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“Fides Quaerens Intellectum”


by Dr. Steven Cain
Dean, Tutor
Opening Lecture
St. Vincent de Paul Lecture & Concert Series,
Thomas Aquinas College, New England
August 25, 2023


I have chosen for my topic this evening our college’s motto, fides quaerens intellectum (Faith seeking understanding). Mr. Mark Berquist, one of our founders, once said, “In truth, there is no better way of expressing, in brief formula, the mission of the college than this: Faith seeking understanding.” And so, it is fitting for us to spend some time reflecting on this motto this evening to understand better what the freshmen are beginning and the rest of us are continuing. It will help us to understand better what we are about, where we are going, and how we will get there. I am going to argue that there are three ways in which this motto expresses what we are doing here. They will differ according to different senses of faith, which can be distinguished as Divine, human, and natural.

The life of learning is arduous, as the Seniors perhaps know better than most, having just gone through their Junior year. But even the freshmen, encountering for the first time the rigors of Geometry in an extended way will find that there is a lot of work between the construction of an equilateral triangle — a simple enough business — and the construction of the five perfect solids. You will find that there is a need for patience and perseverance to get from your time here what the college has to offer. And what it has to offer is, as we say repeatedly, a beginning in Wisdom, not in mere human wisdom, but in the divine wisdom contained in the science of Theology. Thus, we say that the whole curriculum is ordered to Theology, and that she is the queen of the sciences. Our Faith provides us with the principles in light of which we pursue our highest objects, God and His works, especially our salvation. But theology employs, as handmaidens, the lower sciences to aid her in the search for that deeper understanding. The classes do not all contribute equally, nor in the same way, but all of them are intended to prepare us for the study of sacred theology. It is because of this that our curriculum as a whole can most properly be characterized as faith seeking understanding.

But why is it necessary for faith to seek understanding? Is it not enough to accept the articles of faith proposed to us by the Church? Can we not simply say I believe in One God, the Father Almighty, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, and in the Holy Spirit? The Holy Trinity is a mystery, after all, and so, by its very nature something beyond our understanding. What is there to seek for? This self-sufficiency of faith seems to be implied in St. Paul’s definition of faith as “the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.”[1] Not only do we know what we ought to believe, we hold the articles of faith with conviction, with certainty. (I recall Dr. MacArthur saying, “I am more certain that Christ is God than I am that two and two are four.” He could say this because he held this truth in the light of Faith.). If we know what we are to hold and we hold them with certainty, with conviction, why is there a need for us to seek a further understanding? Indeed, given that some of these truths must be revealed because they transcend our knowing powers, how can we seek for it?

And yet, St. Peter exhorts us to be ready to give an account of our faith. We will meet (the Church has met) those who hear what we believe and think it absurd. ‘You believe in One God? But then say that that One God is actually Three? That is odd.’ And, ‘you think that Jesus, being one being, is God and Man at once? Can I claim that my dog is a cat, and at the same time is also a dog?’ (The Seniors will be wrestling with these difficulties this year, but you freshmen will be laying the groundwork for answering them in your Philosophy tutorial, especially in studying Aristotle’s Categories.) It is important that the Church have answers to these questions, at least to the extent that She is able to show her opponents (or those who ask the questions in a more open manner, for they are, of course, real questions) that though it may be surprising to find that God is Unity in Trinity, it is at least not absurd to say so, and the same with the two natures in Christ. It might be absurd to think that your dog is also a cat, but it is not absurd to think that Christ is both God and Man. To provide such an account is a task of the Theologian, as St. Thomas points out in the beginning of his Summa contra gentes. And in order to give such accounts, one must seek a deeper understanding of the propositions of our Faith than comes from the mere assent to them in faith. One must employ the light of reason to see, for instance, what is contained in the notion of something said ad aliquid (or, toward another, like ‘father’) that allows it to be used in understanding how there can be three Persons in one substance.

But this sounds a bit ad hoc, to seek an understanding to refute heretics. Aren’t we here to pursue truth for its own sake? Yes, yet we owe a debt of gratitude to the heretics for spurring us on to try to find a deeper understanding to the mysteries that we profess. To profess our creed and adhere to its articles is in a way enough, and there are souls that through that adherence have gained great holiness. But such a simple faith is not easy for all of us, for in faith we see “in a glass darkly,”[2] as St. Paul tells us. I have often been intrigued by this image, for it points to an intrinsic difficulty in faith, and yet something of hope, a hope that should awaken in us a desire to see more.

The difficulty in this image also appears in St. Paul’s definition of faith: assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. When we are asked to assent to the proposition that Christ is both God and Man, without confusion and fully each, that is something the truth of which we cannot see. And therein lies our difficulty. Our minds are made to know, and knowledge is a kind of sight. When we put together an argument, a demonstration, something that we were looking at in darkness and straining to see comes into the light of our mind and we see that it is true. And when we come to see, our minds are able to rest in that truth. A good example of what I am speaking of occurs in geometry, in the proposition that parallelograms on the same base and in the same parallels are equal. I think this a good example because one can easily draw such parallelograms in a way that makes it look like they are most certainly not equal. The drawing, which should be a help to us, makes it hard to see the truth. And this because of a principle: things that coincide are equal.  In the drawing, it sure looks like there is no way those two figures can coincide. But when one goes through the argument, out of the darkness that the drawing has cast, a light shines upon the matter and we see that it must be so. In fact, the argument shows not only that they are equal, but shows it through coincidence! It is in a demonstration of this sort that we find the natural way for the mind to come to assent to the truth of a statement.

But in matters of faith, we are asked to remain in darkness, and yet assent to a statement anyway, and this with certainty. St. Paul’s definition points out that in faith we have conviction (which naturally comes through sight), but of things not seen. To bring this about, it appears we must do a certain violence to our minds, and because of this, we often remain, or at least I remain, somewhat restless in my faith. I must admit, too, that the Church doesn’t always make things easier for me; She asks me to profess my faith often and exhorts me to meditate upon it in prayer. Often, that profession is made in faith (as it should be), but more often than I would like, I am struck by the fact that I am reaching out for something not seen, and it is unsettling. I am confronted with the fact that it is in intellectual darkness that I make my assent. One of my favorite Eucharistic hymns brings this lack of vision to the fore in a strong way:  I adore you devoutly, Godhead who hides from my sight, You who are completely hidden under these figures. My heart surrenders itself to you completely, for straining to gaze upon you, it wholly fails. In what it sees, touches, tastes in you, it is deceived, only in what it hears does it safely believe. On the cross only your deity was hiding, but here in this sacrament, your humanity, too, hides itself from view.[3] Note the words that emphasize the lack of vision: hiding (repeated four times), failing, deceived, in just in these few lines. In fact, the Eucharist is called the Mystery of Faith precisely because in it we see neither the Godhead nor the humanity of our Lord. It is, as St. Thomas says, only in the sense of hearing that we can lay hold of the truth of this mystery.

This lack of vision is perhaps felt most keenly in our belief in the Eucharist but is present in all the central mysteries of our faith. And The Church, as I mentioned, is constantly calling upon us to make acts of faith. There are several good reasons for her to do so, primary among them is that acts of faith strengthen faith, just as any virtue is strengthened by the acts belonging to that virtue. But I want to put another reason before our minds now. If our minds are restless in the assent to faith, if we are bothered by the lack of sight, we will be spurred to work for some glimpse of what we hold to be certain but cannot yet see. The first way of moving in that direction is growth in holiness, through which we can attain heaven and come to see God face to face. In that vision, our minds and hearts will find true rest.

But even now, there is some increase in vision, in insight, that we can gain into the mysteries of faith. Let us return to St. Paul’s image of faith: seeing through a glass darkly. This image is a very interesting one, especially in light of the definition of faith from the Letter to the Hebrews. It certainly picks up on the notion of ‘not seen,’ but qualifies it somewhat. It is helpful here to look at the Greek words that St. Paul uses: di’ esoptrou en ainigmati. The Greek word ainigma, translated darkly is tied up with the notion of riddle. You may be acquainted with the translation ‘enigmatically’ — that is taken directly from the Greek. The word has the sense of something being spoken is an obscure, or dark, manner, hence riddling, or mysterious. And so, this could be translated in a riddle.  It then got carried over to darkness of any kind, and so St. Paul could use it here to describe the obscurity of what is seen in a ‘looking glass,’ an esoptron. But I cannot help thinking that he was also thinking of the first sense and so admitting that the articles of faith are indeed mysterious, obscure. The word esoptron is also interesting. It does not have the notion of glass, rather is has the notion of seeing. It signifies a thing that ‘brings something before the eyes’.  (the ‘es’ is like the Latin in, and opt is the word for eye, as in optometry. I point this out because you may have sometimes wondered at this image in St. Paul, as our ‘looking glasses’, highly smooth and polished, generally give us a pretty good view of what is reflected in it. But this was not the case in St. Paul’s time. Generally, these ‘glasses’ were rather small pieces of metal that had been smoothed and polished as best as they could be, but they were distorted and gave very imperfect reflections.[4] The images seen in them were obscure, enigmatic, dark. But they were there and could be seen. And this is the point. Moreover, by steady and peering looks, or further polishing, what is there could come to be seen more clearly. And it is in this that we find the hope that leads faith to seek understanding. Having assented to the truths that the Church proposes to us, our minds will, if we have the leisure, strain to gain something more of sight into the truths that we hold and love. It is here that Theology comes to develop and complete, to the extent that our feeble minds are able in this life, our faith. What we hold by faith will not, in this life, come to be seen directly, it remains faith. But we can come to see something in our faith. When Moses asked to look on the glory of God, he was told, no man can look on me and live, but he was granted the grace to look upon the back of God as He passed him by.[5]

There is then, hope in St. Paul’s image. There can be insight into what we believe. But if there is sight, then we are back in the realm of reason. Reason, then, is able to serve Faith. This is possible because the God of nature is the God of revelation. Thus, all creatures, though in different degrees, are likenesses not only of the First mover, but of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph, Who became incarnate in Jesus Christ. Hence, we can see in ourselves, once it has been revealed, not only a likeness to the divine Mind, but to the Holy Trinity.

But how is reason able to serve faith? There are two ways, especially, in which reason is able to come to the aid of our faith. One the Juniors will be experiencing this year, the other the seniors will experience. The first looks to what the natural light of reason, when applied to it proper object in its proper mode, is able to bring to the science of Theology. The juniors will be studying in large part what are referred to as the preaambulae to the faith. They will be looking at the proofs for God’s existence and certain other things that, following from those proofs, fill out somewhat what that existence entails. Though these arguments proceed largely by the natural light of reason, that is, are philosophical arguments, they are not being considered in philosophy, but rather in theology. Hence here the question is not really whether God exists (we can hold that truth merely on faith), but rather what God is (or, as St. Thomas reminds us, what He is not); this is, I believe, why there are five proofs. What God is is a question that we cannot answer directly, but one that we can get a clearer sense of through the proofs of his existence and His attributes. These arguments give us a better sense of the subject of the science we are beginning. Note how St. Thomas ends each of the ways: and this all men call God (or something like this). Though these arguments will not make the assent to the mysteries of our faith unnecessary, they will help us to understand better what we mean when we speak them. Even in the things we can show about Him, they help us primarily by showing us what we don’t mean when we speak about Him. When we say we believe in one God, we know that that God is not a body, that he is not lacking in goodness, that He is timeless, that he is undivided. And even when we can speak more positively, and say that He is good, we see that it is a goodness that is far beyond any goodness that we can really conceive. Though we might make out some more of the contours in the glass, and our eyes become a bit more accustomed to the darkness, it is still in a glass darkly that we see.

But in senior year, we go beyond the preaambulae. In developing arguments in the science of Theology, reason can proceed in its proper mode, going from what is more known (or perhaps better in this context, more certain) to what is less known. Still, since it begins from the articles of faith, which are assented to without vision, its conclusions are still held in virtue of faith and so do not pass beyond it to vision. The study will help us to understand better what is contained in our faith, and so help us to understand better the goodness of the God that is the oject of our faith, both in Himself (when we study the Trinity) and toward us (when we study the Incarnation and sacraments).

In all of this, the understanding that we gain of what we are asked to believe should increase our love of Him and so lead us to something akin to rest, as our hearts become more fixed in Him. It should calm some of the restless of faith that its darkness brings. This is what we are trying to attain as we pursue our studies here. And thus, the work involved as faith seeks understanding, though arduous, rewards those who persevere by bringing them closer to their happiness.

          I have just described in a very brief way what is meant primarily when we speak of faith (That is, the theological virtue, or divine faith) seeking understanding. Though I have only spoken about the role of philosophy in that search, it should be remembered that the lower sciences are also involved in that search, at least to the extent that they lead one to the study of philosophy and help bring it to perfection. But I have left something unresolved in what I have said that in its resolution will lead to a couple of other senses in which our education is shaped by faith seeking understanding.

I had asked above whether the assent of faith, since it comes through hearing (which involves obedience) rather than sight, does not do violence to the nature of our understanding. If it does, then our faith is not really a perfection of our nature, and whatever rest we find in it is not really our happiness or even a participation in it. A rock cannot really be happy held above the ground; it is constantly tending in the direction opposed to that in which it is being lifted. In a similar way, if faith does violence to our understanding, it will not be inclining it toward its rest, but rather drawing it farther from it. Faith, if this is so, becomes something unworthy of the dignity of our minds. Such a view of faith is, in fact, a common one in our own age, but it is not new. To say nothing of the sin of the angels, you can see an implicit assertion of this in the sin of Eve. She could not see why she was not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and when tempted (‘your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God’), she turned to the tree and “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise.”[6] She chose what she saw as her proper perfection over the bow of her nature in obedience to what she had heard from God.

          The Manichees, too, rebelled at the idea that there were truths that are inaccessible to the human mind, and their claim of the all-sufficiency of the mind kept St. Augustine ensnared for quite some time. And today, what goes by the name of rationalism teaches that what our minds are incapable of seeing is not knowable simply speaking. Thus, human reason becomes the measure of all things. Hence, we see Kant even subjecting God’s commands to the judgment of human reason.[7] The assent of faith becomes unreasonable, even inhuman.

          Now, in their boldest formulations, since we are a Catholic school, we would not assent to such doctrines. But it is possible for them to insinuate themselves into our thinking unawares. Tocqueville asserts that Americans are practical Cartesians — that we each have a confidence in our own judgment that inclines us away from being guided by others in our thinking, seeing ourselves as more or less equal in matters of judgment. “America,” he says, “is…the one country in the world where the precepts of Descartes are least studied and best followed.”[8] And I think he is right in this, so it is worthwhile to stop and consider Descartes for a bit.

Descartes begins his Discourse on Method with this observation:

Common sense is the best distributed thing in the whole world. Everyone thinks that they are well endowed with it, so that even those who are most difficult to please in every other respect do not usually wish to have more than they already possess. It is unlikely that everyone is wrong about this. It shows, rather, that the ability to judge well and to distinguish what is true from what is false — which strictly speaking, is what is meant by ‘common sense’ or ‘reason’ — is naturally equal in all human beings.[9]

Because of this, he is emboldened, in his search for truth, to reject all that went before him, and set off on his own path. He saw in the intellectual conflicts of his predecessors a sign that they were all mistaken in the way in which they sought the truth. And so, he begins his own search by turning away from teachers. He turned rather to his own thoughts to see if he could give an account of what he found. Tocqueville sees this turning from others and reliance on self as characteristic of the American people:

As for the action that the intellect of one man can have on another, it is necessarily very restricted in a country where citizens, having become nearly the same, all see each other from very close, and, not perceiving in anyone among themselves incontestable signs of greatness and superiority, are constantly led back toward their own reason as the most visible and closest source of truth.[10]

(This may explain somewhat why the discussion method is so suitable to us.)

Now, there are two things that Descartes thought he saw within himself that I would like to bring out tonight. The first is that the certainty of the truth of something is to be judged by the clarity and distinctness of the idea that we have of it. The second is that we have within us from the beginning of our existence ideas that are the first objects of our knowledge, especially the idea of God. And these are connected: “our ideas or notions, which are real things and come from God [not from sensation], cannot but be true to the extent that they are clear and distinct.”[11]

In these two notions, there is a foundation for the rationalism that characterizes much of modern thought.  The second — the notion that there are ideas present to us from our beginning, and that these are the objects of our knowledge — implies an actuality present in our understanding that makes it something perfect in itself, even if not wholly perfect. Because of this perfection, it is capable of seeing its object with clarity and distinction; it merely needs some occasion to bring before it what is already present. Because of this actuality, there is no real need for others to help us along the road to wisdom.

In some ways I think we tend to slip into such a way of thinking, but reality generally keeps us from giving into it explicitly. Most of us still think we come to learn, and it is things that we know, not ideas. But I think for us the other is perhaps more of a difficulty. Our experience of mathematics lends some credence to it. There is a clarity in our thoughts regarding mathematical objects that is seductive (and I do not mean that in a pejorative sense). The definitions are clear to us and build upon one another in an orderly way. The principles are easily recognized as principles and easily assented to, and so the premises in the arguments lead clearly to the conclusions aimed at. This is why they are called mathematical, which is the Greek word for learnable. So, one can see why Descartes would be tempted to think it is the way to learn. We, too, I think, tend to expect such clarity in our thoughts, and so when we find them not so clear, we tend, like Descartes, to hold them in suspicion. For example, nothing could seem clearer than the principle that the whole is greater than the part. We see that clearly and (we think) distinctly. But consider the definition of man: rational animal. Animal is a part of that definition, and so is lesser than the whole definition of man, which contains it. But animal is the genus of man, and so contains it and many other species; but if it contains it, it is greater. When confronted with this difficulty, what appeared to us as something clear and distinct now appears a bit murky, and so a temptation can arise to see the murkiness to be the fault of the principle and not our understanding of it. And this, in turn, can lead to distrust those we hold responsible for instilling in us such a prejudice. We will lose faith in our teachers.

To a Cartesian, this loss of faith is not disturbing, but to St. Augustine, it is. I mentioned before that he, under the sway of the Manicheans was taken in by their promises to show him all truth through the use of his reason, and that faith is not worthy of our minds. As the years went by and they were continually failing to come through on their promises, he reflected more on his experience of life, and what he found was the great extent to which human life depended on faith: “If it is base to believe anything,” he says, “either he acts basely who believes a friend, or, in not believing his friend at all, I do not see how he can call either him or himself a friend.”[12] He expands this idea to almost the whole of human life, seeing that faith, far from doing violence to the understanding, is quite natural to it. And so, it is natural for us to seek out teachers to help us in our search for wisdom and to have faith in what they teach. This he saw by reflecting on his experience of life.

We have all had this experience in life. We see the need for faith in many aspects of our lives. We have to have faith that our parents are working toward our good. We have to have faith that the clerk in the store is not trying to steal from us. And we have to have it in the life of the mind. We have all been aware of our ignorance and our need for a teacher. For in spite of Descartes’s optimism in his ability to grasp wisdom on his own, an optimism that overlooks the real debt he owed to those he set aside, most of us find ourselves with a wonder that looks for wisdom but finds itself unable to get far on its own. And so, we look for teachers in whom we can have faith that they will lead us to wisdom.

If it is natural for us to look for teachers to whom we can entrust our minds, it is nevertheless, a search wrought with difficulty. Plato in the Protagoras sets forth the problem that a student must face when he sees the need for a teacher. How is he to find a good teacher? The teacher, of course, must be wise, at least with regard to that which he professes to teach. But to see whether someone is wise, one must be wise oneself, and so not in need of a teacher. Or, if one is not wise, he has no way of judging. It seems a hopeless case.

Or is it hopeless? Though simply speaking, one must be wise to judge another wise, there are signs that can point to the wisdom of a teacher. Protagoras had a reputation for being wise. And his students thought they had a sign in the success of his pupils in the law courts and assemblies. Because of this, Socrates is at pains to show his friend that Protagoras, for all his pretensions, is not really wise. And this is the problem with judging by signs: it is not always possible to see exactly what the sign is pointing to. And since signs do not give us insight into the wisdom of the teacher, the student can fall prey to one who promises what he cannot give. Likening the student to one shopping in the marketplace, Socrates points out that the student takes in the goods the teacher is putting before him in the way a customer buys goods from a merchant. One has to believe that the merchant is selling what he claims to sell. So, the student has to believe what the teacher puts before him because he has a kind of faith in the teacher. He does not see the wisdom of the teacher, but believes, through the advice of another, or some other sign, that what the teacher is offering is worth having. But as Socrates points out, the student must be wary — caveat emptor, and this warning applies to the student more than to others because what is being bought, as it were, is not a mere ephemeral good, but one that has eternal implications.

Why are we in such a desperate situation regarding that which most conduces to our happiness, at least on a natural level? Our faith helps us to answer this. In the sin of our first parents, our nature fell from the state in which God had created it, and it fell by both of the most noble parts of our nature: our will, so that now we enter this world with an inclination to sin; and our intellect, so that we enter this world in a deeper darkness than was the plan, in an ignorance that slips more easily into error then it should. This leads to the strange situation that a thing that is made for truth is, as Aristotle says, mostly in error. That he sees this is not surprising, the experience of life shows this to anyone who stops and looks at human life. But he also saw more clearly than most that in spite of this, our minds are in fact made for truth. But perhaps it is surprising that he does not remark upon this incongruity more. After all, we see that rocks are intended to fall by seeing them do so. You can’t learn a rock to go up, even if you throw it up 10,000 times. And we see plants are made to bear fruit because they do so always or for the most part. Finding an occasional sterile plant does not cause one to doubt that it was supposed to bear fruit. So, if the soul is mostly in error, how can one say that it is made for truth? And yet Aristotle is confident that truth is the good of our understanding, that it is what our minds are made for.

The reason why he does not seem more concerned by this state of affairs is that he understood some things about our nature that explain it, even if the incongruity is greater than expected. He had experienced himself the joy and pleasure of coming to real knowledge of something. If we reflect on our experience of the first proposition of Euclid, we should have this same experience. The triangle, even an equilateral one, is not the highest of things we can know, but when one follows Euclid as he goes through the construction, and especially when one sees through its causes that and why the figure constructed is an equilateral triangle, one ought to rejoice and rest, if only for a little while, in that knowledge. Such an experience as this is enough to show that we are made for truth.

But there are a couple of other things that Aristotle understood about us that showed him why, in spite of this inclination to truth, we mostly miss the mark. They are that we are by nature political animals and that our minds are blank slates, or, to put it as he did, the mind is nothing in act before it understands. Contrary to what Descartes thought he saw, our minds are purely potential knowers when first created, and so must be brought from potency or ability into act; we begin life in ignorance and must learn before we understand.

These two truths are connected — God is not a political being because He is pure act. But for the human mind to go forth from potency to act, because of the kind of mind it is, it must be joined to a body, and through the bodily power of sensation it comes into contact with the things that it is first made to know. In us, this lower power has been put to the use of the higher (our minds) in ways it has not in the lower animals, but it remains a lower power, a servant for the mind, and there are many accidents that can occur in the exercise of this power that result in erroneous judgments. This becomes more and more true as the mind lifts its gaze to things farther and farther removed from the world of sense. Hence, there is a real need for us to live together, to form a city, in order to facilitate the movement of our minds from potency to act, from ignorance to wisdom — even in something so proportioned to our minds as geometry. We should be grateful to Euclid for writing down for us what he had come to see, for being our teacher.

Though our living together in political society offers us the opportunity to share with each other the work of searching for wisdom, and of learning from one another, this is something of a double-edged sword, for if those in the city that are guiding others in that search are themselves in error, then it will be that error and not true wisdom that is passed on. And so, though nature has in a way supplied us with what we need to attain the good of our minds, the weakness inherent in that means (which weakness is acerbated by our fallen nature) makes it very uncertain that by submitting ourselves to the teaching of those put before us we will in fact be led from ignorance to knowledge. Hence, Socrates is suspicious of the claims of Protagoras, even if many in the city hold him up as a wise man.

Yet, again, our situation is not hopeless. We in particular can be grateful that we are at a college in which we can put our trust, in which we can have faith, a faith that will lead to understanding. It may not be clear to you now, for freshmen especially, why one ought, if one is to make a good beginning in the life of the mind, to proceed in the way that we do — why we read what we read and in the order in which we read them. But those who put the curriculum together understood deeply the nature of liberal education and established a curriculum which, though not perfect (as they would be the first to admit) yet is very well suited to leading students to true wisdom, if only to a beginning. And so, when the studies get hard, when you get tired, since you do not see clearly the good that studying what you are studying will bring, it will be tempting to think that because you cannot see it, it cannot be seen. But have faith. Believe that the study of declensions will help you come to a deeper appreciation of your faith.

There are grounds for this faith. The first and most important is that those who founded our college had an infallible guide to point them in the right direction, namely, the Church. St. Thomas is our patron and principal teacher because the Church has repeatedly held up St. Thomas as the universal Doctor in both theology and philosophy. And St. Thomas has put Aristotle before us as a teacher in the realm of philosophy. These teachers have not only taught us important truths and pointed us to real principles of those truths, but they have also taught us (in general ways) how those things ought to be taught. Thus, though for the most part the student cannot see that they are the teachers to follow, we can have faith, because of the authority of the Church, that they are.

This will lead us to have faith in what they teach and the way in which they teach it. But this faith is not the theological virtue of faith; it is a human faith. St. Thomas had a unique grace in regard to his understanding, hence his title of angelic doctor, and it springs from the grace of purity that he received. But he is not an evangelist; a fortiori, neither is Aristotle. Still, we can have faith that they have grasped well the principles of things and of our knowing in such a way that we can follow them with confidence. In this or that they may be mistaken, but this we will discover if, following their lead, we make sufficient progress in our own intellectual development. For unlike the Faith that grounds theology, this faith, if followed out with diligence and docility should lead to a real vision of the things about which they teach (at least in the human sciences). We may, when we first encounter the definition of motion, for example, not see what it means, or how it defines motion, but if we have faith in Aristotle when he teaches it, we will come to understand it. Again, to take another example from geometry, we may not, when we first meet it, see that the Fifth postulate of Euclid is a true principle of the science, but as we go forward, we come to see more clearly what Euclid saw in it. Though we begin in darkness, we should, come to see for ourselves the truths of these principles and the science that follows from them. This is the second way in which our education can be characterized as faith seeking understanding.

But underlying what I have described here, there is yet another faith that we must have: a faith in nature. And this brings me to the third sense in which our liberal education is characterized as faith seeking understanding. This may sound strange at first, but I think that it is an important faith for us to have, especially today. This is, of course, another equivocal sense of faith. I was inclined, when I began working on this lecture, to think this was a metaphorical use of the word, but as I thought more about it, I came to think it is actually another analogical sense. The reason I thought it a metaphor is that through our senses we come into contact with the things of nature that we are made to know, and though what we meet with of the things is different for each of the senses, still, all our senses can be called sight in a way. When one touches something, that thing is revealed to us in the way that belongs properly to touch; when we smell something, it is revealed to us in the way proper to the sense of smell; when we hear something, it is revealed to us in the way proper to hearing. Through these different senses, we see different aspects of the thing we are sensing, and thus come to know it more completely. (By the way, notice how naturally I fell into using words tied up with seeing when saying this: We see different aspects of the thing.) And so, the way in which we stand to the natural world that we are made to know is through sight or vision.

Faith, on the other hand, as St. Thomas reminds us, is tied up with the sense of hearing — not the sounds that the thing makes to reveal itself to us (when we hear an animal bark, we realize that it is a dog), but the words that someone uses to point us to realities of which they are signs. We believe the Apostles through their words, which point to things we cannot see. We believe the teachers’ words, if we cannot yet see the truths he is leading us to. But how does it make sense to speak of believing nature, which is not a sign but the very thing we are most made to know?

One reason we need to have faith in nature is because in today’s world we are farther removed from it than those who lived before us. Too much of our experience of the world is put before us on a 3X5 inch screen, within which it is getting harder to tell what is natural and what is fiction. Moreover, the predominate culture, formed by Descartes and those after him, is increasingly adamant that our senses do not give us insight into the natures of things, that our sensations are merely an earlier, more sophisticated version of that 3X5 inch screen. But if this were the primary reason to have faith in nature, I think faith would be more a metaphor, for the darkness is not on the side of nature, but one that we have imposed on ourselves.

But there is a darkness in our knowledge of the natural world that requires a kind of faith. We do, at first, see nature ‘through a glass darkly.’ The reason for this is in part the things we naturally know and in part because of the kind of knowers that we are. On the side of the things known, it is because they are bodily and so not entirely knowable and therefore hard to see into. On the side of the knower, ourselves, it is because of the weakness of our minds.

Note that Aristotle has disagreed with Descartes about the nature of our knowing in a couple of ways. He thinks that the search for truth is a public, not a private affair, and he thinks that our minds are only in potency to knowledge before we learn. Because of the potency of our minds, he also disagrees with him about how we know what we know. It is natural for us, he says at the very beginning of the Physics, to go from what is more known to us to what is more known by nature, and what is more known to us are things confused and indistinct. This is opposed to Descartes’s sense that what is more known is what is clear and distinct. And as Descartes’s sense of this follows upon him thinking our minds are more actual than they are, so Aristotle’s recognition that the mind is in potency to what it knows leads to our first grasp of things being, though certain, yet confused and indistinct.

There are principles that everyone knows, and this is because our minds are made to know. So, as soon as we begin to experience this world, our mind is looking for understanding. Hence, we naturally grasp what things are that have come under our sense experience, and we naturally grasp certain judgments as well, like the whole being greater than a part and the principle of contradiction: a thing cannot both be and not be. What could be clearer? And yet Parmenides was led by it to deny that things change. He grasped the truth of this principle and saw the certainty with which he knew it, so much so that he felt compelled to deny what was right before his eyes. Heraclitus, on the other hand, was so certain of what was before his eyes, that he denied the principle. They had both seen something of the truth, and both missed something. In their confused understanding of something nature was teaching them, they denied something else nature was trying to teach. There was an apparent opposition in what was before them that led them to lose faith, as it were, in the nature they were trying to understand. Someone who, confronted with my earlier example of the problem with seeing the genus as a part and a whole, cannot yet make the necessary distinctions to solve it, might be led to doubt the truth of the principle. Their inabilities to solve the difficulties these oppositions present to us arise because we do not see clearly and distinctly what is contained in the principle. Parmenides did not see clearly the different ways a thing can be (nor did Heraclitus). And perhaps you cannot see the different ways in which something can be a part. But this does not make it less certain that these principles are true.

That we should have these confusions is not surprising if we attend carefully to the fact that our minds are potential knowers. If they are potential, they must be brought into act by something else. That something else is the thing sensed. We meet that thing through the mediation of a lower power, sensation, and so there is a need for experience, repeated encounters, before the thing we are trying to know becomes present in our souls with any kind of clarity. Michelangelo did not just hit the marble once and the David stood forth. So too our minds need to be shaped or formed by our experience, (this includes our attempts at understanding) before what it knows receives clarity and distinction.

This is why St. Paul’s image of faith as seeing through a glass darkly can be carried over to our natural knowledge. Even with the things our mind is naturally made to know, we see at first through a glass darkly. But there is this difference, now it really is glass, and the darkness, the enigma, can be cleared away, and so we are able to come to a clearer and clearer vision of what nature wants to show us. Aristotle had faith in nature — he listened to her to hear what she was teaching (note the subtitle to his Physics: Natural Hearing). He trusted that what was shown to him as certain, the principle of contradiction and the experience of change, could not finally be in opposition. And this led him to see more clearly the distinction between act and ability which led him to an understanding of motion and thus to a deeper understanding of ourselves and world around us.

It is a sign of Aristotle’s greatness as a teacher, I think, that he begins his study of the natural world, which would begin after the study of mathematics, by pointing out to us that our grasp of the things of this world are going to be murky at first, are going to be confused (and confusing), that is, we will at first see through a glass darkly. An awareness of this should prevent discouragement when we have the experience of having something we thought we saw clearly reveal its murkiness to us, and what is more, give us the hope that we can come through that murkiness to an even greater clarity. That is a real beginning in wisdom.


[1] Heb 11.1.

[2] 1 Cor 13:12.

Adoro te devote, latens deitas,
quae sub his figuris vere latitas;
tibi se cor meum totum subjicit
quia te contemplans totum deficit.
Visus tactus gustus in te fallitur,
sed auditu solo tuto creditur.
In cruce latebat sola deitas,
at hic latet simul et humanitas.

[4] It would be many centuries before the art of ‘looking glasses would be perfected by Venetian guildsmen. Their mirrors were highly sought after and, along with Venetian lace, turned Venice into Europe’s leading exporter — an economic supremacy the city would maintain for more than 150 years. So important was mirror-making to the economy of Venice that guildsmen were sworn to uphold trade secrets upon penalty of death. In the rare instance in which a guildsman was permitted to travel outside the city, his family was held in hostage, and if the traveler failed to return home, forfeited their lives.


[5] Exodus 33:20.

[6] Gen 3:6.

[7] “As far as practical reason has the right to guide us, we shall not regard actions as obligatory because they are commands of God, but shall regard them as divine commands because we are intrinsically obligated to them. [That is, through the judgment of reason]. Critique of Pure Reason, tr. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing, 1996), p. 745-46.

[8] Democracy in America, tr. Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 403.

[9] Discourse on Method, [Part One], tr. Desmond Clarke (London: Penguin Books, 2003), p. 5.

[10] Democracy in America, p. 404.

[11] Discourse on Method, [Part Four], p. 28.

[12] The Advantage of Believing, The Writings of St. Augustine, vol. 2, tr. Luanne Meagher, OSB, The Fathers of the Church, vol. 4 (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1947), p. 420.


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