By Dr. Michael Augros
Thomas Aquinas College, New England
January 14, 2021


Πάντες ἄνθρωποι τοῦ εἰδέναι ὀρέγονται φύσει.


It was already October when Dr. Goyette invited me to give this lecture, and specified that it should be on philosophy. So I had to come up with a topic that I could compose a lecture on rather quickly, during the first part of Christmas break, so I’d be ready to deliver it tonight. This year I am teaching senior philosophy, in which we are about to begin Aristotle’s Metaphysics, so my thoughts naturally turned in that direction. But I wanted to talk about something accessible and helpful to all students here, not just seniors. That made me think back to my own first encounter with Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and then I knew what I should talk about.


Dr. Michael Augros
Dr. Michael Augros

For true philosophers, philosophizing begins almost together with life itself. And in some ways, that’s what Aristotle is saying in the opening line of his Metaphysics, my topic for tonight. Still, most philosophers can single out a moment in their lives when they decided to give themselves over to the pursuit of wisdom, when some encounter with a book or person changed them forever. For Augustine, that moment came when he read Cicero’s Hortensius.[1] For me, the moment came when I first opened Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

I was eighteen years old, a senior in high school. I had for some time been arguing with classmates about abortion, and arguing with my physics teacher about how the universe began, and arguing with my English teachers about the Bible (it was a public high school). I found I didn’t always know what to say when people said things contrary to my faith, so I turned to my father for help. All my life he had been teaching something called philosophy, and I had never before really wondered what that was. To my young self, it had always sounded boring. But now I began to think it might be interesting after all, if it could help me argue my friends and teachers into submission. So that was one beginning in philosophy for me, a legitimate interest in moral and political questions, coupled with an immature person’s interest in learning techniques of dialectical jujitsu.

But I had not yet taken a real interest in theoretical philosophy, philosophy apart from arguments with others and apart from practical questions. That came not long after. For one reason or another, I had one day brought to school my father’s copy of The Basic Works of Aristotle. I was sitting by myself in the Merrimack Public High School library. I scanned the table of contents, and found the Latin titles there fascinating and strange. My father had mentioned metaphysics to me, and had warned me that it was the last thing in the world I should be thinking about, since I was so young, which of course was the surest way of getting me to think about it first. So I turned to p.689, where this mysterious, half-forbidden book called Metaphysica began, and there laid my eyes on the first words I ever read by a philosopher: “All men by nature desire to know.”

Well, that worked on me like a spell. At once I was convinced it was true and important, and that knowing (and helping others to know) was exactly what I wanted to do with my life. So I kept reading, and oh, all that business about first causes in Book 2 was right up my alley. And then I hit Book 3 and it was like slamming into a brick wall. “So this is why the book is forbidden,” I thought. Anyway, I was not discouraged, only newly interested in all that other stuff, like logic, that my father had said I would have to study first if I were ever going to be serious about philosophy.

Now what I want to talk about tonight is just that spell-binding line. And although here at TAC we intend no more than to help you make a good beginning in philosophy, while Aristotle’s Metaphysics belongs to the end of it, it is not at all out of order for us to read and discuss it with you. After all, our school hopes to give you a good beginning in all of philosophy, including the final part of it. And the opening chapters of Aristotle’s Metaphysics are even, if I may say so, freshman-appropriate. Those first two chapters introduce us not only to the last part of theoretical philosophy, but also invite us into the whole of theoretical philosophy. And if spending a little time together looking at that opening line, and learning what truth and wisdom it contains, can help plant the seed of wisdom in any soul sitting here tonight, then I think our time together will have been well spent.

So much for my topic and why I chose it. So, what am I going to say about it? Here is my thesis, what I want to help you see: that the opening line of Aristotle’s metaphysics, that “all men by nature desire to know,” is by nature the first statement of wisdom. Obviously, it is the first statement in Aristotle’s book on wisdom, so it is first by his choice. It is also, very probably, first in time; the first statement in history made by someone possessing and teaching philosophical wisdom as a science. But I say that the statement is first also in another way. It is first not only by someone’s choice, or in historical order, but it is also by nature the very first thing to realize or to say in discovering or teaching wisdom.

To make my case, I will first try to explain the meaning of Aristotle’s opening line, then the truth of it, then the wisdom of beginning with it.

1. The Meaning of “All Men by Nature Desire to Know”

So first, the meaning of that opening line. Let’s start with the most offensive word in it: men. On most college campuses, I would be vilified for saying “men” rather than “human beings.” Here, however, I might be scorned for saying Christ came “for us human beings and our salvation.” So I will say “men.” And yet Aristotle’s word is ἄνθρωποι, meaning “men” not as opposed to women and children, but only as opposed to beasts and gods. That he means “men” in the sense of “human beings” is also borne out by the evidence he offers for his statement, namely the fact that all ἄνθρωποι prize the sense of sight and wish to see. Not only macho men, but also women and children, prize their eyesight. Aristotle is speaking not about males in particular, but about mankind in general.

That helps with the word all, too. When Aristotle says “all men” desire to know, he means all human beings — men and women, children and adults, freemen and slaves, Greeks, and yes, even barbarians (as the Greeks would have called us). All human beings, without exception, possess this desire to know that Aristotle is talking about. That fits with his saying their desire to know is “by nature.” The desire he is talking about does not come from masculinity, or virility, or race, or education, or maturity, but from nature, that is, from human nature. Hence all who have that nature must have this property, regardless of their sex, age, education, and the like.

Now, when Aristotle says we all desire to know,[2] does he mean knowing with the senses, or with reason? Probably both, but he is especially interested in showing that we all desire to know with reason. He mentions sense knowledge immediately after, not so much as an example of what he is talking about, but more as a sign or indication of it, which implies he is not chiefly interested in sense knowledge. He is saying, then, that all men desire intellectual knowledge, understanding.

More, he specifies that we desire to know by nature. What does it mean to desire something by nature? One thing that can mean is that the desirer automatically experiences desire for some object immediately upon being aware of it, without the need to deliberate about it first.[3] Many goods are not like that. A risky and painful surgery might in fact be good for you, but you don’t find yourself desiring it simply by hearing the procedure described. You must be moved to desire it through weighing your options and becoming convinced that you cannot, say, regain your eyesight without it. Desire for surgery is not a natural desire, but can be a rational desire, issuing from a process of deliberation. If you have eyesight, on the other hand, your desire to keep it and use it is only natural, not the outcome of some process of deliberation. Together with your experience of eyesight, you automatically want to keep it and use it.[4]

So that is one thing “natural desire” can mean: a felt desire for something appropriate to our nature, arising without deliberation. Another thing “natural desire” can refer to is a natural inclination to move toward some good, without any awareness of that good and even without any felt inclination.[5] In English, we might call that a tendency more than a desire. A horse embryo, for instance, naturally tends to grow horse-appropriate equipment, such as eyes and legs. The embryo does not wish for those things, or experience any felt desire for them, but it has a strong inclination to grow them. That is strange and wonderful; the embryo in some sense “wants” eyes, legs, and other such things, but does not know that it wants them and does not know how to get them; it is inclined to produce them unconsciously, naturally.

A third thing “natural desire” can refer to is something stranger still. It can mean something that is not only not deliberate, not only not felt or experienced, but something that is not even an actuality or active disposition to do anything or move toward anything, but is only a potential to receive something and be fulfilled by it.[6] It is in this sense that Aristotle says matter desires and yearns for form or species.[7] We might similarly say that a plant “wants water,” even when it is not inclined to do anything to get water, but simply has a natural need for it.

Now, in which of these three ways does Aristotle mean that we possess a “natural desire” to know? All three. First, he means that our minds are by their very nature capable of knowledge and of being perfected by it, so that, even aside from anything our minds do, they have a natural need for knowledge, as a plant has for water. Second, he means that human nature actively strives for knowledge, takes necessary and well-ordered steps toward it, even before we can consciously experience any desire for knowledge — this is clear, for example, in the natural and entirely unconscious development of the human brain, uniquely suited to serve the needs of the human intellect. And finally, he also means that we experience a felt, automatic desire to know certain things as soon as we become aware that we do not know them, prior to any deliberation on our part about whether those things are worth knowing — the name for which natural desire is wonder.[8]

Putting these observations together, we can sum up the sense of Aristotle’s opening line by saying that “Every human being, without exception, by nature is perfectible by knowing certain things, by nature makes movements toward knowing them, by nature experiences a felt desire and wish to know them.” And his argument in support of this assertion, beginning from the fact that we all desire to see, clarifies two further points. First, although he might mean “know” quite generally, Aristotle is primarily interested in our knowing with the mind, not with the senses; that is why he argues not to our natural desire to sense, but from it. Second, although human beings and human nature desire knowledge for its usefulness as well as for itself, his special point is that we naturally desire knowing for its own sake, and not just for its usefulness. That is also made clear by the way he supports his point, since we desire to see not just for its usefulness, but also for itself.

2. The Truth of “All Men by Nature Desire to Know”

So much for the meaning of Aristotle’s opening line. Now let’s look into its truth. High-sounding as it is, the statement is not obviously and unobjectionably true. Suppose you conducted a street-survey in Los Angeles, and asked passers-by to fill in the blank: “All human beings by nature desire [blank].” I have never tried it myself, but my guess is that very few people would propose to fill in the blank with “knowledge.” More likely they would answer “love,” or else “friends” or “food” or “clean air,” or something of the sort. And if you told them that one correct answer was “knowledge,” they might think you were crazy. Certain obstacles can prevent us from seeing the truth of Aristotle’s statement, and we should note these and remove them before looking at the evidence he offers for it.

One way to object to his statement is as follows. What is natural arises from nature, hence is common to all those having the nature. So if the desire to know were natural to man, then all human beings would desire and seek knowledge. But most don’t. Students frequently hate school, and do not wish to learn. Even my students can hardly restrain their joy when they hear I’m too sick to come to class. Euclid’s students did not seem to relish his class much, either. According to a story from Stobaeus and reported by Sir Thomas L. Heath, “someone who had begun to read geometry with Euclid, when he had learnt the first theorem, asked Euclid, ‘But what shall I get by learning these things?’ Euclid called his slave and said ‘Give him threepence, since he must make gain out of what he learns.’”[9] Plato himself thought that most people did not desire to know; his parable of the Cave insinuates that most people would rather kill a wise man than learn from him.

Another way to object to Aristotle’s opening line is this. What is natural tends to one determinate end result. Heavy things, for example, naturally go in just one direction — down, not up. So if the desire to know were natural to man, there would be one determinate knowledge that all human beings wanted. And yet that is untrue, since everyone has different interests, based on their different temperaments, upbringings, trainings, talents, and other such individual differences. Therefore, it is not by their human nature (a common cause), but by their individual differences, that all desire to know.

Now a third objection. What is natural to any species is what is caused just by the very nature or substance of that species. But substance does not vary in degree. So if the desire to know were caused by human nature, that desire would be equal in all. That, however, is plainly false, since some desire knowledge more than others do. Otherwise, there would be no reason to call certain particular individuals philosophers, or “lovers of wisdom,” since all would love wisdom equally.

A fourth way to object to Aristotle’s opening line applies his own rule that a natural desire must be for some good that is attained always and without fail, or at least in most cases, as the natural human desire for arms and legs is in most cases fulfilled by the natural development of arms and legs that are healthy and whole. So if the desire for knowledge were natural to human beings, then most people would attain knowledge, and especially wisdom, the knowledge that is most desirable. But few people acquire any sort of science, fewer still obtain the sort of philosophical wisdom Aristotle is thinking of, and before him, no one had yet acquired it, or not as a science. Therefore, the desire to know cannot be natural.

All four objections can be resolved. The first objection, noting that a natural desire should be common to all and yet few people desire to know, confuses knowing with coming to know. Coming to know involves painful and often unrewarded effort. It involves exposure of one’s ignorance, and of one’s misconceptions, prejudices, and intellectual shortcomings, as well as truckloads of time spent with uncool teachers, and other unpleasant things. Certainly there is such a thing as pleasure in learning and discovering, but there is also a great deal of pain, effort, and personal cost involved in it. We must put up with such things for the sake of arriving at knowledge; they are not themselves knowledge. To infer, from people’s unwillingness to go to the trouble of acquiring knowledge, that they simply do not want it, is like inferring, from their unwillingness to diet, exercise, and see a doctor, that most people do not want to be fit and healthy. People do want knowledge; only they don’t want to suffer the pains, put forth the effort, and make the sacrifices required to get it. Not many people are willing to take the time to learn ten foreign languages, but who would not want to know those languages if perfect knowledge of them could be had immediately, without effort or cost?

The same is true of sense knowledge. Though traveling certainly can bring many pleasures, it also involves trouble, cost, risk, and other undesirable things. Many sights we would dearly love to see we are therefore unwilling to go to the trouble of traveling to see. The eighteenth-century English literary figure Samuel Johnson, whose life was recorded in great detail by his close friend James Boswell, drew that very distinction. Here is a passage from Boswell’s Life of Johnson, recording a conversation between Johnson and himself:

He [Johnson], I know not why, showed upon all occasions an aversion to go to Ireland, where I proposed to him that we should make a tour. JOHNSON. ‘It is the last place where I should wish to travel.’ BOSWELL. ‘Should you not like to see Dublin, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir; Dublin is only a worse capital.’ BOSWELL. ‘Is not the Giant’s-Causeway worth seeing?’ JOHNSON. ‘Worth seeing? yes; but not worth going to see.’[10]

In the light of this distinction, the first objection evaporates. True, most people do not desire to put forth the effort and make the sacrifices required in order to obtain knowledge. That does not prove they care nothing for knowledge. It proves only that they do not desire it strongly enough to overcome the difficulty of getting it. As the natural desire to see does not make world travelers of us all, and instead one becomes a traveler only by choice, so too the natural desire to know does not make philosophers of us all, but one becomes one only by choice.

The second objection said that if man’s desire to know were based on human nature, which is the same in us all, then all of us would desire one and the same knowledge, whereas in fact some pursue one sort of knowledge, others another, as dictated by personal differences. This reasoning overlooks the fact that the many and diverse forms of human knowledge are parts of one natural whole, and are steps in one natural order. So we do in fact by nature desire one and the same knowledge, namely the whole, ordered complement of human arts and sciences, much as human nature, being one, brings forth many diverse sense powers precisely because only together do they constitute one whole and complete power of sense.

Nor do we have to say that anyone stopping on one of the naturally earlier forms of human knowledge, dedicating themselves, say, to mathematics and not going on to the higher sciences, is simply in a state of arrested development. Unlike the development of our bodies, in which every new stage must replace the previous one, the later forms of knowledge in the developments of our minds do not replace or cast out the earlier forms. This implies that the earlier form has a goodness in itself, is meant to be an abiding part of our complete perfection, and is not just an imperfect stage in a process toward a more perfect final stage.

Also, just as it would be bad and unnatural for all the parts of the body to have all the same sense powers, so too would it be bad and unnatural for all the parts of a human community to have precisely the same desires and capacities for all the forms of knowledge. Then indeed all of us would desire and wish to pursue the greatest knowledge the most. We would all want to be philosophers, an obvious consequence of which would be that we would all starve to death. None of us would want to be farmers, doctors, carpenters, or plumbers — which would bring the further consequence that we would all be deprived of the basic necessities in life, and none of us could be philosophers. Wisdom is a greater form of knowledge, and a greater human perfection, than the art of music is; but if for that reason every potential Mozart chose to pursue philosophy over music, there would be no music for the human race, which is itself a more or less necessary conduit to philosophy. The fact that different people are unequally drawn to the different forms of knowledge, then, is not contrary to the naturalness of the order in those forms, but is placed in its service. Even so are the different senses in the human soul experts in knowing different things, in order that the whole soul can know all things, and the best part of the soul can know the best things of all.

This goes a long way to answering the third objection as well. That objection, recall, reasoned that human nature does not vary in degree, and so if it were the cause of our desire to know, that desire would be equal in all of us, hence the desire to acquire any particular form of knowledge, such as philosophy, would be the same in all of us, which of course it isn’t.

But does this prove human nature isn’t responsible for our desire to know? No. It proves only that human nature isn’t solely responsible for it. One might as well argue that human nature isn’t responsible for human eyesight, since eyesight isn’t found equally in all of us. The inequality of eyesight in different individuals proves only that in addition to human nature — a visual nature found equally in all of us — there are also other causes of eyesight, such as the individual materials and conditions in which our visual nature exists, which things can be better or worse disposed to support human vision. Likewise, the inequality of the desire to know comes from differences in the materials and circumstances in which human nature brings forth that desire in different individuals. Philosophers are those in whom the natural desire to know is strongest, because their brains, temperaments, and circumstances are most in tune with that goal of nature. And even philosophers don’t desire to pursue knowledge when their particular circumstances make something else more necessary or desirable. Moreover, this inequality of ability and desire, arising from individual differences, is itself conducive to nature’s goal of getting the human race to acquire and advance all forms of knowledge, even if that means that some, such as Mozart, will be so gifted that they really should stop and focus on a single form other than the best form, for the sake of the common good. Inequality in the desire to know, then, far from being proof that we do not naturally desire to know, is one of human nature’s means of ensuring that all forms of knowledge will be advanced as far as possible, and that those pursuing the best and final form will be prepared for, and provided for, by the knowledge that others have acquired.

That leaves the fourth and final objection, the one insisting that natural desires must be fulfilled in most cases, not rarely or never, whereas most human beings do not arrive at much knowledge, and few arrive at its greatest and most desirable forms. But what does “in most cases” mean? Must it always mean “in all or most individuals of the species”? Or can it also mean “in all or most races of the species”? Does the nature of a bee naturally tend to produce queens? Yes, but it hardly follows that most individual bees are or should be queens. What does follow is that in all or most colonies there is a queen. So too with the human race. If the human race as a whole arrives at all the forms of knowledge, and especially the greatest form or forms, then that is a success for human nature, even if most individuals do not arrive at much knowledge. Aristotle thought[11] there had probably been an infinity of successive do-overs of the human race; after a natural disaster, a famine, a plague, a war, the Thomas Fire, or some such cause had come along and reduced humanity to primitive conditions, destroying the arts and sciences, the human race had to dust itself off and begin again. And every time, an infinity of times, it did begin again and successfully reached the goal once more of possessing all the arts and sciences.

Well, if such objections do not disprove Aristotle’s claim that all men by nature desire to know, how does he himself prove it? By means of a sign. Here is what he says:

All men by nature desire to know. A sign is the love of the senses. For even apart from their usefulness, they are loved for themselves; and above all the others, that by means of the eyes. For not only in order to do something, but even when we are not aiming to do anything, we choose seeing (one might say) before all the others. The cause is that, of the senses, this one makes us know[12] and shows many differences.

What a curious way to argue! How does the natural desire for the sense of sight indicate a natural desire for intellectual knowledge? Aristotle presumes we see three things: (1) That if an inferior form of sight is naturally desired for itself, then a superior one must be, also; (2) That intellectual knowledge is, as it were, a superior form of sight; (3) That eyesight is naturally desired for itself. From these things, it follows that intellectual knowledge is naturally desired for itself.

And those three things are rather evident. First, if an inferior form of sight is naturally desired for itself, then a superior form of sight must be as well. If health is desirable for itself because it is a perfection of something that is you, namely your body, then a fortiori is moral virtue desirable for itself, since it is an even greater perfection of something that is even more you, namely your soul. Likewise, if an inferior form of sight is naturally desired for itself, then all the more is a superior form of sight naturally desired for itself.

The second thing Aristotle assumes we see is that intellectual knowledge is like a form of sight, and is superior to eyesight. It is like sight, or sight is like it, insofar as each enables us to know many differences of things and in some way knows all things. Of our senses, sight is both the keenest, bringing to light the tiniest differences of things most sharply, and also the most universal and far-reaching, so that by sight alone do we have a sense of the cosmos.[13] Similarly, by the intellect, we can grasp what is common to all things of a kind, perhaps even what is common to all things absolutely, and we can contemplate the whole world at once, and perceive also the tiniest, subtlest differences of things.

 Attending to such similarities between sight and understanding, we naturally move the word see to the act of the mind. By a definition our mind sees what a thing is, and by an argument it sees the truth of a conclusion. And of these two ways of seeing, one with the mind and the other with the eyes, that of the mind is superior, a sure sign of which is that all of us would choose to lose our sight rather than our mind if we were forced to choose between them. Greek tragedies sometimes touch on the similarity of eyesight and insight, and on the superiority of the latter, as we see in the characters of Tiresias and Oedipus.

The third thing at work in Aristotle’s argument is that the sense of sight is naturally desired for itself, apart from any practical purpose it might serve. That is easy enough to see. If someone could restore your lost health to you without surgery or bitter medicines with nasty side-effects, you would gladly skip the surgery and medicines, since you do not desire those things except insofar as they are useful for restoring your health. But if someone could guarantee that all practical purposes to which you could put your eyesight would be met for you — food would be brought to you, the dishes and the laundry would be done for you, and so on — you would not then lose interest in your eyesight, or willingly give it up. That shows that you desire it for itself, simply as a way of knowing the world, of taking it in. If Oedipus willingly destroyed his own eyesight, that does not prove he did not naturally love it, but only that he loved other things more, the loss of which he could not bear to let his eyesight bring home to him so powerfully.

Thus does Aristotle argue from our natural desire for eyesight to our natural desire for understanding. He draws our attention to eyesight in particular both because it is most evidently prized by us, and because its knowledge is most like the knowledge to which he intends to introduce us, namely wisdom. Of all the sciences, wisdom knows the most things, the best things, and knows them with the greatest distinctness and certainty. Of all the senses, sight knows the most things, the best things, and knows them with the greatest distinctness and certainty.[14]

After his opening line and his argument for it, in the rest of Chapter 1 of his Metaphysics, Aristotle delineates the natural order in the different forms of human knowledge, showing that there is a natural progression from one form to the next. The naturalness of the order confirms that man has a natural desire to know, and conversely, the naturalness of our desire to know implies that the order in the forms of human knowledge is a natural one.

3. The Place of “All Men by Nature Desire to Know”

In light of the meaning and truth of Aristotle’s statement that “all men by nature desire to know,” we can now ask why Aristotle opens his book on philosophical wisdom with that particular observation. The reason is that it is by nature the first statement in the learning and teaching of wisdom. Here is my argument:


Major Premise: The first thing to say, in what is naturally the first part of a science, is by nature the first statement in the teaching and learning of that science.

Minor Premise: Aristotle’s opening line (that “All men by nature desire to know”) is the first thing to say in what is naturally the first part of wisdom.

Conclusion: Aristotle’s opening line is by nature the first statement in the teaching and learning of wisdom.


In this reasoning, the major premise is a breeze and offers no real difficulty. If some part of a science naturally comes first in the teaching and learning of it, and if some statement is naturally the first to make in teaching that primary part of the science, then of course that statement is naturally the first thing to say in the whole science.

Still, we can add some clarity to that. What part of a science should be taught and learned first? Why, the introductory part, of course! That answer is not quite as cheeky as it sounds. The human mind naturally requires some introductory matter at the beginning of certain arts and sciences. But why? Why not jump straight into the science instead? To some extent, that is possible with sciences highly compatible with the human mode of understanding, such as mathematics. Euclid does not begin his Elements with an introduction to geometry, telling us what geometry is all about and why it’s worthwhile and what sorts of methods it uses; he simply jumps right into the principles of the science, after which he jumps right into its demonstrations.

On the other hand, even he had some trouble with his students, according to the story I mentioned earlier. Also, each of his propositions starts with an introduction or prologue of its own in the form of an enunciation and a setting-out. If learning something as accessible as elementary geometry requires students to have some antecedent sense of what they are going to do and why it is worthwhile, and, at the start of every demonstration along the way, requires an introduction to prepare their minds to receive the upcoming proof, then an introduction will be even more necessary in the higher sciences, and in wisdom most of all.

Well, then, what sorts of things does the human soul naturally need to hear in a first introduction to a new part of philosophy? Since reason acts for an end, it needs to know first of all what it is aiming at in its learning, which means grasping at the outset the general nature of that part of philosophy it is about to learn, and how it differs from other parts. To do this is to give the learner what Aristotle calls a σκοπός, a mark to aim at, a goal. In particular, then, it is the main business of a first introduction to wisdom to give listeners or readers a preliminary grasp of the nature of wisdom, one sufficient to enable students to follow the teacher into wisdom. Accordingly, Aristotle devotes the first two chapters of his Metaphysics to explaining in a preliminary manner the nature of wisdom, and ends Chapter 2 saying “We have stated, then, what is the nature of the science we are seeking, and what is the goal which our investigation and our entire methodical inquiry must reach.”

Providing a preliminary grasp of the nature of wisdom is one job for an introduction to wisdom, then. Another job for such an introduction is to explain what makes wisdom worth pursuing. If learning wisdom requires long, strenuous effort, no one will choose to pursue it or persevere in learning it without first having serious reason to think it is worth all the time and effort.

A third job that naturally falls to a first introduction to wisdom is to give an account of the difficulty involved in acquiring it. Even if we acknowledge that wisdom is a very great good indeed, we will not choose to pursue it if we also think it is unattainable for us. Or, if we have confidence that it is attainable and worth our efforts, but we think it’s also going to be much easier than it really will be, then we are setting ourselves up to become discouraged — or else to think we are on our way to wisdom when really we are not, or to think that we are not on the way, when really we are. Right at the outset, we need a sense of the difficulty involved in becoming wise, or else we will be likely to move forward hastily and presumptuously and fall into error, or liable to balk at the tremendous difficulty and despair, or we will be so unprepared for the strange roads we must go down in order to get to wisdom that, once Aristotle begins to lead us down them, we will think he has led us astray.[15]

These three things are the natural starting-points for teaching someone wisdom for the first time: a first description of the nature of wisdom, an explanation of why it is worth pursuing, and an account of the difficulty we should expect in pursuing it. And Aristotle’s opening statement that “All men by nature desire to know” is the natural place to begin from in order to arrive at a first understanding of wisdom’s nature, dignity, and difficulty.

3.1 The Opening Line and the Nature of Wisdom

Consider first the nature of wisdom. What is it, exactly? What defines it? Surely it is some form of knowledge. That is what is most evident about it. But what sort? We are not asking, now, about the gift of wisdom infused by the Holy Spirit. We’re hunting for a human form of wisdom, the sort that some pagan philosophers had, for which they were justly regarded as wise. Still, that hardly narrows it down. What form of human knowledge is wisdom? What are its most evident differences, distinguishing it from other forms of human knowledge?

Whenever we are looking for a definition of some form of knowledge, or of any human excellence or virtue, a natural place to look is to those individuals in our experience who actually possess it. If we do not know what physics is, for example, but we can find those who are called physicists, then probably they can tell us themselves what physics is, or perhaps, by opening their books or listening to their lectures, we could see for ourselves what they wrote about, and conclude that physics is a knowledge of such things.

In the case of wisdom, however, there are three problems with that approach. One is that we might not understand even in general what the wise are talking about if we open their books. Another, much more serious, problem is that we might not be able to tell in the first place who is truly wise and who isn’t. A third, potentially fatal, problem is that there might not be anyone who is wise in the world. And that was actually Aristotle’s situation. Socrates had devoted his career to showing, through conversation, that no one was wise, not even he himself. Plato came after, and made important advances toward wisdom, discovered many of its principles and articulated many of its most fundamental questions, but Aristotle shows in the later chapters of Book 1 of his Metaphysics that, for all his debts to Plato, nonetheless Plato did not have wisdom, or not in such a way that he could simply teach it to us in a scientific order, free from fundamental errors. That left Aristotle in a bit of a quandary. How was he to tell what wisdom was, if no one yet even had it?

His situation was somewhat the same when he was composing the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics, which opens with his other major philosophical introduction. The science to which he wants to introduce us there is moral and political science, which is about human happiness. But what is happiness? Anaxagoras thought the nature of it was so misunderstood that most people would not even recognize a truly happy person when one was pointed out to them.[16] And if “happiness” just means whatever floats your boat, then it does not seem there is any single thing that is called happiness for man, but people simply want different things out of life. If that were true, then of course there would not be one science, distinct from all others, of how to obtain happiness. To help us out of that problem, or to avoid it in the first place, Aristotle has to give us some indication that there is some one thing we all desire. He takes the first step in that direction by arguing, in the opening of his Ethics, that human choices aim ultimately at something that is chosen only for itself, and in no way for something further. He takes the next step by showing, in Chapter 7 of Book 1 of his Ethics, that the ultimate end must also be the same for all of us, because it is something based on human nature.

Well, if the existence and nature of happiness, and consequently of the science of happiness, can be deduced from human action being for the sake of some ultimate result, and from human nature being oriented toward that result, and from the natural order of all the arts and sciences toward a final good, can we reason to the existence and nature of wisdom in a similar way? We can, and Aristotle has done just that. If wisdom does not yet exist in the world, how are we to find out whether it can exist at all, and what its nature consists in? By looking to the natural process leading up to it. Naturally, before wisdom has come to exist in certain individuals, we cannot see it, inspect it, and thus come to understand it. But if there is in existence a natural process leading toward wisdom, from it we can see that wisdom is coming, and learn what sort of thing it must be once it is fully in existence.

Thus we can arrive at a first understanding of what wisdom is if we begin from Aristotle’s observation that all men by nature desire to know. If man by nature desires knowledge, and therefore acquires it in naturally ordered steps, and if nature acts for an end and does not move through an infinity of steps always for the sake of something further, then there must be some form of knowledge that is by nature the last. In this way, without yet knowing precisely what it is, we at least see that such a knowledge exists, that there is such a thing as a naturally last form of human knowledge. And we use the name wisdom for that. Here we have the meaning of wisdom that is naturally first, namely, “the form of knowledge that is naturally last.” It is, we might say, the knowledge that is by nature and most of all a finish, an end, in all our knowledge.

We can further deduce what general form that knowledge must take. Can it be a form of sense knowledge, for example? Surely not, since, as Aristotle observes in the opening chapter of his Metaphysics, man’s knowledge naturally advances from the senses into reason, beginning with sensation, progressing into experience, then into various arts and sciences. Since the naturally later forms of human knowledge are arts and sciences, the final form of human knowledge, which we are calling wisdom, must be an art or science.[17]

We can reason even further. Our knowledge in most matters naturally progresses from knowing effects first to knowing their causes later. Even in mathematics, in which science we most of all know things through their causes, we often see first that something is so and later learn why — first that the angle in a semicircle is right, only afterward why, or first that a negative times a negative must be positive, and afterward why. In astronomy, we learn that the planets orbit the sun in elliptical paths, afterward, in physics, we learn why. In this way, we see that we naturally progress toward sciences that more and more know the causes of things. Therefore, the naturally last form of human knowledge must be about certain causes. In fact, it must be about the first causes, and therefore most of all about the end or final cause, which is the cause of the other causes.[18]

Another way to reason from wisdom being the naturally last knowledge to the special matter it must be about is as follows. Our knowledge naturally progresses from the senses into reason. But sense is of particulars, and reason is of universals. Therefore, our knowledge naturally progresses from particulars to universals. At first, this sounds contrary to Aristotle’s claim, in the opening chapter of his Physics, that our knowledge naturally progresses from universals to particulars. But both orders are natural, and they are not only compatible with each other, but the reason for both orders is the same (I can try to explain that in the discussion period, if anyone wishes).

According to the natural progression of our knowledge from particulars to universals, we find that more universal truths, and more universal sciences, are discovered and learned after more particular ones. The particular consideration of continuous quantity in geometry, for example, was discovered before the more universal consideration of it in natural philosophy. Within geometry itself, it was discovered first that the square on the hypotenuse of certain particular right triangles, such as the 45-45-90 and the 3-4-5, is equal to the sum of the squares on the legs, before it was discovered that this property belongs to all right triangles. Later still, it was discovered that the Pythagorean theorem is a particular case of many other, more universal, geometrical truths. Within natural science, we learned first that matter and momentum in particular are in some sense conserved in a closed system, and later that energy in all its forms is conserved. And we first experienced that certain particular bodies are heavy toward the earth, and later discovered the universal law that all bodies are heavy toward each other.

According to this natural progress in our knowledge from particulars to things more and more universal, what should we expect the naturally last knowledge to be about? The greatest universals, the most universal things of all. In this way, Aristotle concludes that wisdom, which is by nature the final form of human knowledge, must be a science about the most universal things.[19]

I have just outlined how to reason from the fact that all men by nature desire to know to the conclusion that wisdom, the naturally last form of human knowledge, must be a science about the first causes of things and about the most universal things. Aristotle himself uses the natural progress evident in human knowledge only to show, in Chapter 1, that wisdom must be science of certain principles and causes. He leaves it to Chapter 2 to show, more determinately, that it is about first causes, and about the most universal things. There, however, he does not reason directly from the natural order in human knowledge, or from the fact that wisdom is by nature last, but reasons instead from six common suppositions we all have about those who are wise. From those six characteristics of the wise and of wisdom, he concludes that wisdom must be a science of first principles and causes, and of the most universal things. Aristotle is content to take those six characteristics as commonly recognized attributes of those who are wise, but in fact one can also see why all those characteristics should belong to the wise, if we begin once more with the idea that wisdom is the form of human knowledge that is by nature last. He could have made even more use, then, of his opening line than he chose to. If anyone is interested in hearing how that can be done, I can try to explain it in the discussion period as well.

When Aristotle first shows in these preliminary ways that wisdom must be about “the first causes of things” and also about “the most universal things,” he wisely refrains from distinguishing between those. He goes back and forth between these expressions as though the “first causes” and the “most universal things” might in fact be just different ways of describing the same things. That is because seeing that they are not the same things is one of the hard jobs of the science of wisdom, not something appropriate to show in an introduction. Plato, Aristotle’s great teacher, seems to have thought that the most universal things were in some way the first causes of all things. So Aristotle waits to raise that question in Book 3, and in some sense does not completely resolve it until the very end of his Metaphysics.

3.2 The Opening Line and the Dignity of Wisdom

We have seen how the opening line of Aristotle’s Metaphysics helps us to see the nature and existence of a final form of human knowledge called wisdom. But Aristotle must do more in his introduction to wisdom than help us see, in a preliminary fashion, what wisdom is and that it exists. He must also convince us of the dignity and desirability of wisdom. This, too, he accomplishes in large measure by means of his opening observation that the human desire to know is natural.

The chief dignity of wisdom is that it is a knowledge naturally desirable in itself — like eyesight, only better. More, it is the only natural form of human knowledge that is desirable purely for itself, not for a still greater knowledge that it serves. Other speculative sciences are desirable not only for themselves, but also, and more, for some further knowledge they serve. Mathematics, for instance, is desirable for itself, but is even more desirable because it makes possible certain parts of natural science which are greater forms of knowledge than mathematics. But wisdom is desirable purely for itself.

Aristotle begins to show this in one way in Chapter 1, as follows. If we look at how the arts and sciences have developed in some civilization (such as ancient Greece), we find that the first arts and sciences to be discovered were those addressing bodily necessities — weaving, building, agriculture, and medicine, for example. Next came the arts providing pleasures of sense, imagination, and emotion, such as the fine arts of music and poetry. All such arts, Aristotle observes, can begin to exist in a human community that does not yet possess leisure. But certain arts and sciences, such as the mathematical ones, cannot begin to exist until after a community has leisure, hence after that community already possesses the arts and sciences addressing bodily needs and providing pleasures.[20] These arts and sciences that naturally come after leisure, then, cannot exist for the sake of addressing any bodily need or for the sake of providing pleasures, since the arts that do those things begin to exist before leisure, not after it. The naturally final art or science, then, must be one that addresses a need not of the body, but of the soul, not of sense or imagination or emotion, but of reason, and its knowledge must not be for the sake of utility or pleasure, but for itself. The final form of our knowledge, naturally emerging after our more basic needs are all met, must be a speculative science, not a practical one. Further, since that final form of our knowledge naturally follows after all other sciences have been learned, it must be the only speculative science that is in no way naturally ordered to a further and better speculative science.

In Chapter 2, Aristotle again shows that wisdom must be speculative, not practical, but this time he does so immediately from our natural desire to know. Those who first began to philosophize did so because they wondered about things, that is, because they wanted to satisfy their natural desire simply to know certain things, such as the nature and causes of the heavenly bodies, and the origin of the universe. And he observes that everyone, not just philosophers, naturally desires to know something for itself beyond what the senses tell us. Most people also love myths and stories of all kinds, whether or not they are about profound things such as the origin of the world and the fate of human souls after death. We have a strong desire to know how a good and gripping story turns out, or how a movie ends, for example. And we do not want to know how a story turns out, or how a movie ends, so that we can put that knowledge to some practical purpose. This love of stories for their own sake is very close to, and similar to, the love of truth for its own sake. It is also in some ways in between sensation and the life of the intellect, to the extent that the pleasures of stories are pleasures of imagination. It is a natural step from loving sensation to loving the things of imagination, and again from loving the things of imagination to loving the things of reason. And in all three of these forms of “seeing,” that is, seeing with the eyes, then with the imagination, then with the intellect, we need to see things for practical purposes, but we also love seeing just for itself, and judge that to be the best kind of seeing.

What if someone objected that wisdom cannot be anything of great value or dignity since it is useless? Often enough, people think the best form of human knowledge, indeed any legitimate form, must be practical and useful. Otherwise, it is useless, fruitless, and to pursue it much seems to be a sort of self-indulgence.

I suppose the uselessness of wisdom would pose a serious problem if all of us chose to pursue it as our goal in life. Then there would be no Mozarts, and worse, no farmers.[21] But nature has not made the human race that way. Very few progress beyond the natural desire to know to the voluntary love of philosophizing; fewer still make the choice to philosophize as their goal in life. There is no real danger that the love of philosophy will catch on and turn the whole world into a bunch of useless, philosophizing bums.

And those who do engage in it can teach others, so that others do not have to spend nearly as much time in order to gain some of the same insights. That is hardly selfish. Wisdom is a far more sharable, communicable knowledge, than sight-seeing is. And if nature inclines us to seek some knowledge for itself, as Aristotle has argued and as experience amply confirms (especially our experience of children, who, without ever being taught to do so, want to know everything under the sun and never tire of asking “why?”), then it must not be frivolous to pursue speculative knowledge. Rather, that is the whole point of things, as determined by nature and nature’s God. In fact, since the earlier forms of knowledge naturally precede and prepare for the later forms, it follows that if the final form is worthless, then so too are all the earlier ones. If speculative science is of no value, then neither is practical science, since practical things are desirable only if they help us get other things that are desirable for themselves. It is speculative knowledge, whether that of sense, imagination, or reason, that makes human life worth living. It is not finding ways to stay alive that make life worth living. That would be like fundraising to support an institution whose sole purpose is fundraising for itself. The first thing is to live, yes, but that can’t be the only or final thing — the final and best thing is to live well.

Aristotle also shows something else about the dignity of wisdom in the second chapter of his Metaphysics, namely that wisdom is a divine science. If it is a knowledge of first causes, then it must be knowledge of God most of all, who is in the fullest sense a first cause. God alone can possess such knowledge fully. So wisdom is a divine possession. And if God spends his life in knowing himself, he must be very worth knowing indeed. Also, if God is the author of nature, and of human nature in particular, then his implanting in us a natural desire for knowing the first causes shows that he does not think it a waste of our time to pursue such knowledge as far as possible. And if he wants us to pursue such knowledge, who can deny its legitimacy and dignity? Benjamin Franklin once wrote to a friend about the divine provision of rain and of grapes, and of the natural processes that end in wine, and pronounced these things a “constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.”[22] There is certainly wisdom in that. But it is even truer to say that our natural desire to know, our wonder, is proof that God exists and that he wants us to know him, to be like him, and to be happy. Our natural desire to know, implanted by God, tending toward knowledge of him, validates the life spent pursuing such knowledge.[23]

3.3 The Opening Line and the Difficulty of Wisdom

So much for how Aristotle uses the naturalness of our desire to know in order to show us the existence, nature, and dignity of wisdom in his introduction to wisdom. He also uses it to give us an early, distant warning of its difficulty. The very fact that this knowledge is naturally last for us shows it is most difficult for us to acquire, hence that it is a knowledge of things most difficult for us to know. Aristotle spends the remainder of Book 1 of his Metaphysics, after the first two introductory chapters, showing that no philosophers before him yet possessed wisdom, or not so fully that we could simply learn it from them. That, too, brings home the difficulty of the science.

Aristotle does not worry that we will think the science is so difficult for us as to be entirely impossible. It is, after all, the object of a natural desire in all of us. And no natural desire is pointless.[24] So it must be at least possible for man to become wise.

But even if we see that wisdom is possible for us to acquire, we might also think acquiring it is so difficult as not be worth the trouble — remember Johnson’s remark about the Giant’s Causeway being “worth seeing, yes, but not worth going to see.” In order to prevent that sort of discouragement, Aristotle points out (in the opening of Book 2, now) that our natural desire not only implies that acquiring wisdom is possible, but even that it is easy and inevitable.

That is not to say, however, that it is easy for one individual to do it alone; on the contrary, that is beyond difficult — it is impossible. Aristotle himself did not do it alone. If he put philosophical wisdom together for the first time (in rough draft form, one might say), he did it in large part by combining the partial contributions made by those who came before him. He says as much.[25] But while it is difficult for any one individual to contribute much toward wisdom, it is not difficult, but easy, for the collaborative effort of all philosophers to put together the whole of it, and to work out all its details over time, especially if they collaborate in some tradition. A jigsaw puzzle that would take one person an impossibly long time can be finished quickly and easily by many who are given small sections to put together. Similarly, wisdom is impossible for any one person to acquire entirely alone, but relatively easy to put together from the parts of wisdom discovered by others over time, if we have a way of discerning what is good from what is bad in what comes down to us.

Cooperative effort thus makes the human attainment of wisdom an inevitable result of the course of human nature, as St. Thomas says.[26] The inevitability of wisdom is one consequence of endowing all members of the human race with a nature that inclines toward wisdom, even if very few individuals arrive all the way there. (And if our democratic souls are dissatisfied by the fewness of the individuals who become philosophically wise, we can console ourselves with the thought that God was also dissatisfied with that, and made available to everyone a far greater knowledge of himself without any need for reasoning and preparatory sciences and the like. But that wisdom does not come from natural effort, and does not, in this life, enable its possessors to see the truths they know by means of it.)

4. Conclusion

One could compose a lecture on how the opening line of Aristotle’s Metaphysics is a natural way for us to enter into the final part of wisdom, the wisdom about the first being and the cause of all beings, God. The opening line states that the human nature we are all born with, without any wisdom of its own, points us toward wisdom. But that should make us wonder: how can what has no wisdom of its own point others toward wisdom? That is possible only if human nature itself is ordered by someone already having wisdom. Aristotle’s opening observation, then, points to a wisdom behind the natural order of all things.

That line of thought is worthy of development. But I have focused instead on how his opening line is a natural way for us to enter into the first part of wisdom. First, at the very beginning of learning the science of wisdom, we need to learn what it is, how we can be sure it exists, and why it is worth pursuing, despite its difficulty. The naturalness of man’s desire for knowledge, as I have tried to show, is our first way into seeing these things. It implies the existence of a last form of human knowledge, and implies many things about its nature, dignity, and difficulty. And since those are by nature the first things we need to know about wisdom — its existence, its general nature, why it is worth pursuing, that it is possible and in some ways even easy to get — and since the first way to see these first things is from the naturalness of the order in human knowledge, it follows that the first thing to say in an introduction to wisdom is that man’s progression into knowledge is natural, is the working out of a natural desire implanted in all of us.

It is no accident, then, that Aristotle opens his Metaphysics with the observation that all men by nature desire to know. It is naturally the first thing for the teacher of wisdom to say, and, in his wisdom, he knew it.


[1] Confessions, 3.4.7.

[2] His infinitive, εἰδέναι, is a form of the verb εἴδω, which is an interesting verb, since it means “to see,” but is not used in the present active (ὁράω is used instead to talk about seeing in the present active). And although the aorist εἶδον retains the strict and basic sense “to see,” the perfect οἶδα (“I have seen”) actually means “I know,” and is used as a present. And it is a perfect infinitive form that Aristotle is using. So indeed he really means “to know,” not “to see,” although the word he is using has very strong ties to the idea of seeing and the language for it; “I have seen,” as it were, means “I know.” That he uses such a word is surely not an accident. Right after his opening statement, he offers an indication of its truth, showing the naturalness of our desire to know from the naturalness of our desire to see. In English, we might similarly argue that the way we all prize our eyesight implies that we must also desire insight.

[3] St. Thomas Aquinas acknowledges this notion of natural desire: “And this is clearly seen in the intellect, since the principles of intellectual knowledge are naturally known. Likewise, too, the principle of voluntary motions must be something naturally willed. And such is the good in general, to which the will naturally tends, as any power does toward its object. And the ultimate end [is naturally willed] as well, since it stands among desirable things as the first principles of demonstrations do among intelligible ones. And, generally, all the things that belong to the one willing according to his nature [are naturally willed]. For through the will we desire not only the things that pertain to the power of the will, but also the things that pertain to each of the powers, and to the entire man. And so man naturally desires not only the object of the will, but also the other things that belong to the other powers, such as knowledge of what is true, which belongs to the intellect, and existing and living and other things of that sort, which look to natural subsistence  —  all of which things are included in the object of the will, as certain particular goods” (ST, 1–2, q.10, a.1, co.). We naturally wonder, for example; we do not wonder as a consequence of deliberating about whether something is desirable to know. Instead, we have a natural desire to know some particular hidden cause once we see its effect: “For there is in man a natural desire to know the cause when the effect is seen, and from this arises wonder in man” (ST, 1, q.12, a.1, co.).

[4] And your desire to see belongs to you not because of some inborn peculiarity of yours, but because you are by nature a visual animal.

[5] St. Thomas also acknowledges this notion of natural desire: “For just as a natural thing has actual existence through its form, so the intellect actually understands through its intelligible form. And each thing is disposed to its natural form in such a way that when it does not have it, it tends toward it, and when it has it, it rests in it. And the same is true of any natural perfection, which is a good of the nature. And in things lacking knowledge, this disposition toward the good is called natural desire” (ST, 1, q.19, a.1, co.). Thus St. Thomas distinguishes both animal desire (appetitus animalis) and intellectual desire (appetitus intellectualis), which follow on sensory and intellectual knowledge of the good respectively, from natural desire (appetitus naturalis), which does not follow on any cognitive grasp: “Now natural desire does not follow upon any grasp, as animal and intellectual desire do. And reason commands by way of being a grasping power. And so those acts that proceed from intellectual or animal desire can be commanded by reason, but not the acts that proceed from natural desire. And such are the acts of the vegetative soul ...” (ST, 1–2, q.17, a.8, co.)

[6] St. Thomas also acknowledges this third notion of natural desire: “That which desires something either knows it and orders itself to it, or else tends to it from the ordering and direction of some knower, as an arrow tends to a definite mark from the direction and ordering of the archer. Therefore, natural desire is nothing else than an ordering of certain things to their end in accord with their nature. And not only is an actual being ordered to its end by its active power, but also a material, insofar as it is potential [, is ordered to an end], since a form is the end of a material. Therefore, for a material to desire a form is nothing else than for it to be ordered to the form as a potentiality is to an actuality” (In Physic., lib.1, lect.15). And he also applies this sense of natural desire to the human intellect: “Each things naturally desires its own perfection. And so also a material desires a form, as an imperfect thing desires its perfection. Since, then, the intellect, by which man is what he is, considered in itself is potentially all things, and is not brought to the actuality of them except by means of science (since, before understanding things, it is none of the things that exist, as it says in De anima 3), thus every man naturally desires science as a material does a form” (Sent. Meta., lib.1, lect.1).

[7] Physics, 1.9, 192a18–192a24.

[8] Aristotle brings up wonder in Metaphysics, Book 1, Ch.2, 982b11–982b27.

[9] The Thirteen Books of Euclid’s Elements, with Introduction and Commentary by Sir Thomas L. Heath, second edition, Dover Publications, New York, 1956, Vol.1, Introduction, Ch.1, p.3.

[10] From Aetat. 70, Tuesday, 12 October 1779, in Life of Johnson (Unabridged), James Boswell, Ed. R. W. Chapman, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1970 (revised edition), p.1038. Cf. this striking passage, from the same book: “On Saturday, July 30, Dr. Johnson and I took a sculler at the Temple-stairs, and set out for Greenwich. I asked him if he really thought a knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages an essential requisite to a good education. JOHNSON. ‘Most certainly, Sir; for those who know them have a very great advantage over those who do not. Nay, Sir, it is wonderful what a difference learning makes upon people even in the common intercourse of life, which does not appear to be much connected with it.’ ‘And yet, (said I) people go through the world very well, and carry on the business of life to good advantage, without learning.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, that may be true in cases where learning cannot possibly be of any use; for instance, this boy rows us as well without learning, as if he could sing the song of Orpheus to the Argonauts, who were the first sailors.’ He then called to the boy, ‘What would you give, my lad, to know about the Argonauts?’ ‘Sir, (said the boy,) I would give what I have.’ Johnson was much pleased with his answer, and we gave him a double fare. Dr. Johnson then turning to me, ‘Sir, (said he) a desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind; and every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all that he has to get knowledge.’” (Aetat. 54, Saturday, 30 July 1763, pp.323–324.)

[11] Metaphysics, Book 12, Ch.8, 1074b11–1074b12.

[12] The Greek for “makes us know,” here, is “ποιεῖ γνωρίζειν ἡμᾶς.”

[13] Cf. Plato’s Timaeus making the same observation: “Sight in my opinion is the source of the greatest benefit to us, for had we never seen the stars and the sun and the heaven, none of the words which we have spoken about the universe would ever have been uttered. But now the sight of day and night, and the months and the revolutions of the years have created number and have given us a conception of time, and the power of inquiring about the nature of the universe. And from this source we have derived philosophy, than which no greater good ever was or will be given by the gods to mortal man. This is the greatest boon of sight ...” (Timaeus, 47a, Benjamin Jowett translation, as printed in Plato: The Collected Dialogues, Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 16th printing, 1996, pp.1174–1175) See also Plato’s praise of sight through his Socrates, e.g., in Republic, Book 6, 507c, and in his parable of the cave (Book 7, 514a), and in Phaedrus (at 250d), and his acknowledgment that sight and hearing are the most certain and distinct of the senses in Phaedo (at 65b).

[14] St. Thomas agrees: “Sight judges sensible things more surely and more perfectly (certius et perfectius) than the other senses” (Sent. Meta., lib.1, lect.1). Charles De Koninck appears to disagree in his “Sedeo Ergo Sum: Considerations on the Touchstone of Certitude” (Laval Theologique et Philosophique, vol. vi, no. 2, 1950, pp.343–348) when he calls touch “par excellence the sense of certitude” (p.343). But I think De Koninck is thinking of our certainty of certain particular things, such as our own existence, and the existence and reality of other things around us. This fits with his saying, soon afterward, that touch is “the sense of existence, of reality, of substance, of nature, of experience and of sympathy.” When it comes to those things, surely he is right that touch is more certain than sight. And those are hardly insignificant things. Still, they are fairly particular things for the senses to judge. The senses not only tell us that there are physically real things in the room (e.g., pieces of furniture), but also how many they are, where they are, what shape they are (or what they are), how large they are, whether they are moving (and if so, how), and so on. These have more to do with the common sensibles, and with things sensible per accidens, which are the common ground of all the senses, and constitute common standards by which to determine how much each one tells us about things. An absolute comparison of the senses must look to these, and when it comes to them, De Koninck acknowledges that “the sensible objects which we have called common are nevertheless most clearly perceived by sight.” I would only add that they are perceived by sight not only most clearly, but also with the greatest certainty.

[15] Even the difficulty of elementary geometry is considerable enough that we need to develop a sense of what it will amount to, and to see that such difficulty is a natural consequence of working toward the rigor and scientific exactness proper to that science, if we are not to think that a teacher is being needlessly obscure, wordy, or nitpicky. According to Proclus, the first Ptolemy asked Euclid whether there was in geometry a shorter way to its conclusions than that of his Elements, to which Euclid replied that there was no royal road to geometry. (See: Proclus, A Commentary on the First Book of Euclid’s Elements, translated by Glenn R. Morrow, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1970, Prologue, Part Two, pp.56–57.)

[16] Nicomachean Ethics, Book 10, Ch.8, 1179a12.

[17] Though the same knowledge can be both an art and a science, it must be called by these two names for different reasons. And wisdom, it turns out, is not an art, but only a science.

[18] Cf. Metaphysics, Book 1, Ch.2, 982b10, where Aristotle concludes that wisdom must be about the end or final cause, and Book 12, Ch.7, 1072b4, where he attests to the primacy of final causality.

[19] See Metaphysics, Book 1, Ch.2, 982a24, where Aristotle concludes that the science we are seeking must be about the most universal things, since these are the furthest removed from sensation, which is where man’s knowledge naturally begins.

[20] Metaphysics, Book 1, Ch.1, 981b20–981b24. See also Ch.2, 983a22–983a26.

[21] No farmers is worse than no Mozarts, because no farmers also means no Mozarts, but no Mozarts does not necessarily mean we have no farmers.

[22] Here is the original French: “On parle de la conversion de l’eau en vin, à la nôce de Cana comme d’un miracle. Mais cette conversion est faite tous les jours par la bonté de Dieu, sous nos yeux. Voilà l’eau qui tombe des cieux sur nos vignobles, et alors elle entre dans les racines des vignes pour-être changée en vin. Preuve constante que Dieu nous aime, et qu’il aime à nous voir heureux.” (From Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Published by His Grandson, William Temple Franklin, (From the Originals); excerpt from Letter from Benjamin Franklin to the Monsieur L’Abbé Morellet  —  no date given in the text, though some say it is circa 1779  —  Printed in 1818 for Henry Colburn, Conduit Street, London, pp.348–349.) Here is my translation: “We speak of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage in Cana as a miracle. But this conversion is performed before our eyes every day, by the goodness of God. Behold the water which comes down from the heavens upon our vineyards, and then enters into the grapes of the vines to be changed into wine. Constant proof that God loves us, and that he loves to see us happy.”

[23] It even suggests the possibility that God invites us to a further knowledge of himself, beyond the sort made possible by human effort, and made possible instead just by his own power. Hence St. Thomas Aquinas, from our natural desire to know, constructs a probable argument for the conclusion that God invites us to see him as he is (see ST, 1, q.12, a.1, co.).

[24] Cf. Aristotle, Politics,  Book 1, Ch.2, 1253a8, and Book 1, Ch.8, 1256b20.

[25] See, e.g.: Metaphysics, Book 1, Ch.5, 987a3; Book 1, Ch.10 entire; Book 2, Ch.1, 993b12–993b18; Book 13, Ch.1, 1076a15.

[26] “‘I will trace her from the beginning of [her] birth, and put the science of her in the light’ (Wisdom 6:22 RSV; 6:24 Vulgate). In the light of the first truth, in which all things are easily knowable, the natural gaze of the human mind, though weighed down with the weight of the corruptible body, cannot be held back. And so it is necessary for reason, following the progress of natural knowledge, to arrive at prior things from posterior ones, and at God from creatures” (Super De Trinitate, pro. 1).