By Dr. Ronald P. McArthur
founding president of Thomas Aquinas College


Dr. Ronald P. McArthur
Dr. Ronald P. McArthur

Why is it, we ask ourselves, that the tremendous proliferation of colleges and universities in our country has not led us to any essential improvement in the quality and use of our intelligence? We may have heard many lectures (even by eminent people), written or marked examinations in various courses, and occasionally spoken to a professor, but we cannot fool ourselves that we have become, as a consequence, wise or even inquisitive.

The sense of wonder, indispensible to the intellectual life, seems to have been replaced by a hardened unwillingness to discuss seriously the fundamental problems that schooling should help us formulate. Partisanship, which destroys the mind, has become in some cases the very focal point through which we define ourselves as students and teachers, while we avoid and belittle those who pursue the life of learning, who consider the issues that arise for thinking men. At the same time that we believe in education as the means to all our secular dreams, we yet discourage in our schools the considering of those questions of which the citizens in a democracy are supposed to be judges. While we extol the freedom and dignity of the individual person, we yet attempt to train him according to the latest thinking in the various disciplines. One would think that universities, which according to their catalogues exist to promote (among other things) a life of wisdom, would be models for the study and confrontation of fundamental positions, for the sober consideration of divergent views. But by all counts they give the contrary impression that all serious thinking about the important things has been abandoned for a series of specialties whose principles and conclusions are beyond questioning; the illusion is given that certain questions are nobody’s concern, and that the only task left us is to multiply the fruits of science and change our lives.

A closer look shows that the university is in some sense alienated from the mainstream of ordinary experience, and that its different departments are composed not so much of thinkers as of technicians who are unable, except with small talk, even to speak with those who are teaching other disciplines, while their members are nevertheless proclaiming universal views about democracy, or civil rights, or world peace.

Consider, fancifully if you wish, the story of the Tower of Babel, where we are told that men were united with one language, which was right and good, and that things were at least tolerable that way. But not content with accepting a good of which they were not the author, they attempted to establish their unity with the work of their hands. For this attempt to unite themselves on their own terms the Lord, confusing them in their use of language, made it impossible for them to live together. The story seems to say that this catastrophe would not have happened had they, instead of asserting themselves, accepted what they had been given; their proud attempt “to make a name for themselves” led to their downfall, and they scattered. Likewise, the attempt to establish and maintain the unity of a university by buildings alone is doomed to failure, for though we may meet in the same place we can still be at odds, for we may be unable to talk to each other, to teach and learn from one another. We may, though our feats be prodigious, be enemies, and rather than seeking the truth, which unites all who love it, we may be the cause of faction, its enemy. Perhaps in light of this, it is not so fanciful to call the university the Ivory Tower, for there are contained in it all the diversities of the technical languages which divide us, and finally disperse its. But why?

We have all sensed, many times with envy, the peculiar freedom of the artist, who puts reality as he finds it to one side in order, by his art, to fashion his own world. Things are, in other words, what the artist wants them to be, and we are given, in his work, enough to see them as he does. It is no criticism to say that his work does not reproduce things as they are, for he has fashioned them for his own purposes, and we shall judge him by how well his elements function within their own context. So much is this so that we can call a work of art true if it is the embodiment of the artist’s idea and fulfills his conception of it. He does not have to know things as they are, but only how to use them for his own purposes. The world we inhabit with him is, as a consequence, more satisfying than the world of our ordinary experience, for there are no great gaps between it and our understanding of it: things are there for us to see in relative simplicity.

But should artistic making, and our own contemplation of it, define the intellectual life? Should we pre empt a consideration of things as they are and hence become oblivious to the philosophic vocation? It used not to be thought so, for the philosopher was thought to pursue another and more arduous path than the artist. But since the Cartesian revolution their paths have crossed and finally fused, so that we now see ourselves as artists in all our endeavors, which leads us to think that time intellectual life consists in the construction of our own worlds and the working out of their details in the light of our conceptions of them.

“Let,” says Descartes, “your thought pass for a little while beyond this world, that you may behold another wholly new one which I shall cause to rise to view in imaginary spaces.”1 In exchange for the world we experience, for the world we see and touch, we will shape our own, made up of matter in infinite spaces; and since we take the liberty to fashion this matter according to our fancy, we will attribute to it, if you please, a nature in which there is nothing at all that anyone cannot know as perfectly as possible …”2 We will have here an object we will be able to comprehend, for since we are its maker there will be no gap between it and what we know of it; all the confusions and obscurities of previous philosophers will dissolve as we excogitate our own world and understand it in so doing. And we can be sure, says Descartes, “that it contains nothing which is not so perfectly known to you that you cannot even pretend to be ignorant of it; for as to the qualities I have assigned to it, if you have attended, you have noticed that I have supposed only such as you could conceive.”3 For, he says, ““my purpose is not to explain, like (other philosophers), things which really exist in the actual world; but simply to fancy one at pleasure, in which there should be nothing which the fullest minds are not capable of conceiving, and which might not, nevertheless, be created just as I have imagined it.”4

The desire here is to be at the root of things, to be at the point which will permit us to understand completely and thereby escape our human condition, where we know only partially and obscurely when we know at all. Instead of knowing the principles of things by analyzing effects into their causes, we would, instead, see all things proceeding as effects from their causes, and finally from one first cause. As Descartes says, those who have grasped the consequences of his universe and of its laws “… will be able to know effects by their causes, and, to express myself in the language of the school, may have a priori demonstrations of all that come to pass in this new world.”5

Such a procedure defines and limits the questions we can ask, for should we have any difficulties or find any obscurities which are not explained within the limits of the original construction, they are either ridiculed or dismissed with an easy contempt. If, for example, someone were to ask about the Aristotelian view which says that matter is not the same as extension, he would be told by Descartes that “since philosophers are so acute that they know how to find difficulties in things which seem absolutely clear to other men, and the recollection of their primary matter — which they know to be very hard to conceive of — might prevent then from understanding that of which I am speaking, I must tell them just here that, if I am not mistaken, the whole difficulty which they experienced in regard to it arises from their desire to distinguish it from its quantity and extension, that is to say, from its property of occupying space; wherein indeed, I am quite willing that they should think themselves to be right, for I do not mean to stop and refute them; but on their part they ought not to find it strange if I suppose that the quantity of matter which I have described does not differ from its substance any more than any number does from things numbered, and if I conceive its extension — or its property of occupying space — not at all as an accident, but as its true form and its essence; for they cannot deny that it is very easy to conceive it in this way.”6 There is, in short, no possibility of questioning principles, for they have been constructed as they are to be, and therefore invite us either to accept them or reject them willfully, thereby eliminating those very disputes which had heretofore engaged philosophers; the sense of wonder, and all the difficulties it leads us to, is replaced by an artistic mastery over the intelligible world, a world we have first made.

There was a conversation once, in which one of the interlocutors stated that we were wrong to assume that nature (whatever it is) knew what it was doing in bringing about the human body, and that in fact many doctors insisted that its plumbing system was vastly overcomplicated; the other man answered that such doctors might be interesting to talk to, but that he would not want one of them to operate on him. And the point is well taken, for it does seem presumptuous to think that we have so understood our own body that we are sure we can improve upon it; even in order to know whether it can be improved upon we would have to comprehend it in its principles, and see it as resulting from them — a goal which is only partially obtainable, for we begin with it, and it always seems to elude our best efforts to finally understand it. One remedy, of course, would be to make up our own ideal human body with its own principles and elements, and then to substitute it for the real body … without of course telling our patients. But the more humble solution is to take our cue from it, and help it in the healing process, even though it remains somewhat mysterious to us in the process.

Now the same caution which should apply to medicine applies also in other disciplines, where we can know something about reality, though it is always more than we know of it. Hence classical philosophers held that there is a universal science, Metaphysics, which is a human wisdom. They held that we can, after long and arduous study, know Being and its attributes, and finally its causes even to the knowledge of God himself. They held further that the human mind, if it possessed this knowledge, could in some small way, by inverting within itself the order through which it learned in the first place, could see things in the light of the Divine Intelligence. And even though such a knowledge is more than human, it is, according to Aristotle, important for man to seek it, for by acquiring it we “put on immortality” as much as we are able. The effort of the intelligence, in this view, is directed to something outside itself, to something which measures it, and the task of the thinker is to understand the world as it is, and to see it in its causes — never to construct another world he can understand better.

But now, thanks to the Cartesian intelligence, reality has been reduced immediately to matter in motion, and to matter considered as extension, so that if we had a universal science it will be one which will explain this fabricated world — not by acquiring knowledge of its attributes and causes (for they are already given by our construction) but by a universal method through which we can manipulate the symbols of the world so constructed.

This universal science, with Descartes and Vieta, is algebra, the general analytical art which enables us to think within our projected world, while Leibniz looked for a philosophical calculus, a new general science which would enable us to explicate all attainable truth. “If there were available,” he says, “either some exact language (which some call Adamic) or at least a kind of truly philosophical writing by means of which notions were to be reduced to an alphabet of human thought, everything deducible by reason from given premises could be found through a kind of computation, in the same way in which arithmetical or geometrical problems find their solutions.”7 This is based on his notion that all possible predicates are determined by their subject, and that by looking at it as defined one could see everything that could be true of it. Such a view contains the germ of symbolic logic, that purportedly universal discipline which will attempt to subsume all discourse under its control. With Newton there is a universal mechanics which will finally explain all natural things, while Hobbes will explain political matters as if everything were reducible to matter in motion, and as if mathematics were the paradigm for the understanding of everything.

There is, in these thinkers and their followers, a kind of arbitrariness in their principles, as if their starting points were chosen — starting points which are clear and simple, and through which they can synthesize their results. Such a procedure is most beguiling, for it imitates the freedom of the artist by removing the seemingly endless difficulties we have in trying to obtain knowledge of the world, and it gives us results which are so often tangible (remember that it is these views that have been at the root of the major scientific revolutions and the overwhelming transformations they have effected, as well as of the dreams and nightmares that have plagued so many reformers and social engineers). But such successes are not the guarantee of the truth, and so permit me to contrast again this view with the ancient doctrine I referred to before.

When Socrates asked what temperance is, what knowledge is, what courage is, he was asking questions we no longer think it worthwhile to ask or to answer if we could, for he was implying that we already know, in some sense, what we are talking about when we ask the questions themselves. He was assuming that we can identify and distinguish, through ordinary language, the objects he was speaking about, and that we know them with more certitude by common experience than we will ever know them in any other way. If, for example, we did not in some sense know temperance, how could we identify it when we finally ask what it is, and the same for knowledge and justice? We would never ask questions at all unless we know in some way the objects about which we are speaking; and yet we do naturally ask such questions and attempt to understand such objects, for ordinary experience puts us in contact with a given world and we have no alternative but to attempt to deal with it. Socrates, by recognizing this, sought to pursue such questions carefully by considering the views of his predecessors and his friends who have also confronted the same world. In this way he was joined in conversation with them and a common life of the intelligence became possible; rather than cutting himself off from reality by the setting down of postulates and the conclusions which follow them, he was open to a common investigation of all positions and to the correction and help of others in the understanding of objects which were not cut to his tastes.

We should, in my view, follow Socrates, and not be timid in upholding the claims of ordinary experience, for “science,” says Whitehead, “is rooted in what I have called the whole apparatus of commonsense thought. That is the datum from which it starts, and to which it must recur. We may speculate if it amuses its, on other beings on other planets who have analogous experiences according to an entirely different conceptual code — namely, who have directed their chief attention to different relations between their various experiences. But the task is too complex, too gigantic to be revised in its main outlines. You may polish up common sense, you may contradict in detail, you may surprise it. But ultimately your whole task is to satisfy it.8 He is right, for if we do not satisfy ordinary experience words, and the things they are supposed to signify, become very abstract and removed from us, and so we end up erecting systems and retreating (for that is what it is) into technical vocabularies, looking with condescension upon the untutored mind which looks with some confidence upon daily language and the world it reveals. But the ordinary intelligence would be right to resist us, for it is always to the commonplace, most known to us, that we must return if our discourse is to have any meaning; for this reason many of our best thinkers, such as Whitehead, have resisted the tendency to leave aside the world as it first appears to us.

When we fail to respect and follow the natural order of learning, we can never verify our views, or, more importantly, find that we may be wrong. Should we wish to maintain our positions we can only will them to be so, and sneer at those who disagree with us. This is to go beyond reason, to become the measure of a reality we have cut down and pared to comply with our desires. There is nothing beyond what we know to give us pause — or at least nothing that cannot be ground into our systems and our only answers will be to admissible questions within the system itself. There is no reality which is essentially more than we know of it, and the gulf between our disciplines and our lives becomes greater and greater until finally there is no connection at all.

Do we not, many of us, say that science is the only knowledge, and that we should, by technology, transform the world according to our own desires? And do we not, many of us, call non scientific studies humanities, a word which stands for all those studies we consider non cognitive as well as aimless? Has there not been, as a result, a radical separation of the exact scientific world front the more usual world in which we live? And have we not been ready to relinquish the claims of the ordinary world whenever scientific necessity compels us? Have we not reduced the world of values to a kaleidoscope of preferences which are rationally unassailable at the same time that they are non compelling? Have we not said that all opinions, except in science, are somehow equal and that all views are equally tenable or non tenable as we see fit? Is this not, in fact, a Tower of Babel from whose consequences there seems no remedy?

Our only hope lies in reflecting on our starting points by asking ourselves the essential questions about the suppositions of our disciplines, which means confronting the greatest thinkers, not as historical personages who express the view of a given culture, but as writers who think beyond any time and place. We must read their works as they wrote them and consider their positions as they thought them, and never partake in the easy historical judgments which seek to interpret the writer from our allegedly superior vantage point, the 20th century. The authors, in other words, must be thought of as contemporaries, and we must confront their works in an attempt to understand their non historical content, and to consider the positions we find expressed there. Only in this way will the philosophical life be restored, and only in this way can we escape the tyranny of our starting points which, even when they are true, must not be accepted without constant reflection. Unless we are willing to undergo such efforts, we cannot even understand our own words and our own thoughts, nor can we be responsible teachers and students. A serious dialogue must go on constantly between teacher and students, all of whom are committed to the exploration and explanation of reality in all its facets, who are not specialists meeting at specific times in a given room. We must uncover the original meaning of “school” which is leisure, leisure concerned with learning.

But this means that there are purposes beyond our immediate and imperious desires, and that education should explore the life which leads to genuine wisdom. Perhaps some of us would then be measured by the things we then come to understand, submit to them as they are and thereby restore something of what was lost when we built the tower, when we attempted to dominate the reality we should have been content with.

Let me close with the words of Christ and St. Thomas’ commentary on them. Our Lord, in speaking to incredulous Jews, told them that their father was the Devil, and that “He was a murderer from the beginning and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”9 St. Thomas, in commenting on this passage, stops for a moment with the sentence “When he lies he speaks according to his own nature …” and says that the same thing is true of man. For all knowledge of reality, he says, comes to us either from things themselves by way of discovery, from the discipline of a master or from God by way of revelation. In none of these ways, he goes on to say, does truth come from man himself, and whoever, if he be not God, speaks from himself, lies, for his intelligence which should be essentially passive, has fabricated a world of its own.

We have, in my opinion, been lying a long time now, and the steps on the way to the truth are difficult indeed, but our proper glory, if we can be said to have one, is to pursue, with the best that is in its, the path to even that minimal wisdom which can be our lot.



1. Eaton, Ralph M., Descartes Selection, “The World,” Chapter V, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1955. (All subsequent references 2 through 6 will be from this chapter of this treatise.)

7. Wiener, Philip P., Leibniz Selections, “On The Universal Science or Philosophical Calculus,” Cf. also, Preface to The General Science, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1951.

8. Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education, (New American Library; New York 952 p.l10.)

9. The Gospel of Saint John, Chapter VIII V. 44.>