by Dr. Steven Cain
Thomas Aquinas College
August 25, 2017
Part of the 2017-18 St. Vincent de Paul Lecture and Concert Series, endowed by Barbara and Paul Henkels


The opening lecture is intended to address some aspect of liberal education in order to help us reflect on what we have just begun together. When thinking about what to talk about, my mind went immediately to the importance of friendship for liberal education. I think that is due to my experience in my own education, and especially the part that the College has played in it.

Though I did not attend TAC, a good friend of mine, Mr. Andres, did, and after I left college, I came in contact with a number of graduates. What struck me right away was how friendly they were with each other, and how very different, personality-wise they were. But it became apparent to me quite quickly why they were so friendly: as different personally as they were, they were joined together by the common desire to grow in virtue, both moral and intellectual. And then I was further struck by the readiness with which they befriended me, and would enter into serious conversation about great things. It was a marked difference from what I had experienced in college. With one young lady, shortly after making her acquaintance, I found myself arguing until late in the night about the notion of inertia. It wasn’t easy, but she moved me — and we ended up getting married.

As I grew in friendship with her and others, I became aware of how much this goodness in them was connected with their time here. They had gained here a love of the good and the true that had transformed them, and had made them, not only some of the friendliest, but also some of the happiest men and women that I had known. And I also know that to whatever small extent I have grown in wisdom, and in a love of wisdom, it has been due to these friendships, which, even though I didn’t attend as a student, were the fruit of this college. And my time here as a tutor has allowed me to see more fully and appreciate more deeply this particular fruit of this college. My hope is that with these reflections, I might add something to your appreciation of it, and spur you on to work to develop it more perfectly in your time here.

Plato saw the importance of friendship for this growth in virtue, and in his dialogues we often see Socrates befriending or trying to befriend others, especially the young, in order to awaken the love of Wisdom in their hearts. But friendship is not only helpful for getting one to begin to love wisdom; I assume it is evident that it is also helpful for its actual pursuit. The difficulty in pursuing wisdom alone is witnessed by the very fact that we are all here tonight. And I hope that you have all experienced the joy of coming to see some truth together with other students. Our experience of the life of learning should have already shown us that friendship is at its very heart. And yet, when we attend carefully to the goal that we are pursuing, a question arises with regard to exactly how close friendship and that goal really are.

The task that the College has set before itself is to provide its students with a beginning of a liberal education, an education that will help to lead them from the darkness of sin and error into the light of freedom and truth. It is an education that leads to real happiness, for it is productive of the free man, and suited to the free man, and the free man is one who can rule himself, who is more than any other, self-sufficient. And self-sufficiency, as Aristotle and Boethius stress, is, if not happiness, a large part of it. And Aristotle, when he wishes to show that the life of contemplation is our most perfect happiness, argues in part from its self-sufficiency. He says: “The self-sufficiency spoken of would pertain especially to the contemplative life. For a wise person, a just person and all the others are in need of the necessities of life. But when these necessities have been supplied sufficiently, the just person needs others toward whom and with whom he will act justly, and similarly with the moderate person, the courageous and each of the rest. The wise person, by contrast, is capable of contemplating even when alone, and the wiser he is, the more capable of doing so he will be” (NE 1177a28ff). I will discuss the reason for this later, but for now, we should note that the wiser a man becomes, the more his happiness belongs to him, the less he needs others to engage in the activity that is his happiness. It looks like he still needs a butler, but not friends.

But it is the life of contemplation, the philosophical life to which liberal education and so your time here are intrinsically ordered. (That does not mean that our expectations are that you will all become graduate students in philosophy or theology. The College is rightly proud of the very different lives its graduates have taken up, many of them eminently practical. And they have been very happy in these varied lives because of what they have learned here. Still, in itself, our education leads to the philosophical life.) But if this is so, even if our education begins in friendship, it looks like it is something to be left behind. And if this is so, then perhaps even that need at the beginning is only accidental. Indeed, St. Thomas’s account of the activity of the teacher on the mind of the student might even bear this out. He points out that the teacher cannot act directly upon the mind of the student, but can only put before him images, and this primarily through the use of words, which merely impress themselves on the exterior senses. Only God can reach, in His influence, directly into the mind of His ‘student.’ Therefore, in order to be successful in his teaching, the human teacher must present those images to the student in the order in which the student would have discovered the truth on his own. Thus is seems that the teacher is not really necessary at all, though his help makes learning easier and more efficient, for he can present truths to the pupil in an orderly way (as Socrates does to the slave boy in the Meno — he admits that he must ask the questions in the right order to help the slave boy see how to double a square.) And in doing so, he can help him see where he is in error and help him avoid pitfalls as he progresses. Yet, as helpful and pleasant as this may be, since the teacher must proceed in the way that one would when learning on one’s own, it looks like friendship is only accidental to learning. If this is so, it is not surprising that as one progresses farther along the road to wisdom, as the mind of the student becomes stronger and more ordered in its grasp of principles, as it becomes less reliant on things from outside itself to engage in its work, the need for friendship falls away. Thus, this education seems to be ordered to helping us withdraw from our fellows more and more until, as long as we have sufficient external goods to maintain us in existence, we are left alone to contemplate the First Cause within the inner recesses of our soul.

I hope that this conclusion is unsettling, for I think it very wrong, both with regard to the beginning of liberal education and to its perfection. If the picture I have painted of the culmination of human happiness sounds inhuman, it should. What I hope to show in the rest of this talk is that, far from being a mere an accidental advantage on the road to self-possessed happiness, and one to be left behind as that happiness is attained, friendship is necessary to the beginning, and becomes more and more essential to it as one progresses and approaches the perfection of liberal education.

As I mentioned above, it is not hard to see that this is true — our experience shows us its truth. And so we have little trouble in agreeing with Aristotle when he points out that few of us would want any other goods if we could not also have friends. Still, I will try to give something of an account of why friendship is so important, especially in the intellectual life. In doing so, I hope to shed some light on the nature of our life here, and so to help us to live out that life a little more perfectly.

In order to see how it is that friendship is not accidental to the life of wisdom there are two things about ourselves, distinct but related, that we must see clearly. The first is that we are beings in ability (or potency); the second is that we are parts, and not wholes.

Now, when I say that we are beings in ability or potency, I am not thinking of the abilities that we have as bodies, the ability to move from here to there, or to grow, or tan, or die. Rather I am thinking about our nature as it is intellectual. Bodies, beings of nature, or mobile beings, are just that, mobile, and though they have the ability to be here or there, or even this or that, and can leave behind one ability by acquiring its corresponding actuality, they only do so at the cost of some other actuality to which they now — after the change — stand in some way in ability. The gaining of one perfection necessarily entails the destruction of another. They are never able to rise above ability, they remain mobile beings.

We, however, are not merely mobile beings, nor even fundamentally mobile beings. We are intellectual beings, and so are fundamentally unlike natural bodies, and this unlikeness extends, even, or perhaps especially, to the ability of our minds. Because we are intellectual beings, the intellectual life belongs to us precisely insofar as we are men. By our very nature we long to know. Knowledge and truth are our perfection as intellects. Yet, among intellects, we are the weakest, the lowest. In his De ente et essentia, St. Thomas compares our intellects to first matter. Just as first matter, considered in itself, has no form, but is receptive of every natural form, so our intellects have no intellectual form before it comes to know. As Aristotle says, the human mind is nothing in act before it understands. It stands in the intellectual realm as pure ability.

It is because of this that our souls are joined to bodies — are in fact souls, for in order for something to exist, it must be in act. So, our souls, which are knowers only in ability, and so are ordered to becoming actual knowers, must first be the acts of bodies, bodies that are fitted to serve them as instruments for coming to know things. It is because of the kind of knowers that we are that we are the kind of material beings that we are. Or as St. Thomas puts it, it is because of this that our souls draw our bodies to have a share in their being.

But there is a reason that minds are merely compared to first matter, and are not instances of it. The ability of matter and the ability of the mind are of very different sorts. Hence Aristotle, in the De Anima, makes a distinction between the ability of matter and the ability of the mind. Unlike matter, which, as was said above, must lose some act in order to acquire another — every motion or change in matter involves destruction as well as acquisition — the change from ability to act in the mind does not involve destruction, but is rather a perfecting of the being of the mind. So, though a clay sphere must cease to be a sphere in order to become a cube, the mind does not cease to be a mind when it comes to know body. It does not lose its substance when it acquires the substance — the being — of the thing it knows. Rather, and this is an astounding thing to ponder, by the very acquisition of the substance of the other, it, the mind, becomes more perfectly what it is — it becomes more a mind! By coming to know, it not only preserves its being, it perfects it. And as it progressively comes to know beings that are in themselves more beings, more perfect beings, the mind itself becomes a more perfect mind. Aristotle gives us a sign of this truth when he points out that the sense, because it is still bound up with matter and its ability in its act of sensing, is destroyed by the sensing of an exceedingly sensible object; the mind on the other hand is made stronger, is able to understand better the less intelligibles, after coming to know a more intelligible thing. The eye is unable to see less visible things after it has looked upon more visible things, as some of us might have experienced if you looked at the eclipse without those funky glasses. But the mind is better able to understand less intelligible things by coming to understand more intelligible things. For instance, we understand better the nature of our bodies when we have come to understand the nature of our minds.

Moreover, as the mind comes to understand these more intelligible beings, because they are, to the extent they are intelligible, separated from matter, there is another way in which the mind becomes more perfect as it comes to know more intelligible things. Its activity becomes more perfect and this perfection points directly to the difficulty in seeing the connection between friendship and the life of wisdom I outlined earlier. As the mind ascends the ladder of being in its knowledge, the things it knows, and so also its knowledge, because they and it are more removed from matter, become less and less dependent on contact with sensible things, the first things it knows. Its activity becomes more and more inward as it becomes more and more perfect. St. Thomas has a beautiful text in his Summa Contra Gentiles in which he orders the whole of Being, from material beings to God in terms of the inwardness of the proper activity of each (Bk. 4, Ch. 11). The truth of this can be seen to some extent just by thinking about what is contained in the notion of the perfect, or the complete. To the extent that a thing’s own activity is more contained within itself the more complete the thing is in itself, the more its activity is the thing’s own. For a rock to do anything, it is wholly reliant on something else to move it. Left to itself it will only sit there. But an animal is able, of itself, to get up and move about. And it is precisely this ability to move itself that leads us to see in it a more perfect being than a rock. This is why it saddens us to see a dead animal, but not a crushed rock. Still, the animal needs something to get it going, for example, an awareness of some food or danger, and something toward which to move, the place of the food or a place of safety. God, on the other hand, is wholly independent of anything outside Him, and so He stands in need of nothing in any way for his life. His activity is entirely within him and so is most perfect and most perfectly his own. And thus He is supremely happy.

Though our act of knowing will never be as perfect as His, still it is something of an image of His, and so as we make more our own the principles through which we come to know the higher things, and then come to know those higher things themselves, the activity of our knowing becomes more our own, more perfect. But the perfection of a thing is its happiness, and this is why Aristotle says that our happiness in its most perfect form is the contemplation of the highest Cause, an act in which we are most perfect and most self-sufficient.

And so less needful of friendship.

That is not the conclusion I was aiming at. I am tempted to imitate Socrates and Aristotle a little and say it looks like it is time to make a new beginning. So, here it goes. Let’s go back and draw out more clearly something implied in the notion of ability that will help us see how what we have said actually points to the importance of friendship in the perfection of the life of wisdom.

But before doing so, let me make a brief apology for the use of the word ability. I am using it, rather than potency, first out of piety. The teacher who most led me to a love of the philosophical life, Dr. Duane Berquist, brother of one of our founders, uses it, and I have not yet risen above my teacher (and never will). But, secondly, and I think this is why he uses it, it seems to me that in some ways it is a word closer than potency to our contact with the world of sense, from which our knowledge begins. At least I was led, when I first encountered the notion of potency in a philosophical context, to align it with non-being, for I saw that it named the lack of form, and what lacks form is not a being. What I didn’t see clearly, and what the name ability helped me to see, is that it should be more aligned with being than non-being. To be a being in ability is to really be something. Thus, matter, even if in itself it is nothing in act, nevertheless, is not non-being. But because it is not act, and act is perfect being, it is a being that is imperfect, and so intrinsically ordered in its being to perfect being, that is, to act. And it is this aspect of ability, its being ordered to perfect being, that I would like to emphasize now.

As pointed out above, and as Aristotle points out at the beginning of the Metaphysics, we by our very nature desire to know. We are intellectual creatures and so perfect to the extent that we know and know the most knowable things. And, again, we begin as knowers only in ability — that is, as knowing nothing actually but ordered to and inclined by our very nature to know all things. Our minds are not indifferent to the act of knowing.

It is due to this, that our minds are made for knowing, that we cannot not come to see the truths of the first principles of our knowing once we have acquired sufficient experience, or that once we see two premises of a syllogism together we cannot not see the conclusion. Our minds are made to do just that.

Though this is true, there is another aspect of ability that needs to be brought out, and that is its insufficiency. Although ability is imperfect being, and though of itself inclined to more perfect being, it is unable to bring itself to that more perfect being. A pile of bricks may have the ability to become a house, but without a builder, it will never attain to being a house. Thus, our minds, having a natural love of truth, are not able, on their own, to acquire it. It stands in need of help in order to do so.

Nature herself supplies the first helps we need. We are born into a family that supplies our bodily wants and also, together with the rest of the sensible world, supplies us with sensible forms that impressing themselves upon us become matter for our intellects, and arouse our intellects by their presence in our imaginations. Our life of knowing begins here in the family.

That beginning is rather humble, starting from a very vague and confused knowledge of things that are in themselves barely intelligible — forms that depend on the sandy foundation of matter and so are constantly shifting and apparently arising out of non-being and slipping back into it. And yet, they are the kinds of things of which our minds are in need in order to be led from merely being able to know to actually knowing.

The mind, then, first comes to know things that it meets through the senses. And because these things are what first lead it to act and are the things most suited to it, it is pleased by them and somewhat dazzled by their beauty. The mind tends to love them and rest in them. Yet, as lovely as they are, or at least can be, they are not where our minds are intended to rest. Their very changeability points to realities that are beyond them, more stable and knowable than them, and so more lovely than them. But, captivated by their loveliness, we can fail to see this.

Recognizing this reality behind the world of change constitutes the beginning of the philosophical life. It was in fact the problem of change that aroused the wonder of the ancient Greeks, as the Sophomores are beginning to see, and led to the search for things beyond the sensible, things that are of themselves intelligible.

It is at this point that we can begin to see the importance of friendship, the need for friendship in the intellectual life. Human nature, as Aristotle points out in the Ethics, is in bondage in many ways, and so is in need of an education — a leading out of or a leading forth — in order to leave its bonds behind. The fundamental bondage is that to the senses. Though the senses are necessary in order to begin the life of the mind, and in us are ordered to that life, they and the objects they present to us, due to the loveliness we just mentioned, can come to dominate our minds, and the mind itself tends to come to see its act as ordered, not to the eternal, immaterial, unchanging world of the intelligible, but rather to seeking out, one after another, the satisfactions of the sensible appetites. Plato presents to us a powerful representation of a mind so enslaved in the person of Callicles (whom the freshmen will meet shortly). His slavery to the delights of the senses is so deep that he chastises Socrates for continuing in the childish pursuit of philosophy. This shows that he recognizes our natural inclination to wisdom, but turns his back on it, seeing it as a childish, immature inclination, to be outgrown and left behind — like the game of peek-a-boo.

Though at times and in some ways most of us experience the kind of bondage to the senses that Callicles rejoiced to find himself in, fortunately few of us succumb to it as completely as he does. Through the guidance of our parents and others with whom we live, we are habituated to act more or less for the good of the community in which we live. Yet that habituation does not free us wholly from our bonds, and can in fact lead to a less vulgar, but — by that very fact — more secure bondage that, though not entirely rising above the life of the senses, does rise to the love of something greater than ourselves, namely the community to which we belong. As a greater good than anything private, it has the appearance of a kind of happiness for us, and to the extent that it does in fact join us to each other in noble pursuits actually is a kind of happiness for us, and so it can present itself to us as our entire happiness and deceive us into thinking that we have reached our end. Yet the practical life, the political life, however noble, is not that for which our minds are finally made. We, being immaterial and eternal (in some sense of that word) are made to be united to the immaterial and eternal. But how are we to be freed from the here and now to rise to the everywhere and always? This is the task of liberal education, and where the importance of friendship enters in.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave presents a forceful likeness to what I have been discussing, and so I will lay it out here as briefly as I can to help me make clear my thought. He pictures us as locked in a cave with our heads unable to turn. Behind us is a fire that casts a light upon the wall of the cave in front of us and in front of which pass puppets that cast their shadows upon the wall. Having no experience of any other sight, we love these shadows, and do not even dream that there could be other things to see in the world. The juniors will see someone in something of this condition when they see Hobbes claiming that the immaterial substance is a contradiction, an impossible being. In order to come to an awareness of the more perfect beings of which our visions are mere likenesses, we must be freed from our bonds and turned to look upon the light behind them — a painful experience at first. In order to do this, because of our bonds, we are need of another who has already been freed and seen them. We are in need of a teacher.

Now, I think that Plato might be overstating the necessity for a teacher here. Though most of us are overwhelmed by the goods of this world, there is still, in every one of us, that inclination to something beyond, there is in us a mind that is made for truth. Thus we might add to Plato’s image a peripheral vision and a slackness of bonds, at least for some, that allow for a glimpse of something more perfect beyond what is present on the wall. A recognition of a truth in practical things, like the squaring of a corner by a triangle, the sight of someone’s noble sacrifice of himself for a friend, family, or country, or the recognition of the regularity of the motions of the heavenly bodies (or even the occasional apparent irregularity, as with an eclipse) can arouse wonder in a suitably disposed soul and so start them on the road to wisdom. Still, the help of a friend or teacher — like Socrates — is more likely to begin that motion in most of us. And such help is certainly an aid in sustaining that motion in the face of the difficulties that the pursuit of such truths presents almost at once. Recall Phaedo’s admiration of Socrates when he gives much needed encouragement to his friends as they confront difficulties in seeing the immortality of the soul.

Now, if a teacher is the best guide for a soul beginning to look for wisdom, and the teacher’s experience and prior progress in that life makes him a better guide than a mere friend, why speak of the need for friendship? It is because the teacher, if he is truly a teacher and not a sophist, must be a friend. This can be seen by realizing that the teacher has no other reason to teach than his love for his student.

Recall what has been said above about the teacher. In order for a teacher to teach, he must present thoughts to the student in the same way that they would arise if the student were to come to them himself. There is an order that is necessary for us to come to know what we do not know. We must understand the first proposition of Euclid before we can understand the second, and the second before we can understand the third. In order for a teacher to teach, he must already possess that order, that knowledge, himself. Thus, he does not gain anything by his teaching other than the satisfaction of seeing another attain to the same good that he himself possesses. And so, the teacher seeing in his student some good disposition desires for that student that student’s own good. And the student, in order to benefit from the teaching must see the good in the teacher and love that good in order to be rendered docile. Their mutual love makes this a friendship.

So, for a beginning in the life of wisdom, friendship may not be absolutely necessary. Still, there is a kind of necessity for friendship due to our bondage to the world of sense from which we are more likely to be freed through the guidance and encouragement of a friend.

Now, I assume that all of us here have made that beginning and are drawn sufficiently to the good of wisdom to want to come here to continue that pursuit. So now I will turn to the necessity for friendship in the growth of the intellectual life, a more immediately important point for us. And I will argue here for a more essential necessity for friendship. My argument will again begin from the fact that we are merely able to know before we are actual knowers. And this should lead us to see, too, the importance of recognizing that we are parts rather than wholes.

In the consideration of the student and teacher above, I argued from the nature of the teacher as such to show that it was a kind of friendship that moved him to teach, but this is not generally how things work out in the ‘real world.’ For though as such a teacher does not benefit from teaching, the common experience of teachers is that they do in fact become wiser through their teaching. And this is tied up in the way in which we progress in the growth of wisdom. Since we have come into existence as knowers only in ability and are joined to a body that is fashioned in such a way as to bring us in contact with sensible things from which our knowing begins, what we come to know is conditioned by these sensible, particular things. Seen from the vantage of our souls, the sensible, material world is intended to reveal to our minds something of their Creator, their Cause. So St. Paul reminds us in his Letter to the Romans “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom 1.20). And the Psalmist sings: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Ps 19.1). The world as a whole is a work of God’s revelation of Himself to his creatures. Thus, the philosophical life is a life spent reading that revelation in order to see all it has to show us of its, and our, Creator.

But there is a difficulty here. Our senses can only reveal to us a very small part of that whole, and though experience opens up more and more of it as we progress, nevertheless, we can never grasp the whole in all its integrity.

If this sounds somewhat discouraging, it gets worse. Because of the weakness of our minds, as Aristotle points out, they stand to the Truth, the truly intelligible, as the eye of the owl to the light of the sun. The very brightness of the sun makes it unseeable to such an eye; so, too, is the actually intelligible Cause of all unseeable to our minds.

The things that we first know are quite dim (in the intellectual world), and in fact are entirely dark. In themselves, they are unintelligible. They only become intelligible when illumined by the intellectual light that our Creator has bestowed on us. At first, this might sound like we ended up with the short end of the stick, but in fact, this is a great gift, for it ensures that the intelligibles with which we first become united are illumined in proportion to our ability to see them. And so, instead of our minds being overwhelmed by their objects, they are able to look upon these objects and grow in strength, just as our eyes grow accustomed to brighter lights, Thus, Plato describes the turning of the eyes of those in the cave toward the light as a painful, gradual process. It is gradual because unlike the eye of the owl, which can never grow to be able to look upon the sun, our minds, which are of that ability that is ordered, not to destruction, but wholly to actuality, moves from ability to actuality, and by that very motion becomes disposed to further, more perfect actuality. As we come to know, our minds become stronger, more accustomed to the light, and so are able to turn, step by step, from the shadows they first know to look upon the very source of all intelligibility. Plato saw this clearly, and recognized in this the importance of mathematics for the philosophical life, for mathematics considers things that are closer to sensation than purely intellectual being, and yet has left the sensible world somewhat behind. Mathematical beings, then, have some share in the stability, the eternality of the intellectual realm, and yet still have something of the here of bodies. Exercising our minds on them disposes them to turn to things yet more intelligible.

Because of this need to grow step by step in our understanding, friends, both teachers and fellow-learners are great helps in the progress of the philosophic life, just as they are in its beginnings. They help us to progress in an orderly way, they encourage us when we find that progress to be painful and difficult. And they rejoice with us when we grow in our understanding. But there is a way in which the friendship of others engaged in the life of the mind becomes more essential to that life, and this is especially important for us here at the College. Even as Aristotle is pointing out the difficulty of attaining to truth, he also, as a good teacher, gives us reason to be hopeful. The attainment, he says, of the truth is in a way difficult — and this is what I have been pointing out — but in a way is easy. Easy. Given what I have just said this word should be somewhat surprising. And yet, he says easy. This is so because, though our intellects are the weakest, the very weakest of intellects; though our minds are reliant on sensible things to become actual, they are still intellects made for and inclined by their very nature to be united in its knowledge to the things of the intellectual realm.

Because of our reliance on the senses, our experience of the world of nature is necessarily partial and private. I cannot share my sensations with another, and the other cannot share his with me. And because they are private, and dependent on all sorts of circumstances, mine are necessarily different than someone else’s. But since my understanding arises from my experience, my understanding is different from anyone else’s. Though our natures are such that we can only each come to know some little bit of truth, the little bit I come to will not be in every way the same as that little bit you come to. Thus we can share with each other what we have each come to see, and together we come to a greater truth than either of us could come to on our own. To help in the endeavor, God, in his providence, has provided us with the gift of speech, through which we are able to make our pursuit of wisdom a common endeavor, and to share with each other what we have gained. And what is more, He has given us hearts for love by which we are moved to share what we have with others. So, not only can we share what we have come to know, the way we are made inclines us to do so. Thus Aristotle can say that the truth is in one way difficult, but in another way easy to attain.

Because of the kind of knowers we are, then, friendship becomes not just a great help to the mind, but also an absolutely necessary help, for left to ourselves, we would be incapable of acquiring the experience and knowledge that leads to the fullness of the intellectual life.

Still, the difficulty raised at the beginning of this talk has not been entirely solved. Could it be that friendship, though necessary for the attainment of truth, is necessary in the way that parents are necessary — we need them to come into existence and to grow to perfection and maturity in this life, but once we reach that maturity, we no longer need them? The friendship of student and teacher seems to be like this. As the student grows in wisdom, the need for the teacher — in fact the very power of the teacher to teach — diminishes and fades away; like the parent, the teacher’s aim is to make another like himself. Once that has been accomplished, his work is done.

And so we have come back to our difficulty. It seems that as one progresses in the intellectual life, the need for friendship diminishes. As we progress, our activity becomes more and more inward and less reliant on others. We attain to the self-sufficiency of the wise man we spoke of earlier. It seems we are being forced to admit that the perfection of the intellectual life removes the need for friends.

What we have said above about our growth in the intellectual life offers us a fairly simple way of overcoming this difficulty: because of our imperfect, partial grasp of reality, at least at the level of nature, we will never actually attain that self-sufficiency perfectly, and so always stand in need of friendship to continue in our progress. However true this may be, it does not really get at the heart of the problem, for it seems to reduce the good of friendship to a merely useful good. It seems to regard friendship as desirable only insofar as it is an aid to the attainment of wisdom, and gives up on seeing friendship as integral to our happiness.

Nor does this reduction of friendship to a useful good fit with our experience of life. Just as, though a strict dependence on our parents diminishes as we grow older, our love and respect — our desire to remain in that friendship in which we grew up does not diminish. So, too, with our teachers, there is a desire to remain, and perhaps even augment and repay that friendship with a teacher — a thing impossible with our parents. And we should also recall something mentioned earlier: That from the point of view of the teacher, the student confers no benefit upon the teacher; he has no need for the student in his pursuit of wisdom. Yet those who become wise tend to desire students, and those who do not seem to be something like misers. The idea of such a one separated from his fellow men even in the life of contemplation does not seem to be human happiness. All this points to the truth, that as beneficial as these friendships can be, they are not friendships based on the useful good.

This fits with the text from the Ethics that we quoted at the beginning of this talk: perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good and alike in virtue. But the virtuous man, as we have pointed out, is the man who is most self-sufficient. Therefore, those who are most friends are those who need each other the least of all. The love they have for each other is not the love of need, the love that is looking for something from the beloved, It is a love that arises from seeing in the other someone good, someone like himself, in fact, another self. If this is so, then to look for the part friendship plays in the intellectual life through the usefulness of friends is to look in the wrong place. We can now rest in the conclusion that in the intellectual life in its perfection we have no need for friends. But we can also recognize that this does not mean that it is not essential to it. Therefore we can now turn our gaze and see friendship’s role in a new light.

In my remarks on the connection between friendship and growth in wisdom, there was something implicit which I must now, in order to help redirect our gaze, make more explicit. The nature of our minds shows that this growth is only possible through the friendship of those also engaged in the pursuit of wisdom. Alone we can only come to some small bit of wisdom, and that can only be got with great difficulty. But together we can come to know many wonderful things, and come to great truths. And we are capable of coming to the whole of it together. This is because we are intended by nature to be parts and not wholes. Nature intends for us to find our perfection in community, in a whole other than, and greater than, ourselves. There are in fact many communities of which we are parts — our families, our cities, our countries, and we find a different perfection in each, and a greater perfection insofar as the communities themselves are more perfect.

There is, then, an order to these communities. To give a gross oversimplification, one can see in the community of mother and child, the perfection of our vegetative life, in the community of the family a perfection of our sensitive life, in the city, a perfection of our moral, our human life, and in the school, the perfection of our contemplative, our divine life. Because this last community aims at our highest perfection, it is here that the most perfect friendship is possible.

Another way of looking at this order is by looking toward that to which we are united: the whole of which we are parts. In the family, we are united to those of the same blood, in the city to those of the same nature, but in the school, which is a community ordered to the life of contemplation, we are united to the whole of creation and its Cause. It belongs to the wise man, Aristotle points out, to know all things, and to know the first Causes of all things.

Now, if we are parts of these wholes, then we, by being united to and in that whole not only gain perfection, we also give something to the perfection of the whole. We received the nourishment and nurturing we needed by being born into our families, but we also, by our being born into them made our families. Families are not complete until there are children. And so, in coming to knowledge of our world, we are not only perfected as parts, but we also confer something to that world. We add to it, of course, merely by our presence, as do all other creatures, but as intellectual creatures we add, or are intended to add, something tied up with our intellectual natures as well.

To help us see what it is that we give to creation, we will look again to Plato. In his Timaeus, he lays out a profound principle for understanding the world. In order to give an account of why God made the world, he reminds us that God is good, and it is precisely because He is good that he fashioned the world, in order to share his goodness by making something as like as possible to himself. And the different aspects of the world are there to imitate some aspect of his goodness. When he comes to describe the beginning of time, he brings this out most clearly, and uses a striking term. Time was fashioned, he says, to be an image of God’s eternality. The word he uses for image in Greek is ‘icon.’ Time is an icon of God’s eternality. We can extend this to see its motion as an icon of his activity, its multitude, an icon of his vastness, its potency, an icon of his power. And each of these adds something to the whole of creation, which is itself an icon of its cause. Thus, in making a mind such as ours, His intention was in some way to make this creation a more complete icon of Himself.

What our minds add to creation, obviously, is creaturely knowledge, and this knowledge consists in coming to know the universe in its order. And in seeing its order it comes to see its unity; its order then is an icon of the Divine unity. But our minds do not simply gaze upon that order and unity. With some things our mind adds to the unity of what it knows. Thus a multitude, when measured, becomes a number, and the before and after of motion become time. So, too, when our minds come to know the order of the universe, it completes the order and so makes it more perfectly one. There are probably more profound ways of seeing this, but one way of seeing the truth of this is to recall the words of St. Paul quoted above. The universe was made to be known, its order is intended to reveal to our minds the power and divinity of its creator, and I would add, with Boethius, its goodness. In other words, its order is itself ordered to be united to a mind, to our minds. Thus, when the mind lifts its gaze from the mundane to look upon the order and perfection of this world, and through that to see something of the Cause behind it, it is perfecting the intelligibility that is contained in its order and unity, it is completing the unity that its creator intended it to have, thus making it a more perfect creation.

This is one way to explain the pleasure, the joy that comes through contemplation, a pleasure that both Plato and Aristotle say is the greatest of all pleasures. By philosophical contemplation, we are taking our proper place in the whole, and thus can find a rest in that activity that satisfies more than anything else the restless desire of our hearts.

But it is precisely because of this rest, this rest in a good that belongs not only to us, but in a way to all of creation that makes us long to share that joy with others like ourselves. The good that we attain in the life of wisdom is a truly common good, a good that not only is not diminished by being shared, but in some way is in fact magnified by being shared. And so, though the act of understanding is in itself an inward and perfect act, not needing another for its exercise, nonetheless, its joy is such that it moves us to communicate it, for unlike our sense experience, the truth we come to know can be shared by helping others come to see what we see, or even just to behold others, parts like ourselves — other selves — resting in the same activity and joy. Our minds, then, give unity to creation by knowing it, they are themselves united in their common knowledge of creation, and our persons are united in community by a union of wills, by the mutual love that friends share with one another.

It is not merely, then, the knowledge of the truth, but the joining with others in that knowledge through love that constitutes the most perfect human happiness. (In fact this, mutatis mutandis, sounds a lot like a description of the life of the Church in heaven.) Though this happiness in its fullness is beyond the reach of most, if not all of us, nevertheless, it shares its perfection with those friendships that, though less perfect, are ordered to this life. This is why the friendship of the student and teacher or of fellow students, though it confers great benefits, is not fundamentally a friendship based on the useful good; to whatever extent it attains or is ordered to this more perfect good, it is based on this more perfect good. Thus friendship is essential to the intellectual life, and to liberal education.

This has been a pretty speculative look at friendship and the life of the mind. I would like to close by bringing some of these considerations back to the here and now. I hope that in some way these remarks have helped to make clearer the nature of what we are here for, and some of the aspects of what we do. It helps to explain the order of the classes, which is aimed at leading us step by step to some understanding of the world in which we live and our place in it. It helps to explain the commonality of the classes. Ours is an education that leads to our perfection as men, something we have in common. It also gives us truths that we can all share, and so provides a foundation for friendship to flourish. Our classes are a common discussion of many different minds bringing together different experiences of life in order to shed different lights upon the truths that we consider.

I would like to pause a moment on this last thing. We live together in somewhat close quarters, and we spend a year with the same students working together to grow in wisdom. And it works really well for the most part — there have been those sections described as sections from hell, but they are a real minority. Now, it works so well because of the union of our desires to work for something really good, really worth having. However, we are none of us perfect in virtue, either moral or intellectual, and so the differences of personalities, the different difficulties that arise for each of us both in and out of class, the familiarity that develops with each other’s foibles can make that good will difficult to maintain. And so it is necessary for us to work at maintaining and developing that good will. If we put before ourselves frequently the good that we are striving for, and if we frequently remind ourselves, especially when we are tempted to unkindness, that every one of us here has something to offer the whole of our community that no one else has, that can go a long way toward avoiding difficulties in and out of class. It will develop among us friendships that will last throughout our lives, and a disposition toward friendship based on the highest things that we will take with us when we leave. Through this friendship we will make ourselves wiser and happier, our college a more perfect community, and the universe a better place.



Receive Thomas Aquinas College
lectures and talks via podcast!


Get it on iTunes
Available on Stitcher