations of law in the heart of the old empire. Britain had already produced some leading intellectuals, like St. Bede and St. Anselm. France, by contrast, was quite far from the ancient world’s great centers of learning; and in the 10th century, the Franks were widely seen as crude and culturally backward.
Nevertheless, by the end of the 10th century, it was northern France that served as a magnet for intellectually curious men from across Europe. The cathedral schools became the gathering point for learned men and eager students looking to follow the path laid down by Boethius centuries before. They studied logic and great philosophical texts inherited from antiquity, and they worked to apply these skills and insights to the questions of their own day. By the 13th century, the University of Paris was recognized throughout Europe as the pre-eminent institution for the study of philosophy, theology and the arts. Medieval Paris was to philosophy what 15th-century Florence was to art or 19th-century Russia to literature.
The overarching project of the era was to synthesize every aspect of Christian faith into a single picture, which could then be harmonized with everything else that was known, or even that could be known.
The Age of Systematizers
The University of Paris was thoroughly cosmopolitan, in the sense that it drew men from all across Europe and forced them to subordinate their more particular loyalties and attachments to a larger project. This was not easy. The scholars at Paris had their own cultural and ethnic prejudices, as humans are apt to do, and these created tensions and occasionally even led to outbreaks of physical violence. Nevertheless, it was widely understood that the work of the university could not be entrusted to a single national or ethnic group.
European civilization was hurtling into a new era, and intellectual labor was needed to pave the way for a humane, prosperous Christian society. From a modern-dayvantage point, it might seem that the intellectual circles of this era were homogeneous and culturally closed, but that would itself be a narrow-minded view. It is true, of course, that Europe at the time was largely agrarian and Catholic, and that the universities were mostly boys’ clubs. But this was also a time of political turbulence and rapid cultural change, and the momentum at the University of Paris was moving people awayfrom more provincial attachments and towarduniversal truths that are the common heritage of all human beings.
This was the age of great systematizers. The overarching project of the era was to synthesize every aspect of Christian faith into a single picture, which could then be harmonized with everything else that was known, or even that could be known. The Scholastics of this period believed that all truth could be unified, and they planned to show it. They understood that this picture would need to combine substance and lucidity with broad-minded flexibility. They wanted a philosophy that could endure across generations, but that endurance would be possible only if their theories could incorporate new information as the human race continued to explore and discover. Accordingly, their thought tended to move in wide arcs, creating a framework but leaving ample space for details to be filled in later. Practical questions were sometimes addressed, but the system as a whole was designed to have an openness that would encourage further pursuit of knowledge instead of shunning it.
Without philosophy, Christianity might never have escaped the trap of fundamentalism. His life may have been short, but he certainly did not live in vain.
To anyone who has gone through a modern doctoral program, the medieval method of training philosophers is simultaneously charming and astonishing in its ambition. Here at least, medieval universities stood in marked contrast to our own. A modern graduate student, even in the humanities, will spend years taking deep dives into a narrow and well-defined subject, with the goal of producing some original research. In place of the modern dissertation, medieval graduate students would write full commentaries on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, which is a broad-ranging work covering virtually everything of interest to a Christian scholar: God, creation, death, judgment, heaven, hell, the moral life and the sacraments. In short, the University of Paris expected every scholar to write his own “book of everything” before he could be a full-fledged “doctor,” a scholar qualified to teach. It was a system that truly captured the spirit of the age. The Parisian intellectuals were determined to create a universally applicable philosophical view that could stand the test of time.
Did they aim too high? Was their zeal for consistency ultimately exposed as mere hubris, just the futile obsession of little minds? No human endeavor is perfect, and one can find mistakes within Scholastic writings, as for instance in their faulty understanding of human embryology. Some texts would seem fanciful and irrelevant to us, like St. Bonaventure’s extended discussions of angelology. We might be disturbed by the occasional moral judgment, as when St. Thomas Aquinas condones the execution of heretics.
Still, when we consider that we are looking back across a gulf of several centuries, it is remarkable how well Scholasticism still holds together. Most of it still seems thoroughly sane and applicable to modern questions. Neither modern science nor modern political developments have shown the Scholastics’ worldview to be fundamentally implausible. But their resolve was tested many times, especially with the rapid rediscovery of new Aristotelian texts in the 13th century. Preserved in many monasteries and openly discussed in Islamic intellectual circles by thinkers like Al-Farabi and Al-Ghazali, Aristotle’s texts eventually moved into the Parisian circles and became the subject of furious debate. As a pagan with many profound insights but no access to Christian revelation, Aristotle pushed to the fore hard questions about the limits of philosophy and the relationship between faith and reason. Some religious authorities moved to suppress the study of Aristotle, fearing that philosophy would discredit or overwhelm the Christian faith. In the end, the Parisian thinkers (especially St. Thomas Aquinas) successfully synthesized Aristotle with the Church Fathers, drawing in many other Greek and Islamic insights along the way.
In the end, for all their false starts and personal failings, the intellectuals in Paris achieved a spectacular fusion of faith and philosophy. In so doing, they opened the way to a Europe that was able to embrace human reason, exploring truth in all its many facets without rejecting God. If Lady Philosophy had been clairvoyant as well as wise, she might have given Boethius even more powerful comfort. Without him, medieval Europe might never have embraced philosophy to the extent that it did. Without philosophy, Christianity might never have escaped the trap of fundamentalism. His life may have been short, but he certainly did not live in vain.
It could be that Catholic philosophy was made for such a moment as this.
Joining Faith and Reason
In a fallen world, the victory of human reason is never complete. Fundamentalism will return periodically, as will political corruption, doubt, prejudice and many distortions of the faith. Even Scholasticism, for all its admirable features, has the potential to lead people astray. It can be reduced to a dry and formalist system, indifferent to lived realities and blind to the questions that trouble people’s hearts.
Over the past seven centuries, Catholics have many times had to renew their commitment to seeking new truths and harmonizing all knowledge with the repository of faith. Again and again, lived experience has revealed places where older assumptions were imprecise, prejudiced or just wrong. Difficult and painful questions may arise, but Catholics cantackle these with the fearless audacity of the Scholastics, because we understand that faith and reason support and nourish one another. That joining of faith and reason is the legacy of Catholic philosophers, and it has always been foundational to Catholic education, reflected in Catholic universities and in the Ratio Studiorum that has shaped the Jesuit schools, which have had a particularly strong impact in the United States, from colonial times through the present day.
It might seem that that legacy has diminished in relevance, now that we live in a world with billions of people, scores of different faiths and a greater recognition of the array of cultures, races, languages and perspectives in our societies. Then again, it could be that Catholic philosophy was made for such a moment as this. At its best, it is both precise and flexible, well-defined and expansive, practical and transcendent. It drinks in new information, digests it and adapts the larger picture to reflect the truth more accurately. Because it is rooted both in logic and in natural observation, it can engage interlocutors from a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives. The Scholastics sought to rise above provincial attachments and articulate truths that were common to all human beings. That project seems as relevant now as at any time in history.
At the primary and secondary levels, a number of Catholic schools have been revitalized through the introduction of classical curricula. The rapidly growing classical schooling movement channels the spirit of the medieval synthesizers in myriad ways. It connects students to a longstanding intellectual tradition and seeks universal truths that are the common heritage of all humanity. It prioritizes breadth over specialized knowledge and robustly affirms the power of reason. The growing demand for classical schools speaks to a widely felt need for sources of wisdom that can cut across the political polarization, mutual mistrust and social fragmentation that are so defining of our age. In an anxious world, it offers a beacon of hope. Perhaps we can, after all, find ways to reason together.
Might philosophy departments offer a similar service at the university level? Imagine if Catholic universities were once again seen as a light to the nations, replete with wisdom and prepared to help synthesize the many diverse truths that humans have uncovered across the centuries. We have many resources for this, even beyond the rich tradition of Scholastic thought. We have the contemporary tradition of Christian personalism, explored by thinkers like Dietrich von Hildebrand and St. John Paul II. We have Catholic social teaching, which deliberately applies insights from antiquity to more modern social problems. We have the neo-Thomist tradition, initiated in 1879 when Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical “Aeterni Patris,”calling on Catholics to recover the great insights of medieval thinkers. These are just a few of many resources that Catholics can use, proving once again that the surest path to truth is not the one that shuns or buries unfamiliar perspectives but rather the one that synthesizes insights from a wide range of sources.
Of course, different people will be inclined to apply the insights of Catholic tradition to different questions, with some focusing on social issues, others on everyday spirituality and still others on questions in geopolitics, the environmental sciences or bioethics. But all of these questions can be approached with greater zeal and confidence when we understand ourselves to be part of a larger effort that transcends the limitations of our own place and time.
In the depths of his despair, Boethius was comforted by Lady Philosophy and her balm of truth. This was a consolation that no earthly tyrant could take from him, and it is still available to us today. Our Lord offered a similar promise. Though the nations may rage, and the violent plunder, the truth will finally set us free.