Divine Philosophy—questions are as important as answers.

The final—and also the highest—type of philosophy discussed in The Liberal Arts Tradition is divine philosophy. “Divine philosophy” would be easy to confound with theology, or the special revelation that we have in the Bible, but that’s not quite what is meant. Theology is the final element of the PGMAPT acronym, and has a role in the classical paradigm, but “divine philosophy” is more concerned with the truth that is knowable but not part of the physical world. Hence, Clark and Jain use the word “metaphysics” as an equivalent term.

Metaphysics is the study of being: what can be said of all of reality? For the medievals, metaphysics asked what could be held as true of the world, humanity, and even God. Are there any kinds of attributes that apply to all of these loci of reality?

Those are good questions, and sometimes just asking good questions contributes to education by placing us in the right frame of mind for learning, whether we ever discover conclusive answers or not.

The medievals who asked these questions more or less came to a consensus that there were five essential elements that are present in reality: being, goodness, truth, beauty, and unity.

Obviously, there is no way I can elaborate on all that in a blog post. This is Metaphysics .0101.  Clark and Jain only offer the tip of the iceberg on the few pages they devote to this topic. But it’s enough to start your mind moving in some interesting ways.

For example, I think right away of the way God expressed his identity to Moses: “I am that I am”—the final being, inherent being, the essence of all being. And I think of the way that the God who is created the world and day by day declared “it is good.” Not every philosopher who perceived truth, beauty, and goodness had the revelation of God,  but since we do, metaphysics (or divine philosophy) is even more profound and transcendent.

This is ground that Charlotte Mason meant for her pupils to tread.

Philosophy offers fascinating and delightful travelling, and the wayfarer here learns many lessons of life; but he does not find the same firm foothold as he whose way leads him through the Principality of Mathematics. Still, certainty is not the best thing in the world. To search, to endeavour, and to feel our way to a foothold from point to point is also exhilarating; and every step that is gained is a resting-place and a house of ease for Mansoul. (Ourselves, p. 39)

You see what she’s saying there? Ask the questions. Ask and ask and keeping asking. The search and the endeavour is in itself a rewarding—even exhilarating—process.

When you combine metaphysics with natural and moral philosophy (because they are not really separate pursuits, but aspects of one whole), you get questions like this:

What is man? Is the concept “man” only an amalgamation of the multitude of particular examples of men that exist? Or is there some essence to man that is a universal truth?

I think you won’t be surprised to find Charlotte Mason weighing in on this idea, and in the book addressed to young people:

Many persons think themselves quite different from everybody else, which is a mistake. Self-knowledge teaches that what is true of everybody else is true of us also; and when we come to know how wonderful are the powers and how immense are the possibilities of Mansoul, we are filled, not with pride, but with Self-reverence, which includes reverence and pity for the meanest and most debased, because each of these is also a great Mansoul, though it may be a Mansoul neglected, ruined, or decayed. (Ourselves, p. 34)

The inherent, absolute essence of truth, beauty, and goodness, and being is the proper sphere for all of us, as persons, to pursue. We pursue it concretely via history, art, literature, and nature, and when we are a little older, we can pursue it more directly and abstractly with metaphysical questions. That is the central paradigm of the classical tradition, and that’s part of why my confidence that Charlotte Mason is a part of that tradition grows stronger the more I read.

Clark and Jain remind us that our modern thinking has strayed from this tradition, and some thinkers attribute our modern problems to  that departure. They tell us that from that perspective, metaphysics is “the guardian of the secret questions of culture.”

They shouldn’t be secret, but we are so accustomed to skim the surface of things, we forget that these questions matter. If something like the definition of the word “is” is called into question (and the authors remind us that it famously was), then what is under attack is the metaphysical understanding of being, through the medium of language. That’s why I suggested that the essence of grammar—the noun-ness of nouns—is more vital than the rules that govern their usage. Without the principles of language/grammar we have no way to communicate at all. Nothing would have meaning.

Clark and Jain quote J.I. Packer, and I want to share just a little part of that quote:

“Participating in the truth meant to be mastered by it rather than mastering it.”

I find this very interesting. Our mental posture as we approach knowledge makes all the difference. Will it shape us, or do we mean to wrestle it into a form that suits us?

All three aspects of philosophy—natural, moral, and divine—urge us to participate in the search for truth. Charlotte Mason called it an exhilarating endeavor. It’s a human endeavor. Restoring even a rudimentary understanding of these things into our educational efforts will enlarge our students’ minds and hearts and souls. I can’t do more in this blog post, really, than point out the mere existence of vast realms of ideas to be pursued. It’s a journey for a lifetime, not something you’ll wrap up in a 45 minute class lecture or even a 3-credit college course. Just understanding that is a good beginning.

If you take nothing else away from this, I hope you’ll remember that even when we isolate one aspect of the classical tradition for discussion, nothing is truly separate or isolated. Clark and Jain concur:

All of the curricular categories which we have advocated in this work should be respected and appreciated by a holistic philosophy.

In other words—synthetic thinking. Education is the science of relations. All knowledge is connected.

And the connections matter.

Copyright 2018 Karen Glass


Link to all the posts in the Liberal Arts Tradition discussion.