"In the older systems both the kind of man the teachers wished to produce and their motives for producing him were prescribed by the Tao---a norm to which the teachers themselves were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart. They did not cut men to some pattern they had chosen. They handed on what they had received: they initiated the young neophyte into the mastery of humanity which over-arched him and them alike. It was but old birds teaching young birds to fly." (1)

Here is encapsulated the essence of teaching and learning according to true intellectual perfections.

What it is to be a master and what it is to be a learner, in the sense that men, in so doing, act according to their own natures, and conform to that very nature according to their proper activity as intellectual beings, is found in this exchange, this gift and reception according to an order that is itself given to our knowledge. In stark contrast, however, stands this passage:

"...the whole tradition of the disciplines presents us with a series of masters and pupils, not a succession of discoverers and disciples who make notable improvements to the discoveries." (2)

The proposal of the modern method, taken here as found in seminal form in the New Organon, clashes with a resounding and cacophonous racket against the conception of learning and intellectual perfection found in the earlier period, the "older system." Indeed, while Bacon claimed that the modern age was really the old age of the world, when men had arrived at full intellectual maturity and were ready to take on the challenges of adult scientific life, the situation of the ancients is portrayed as one of childhood and fruitless and infertile adolescence. The basic accusation here is that the old system will produce nothing but more birds who can fly in the same old fashion. Indeed, what happens if this chain of knowledge should be lost? If the entire intellectual endeavor is ordered around imitation and emulation of a master, without a drive to make better upon one's predecessors in the same spirit they possessed, that is in making new and more productive discoveries, is not the ancient way in the predicament of the followers of Socrates on the day of his death?

"[SOC:]...do you think everybody can give an account of the things we were mentioning just now? [SIMMIAS:] I wish they could, but I'm afraid it is much more likely that by this time tomorrow there will be no one left who can do so adequately." (3)

Does not a method which promotes attainment of an already measured-out perfection run the risk of destroying itself? If there is no man who can measure up to the achievements of the master, of what good is the science?

Now as perverse as such an objection might seem, this seems nevertheless to be the modern rant of science against the systems and wisdoms of old. These hoary heads have been mocked and beaten about the pate as crazy fools, and useless mystics. While the old craved perfection according to a measure set forth by nature, the new seeks a perfection that it claims will ever be bettered, a vast sum and history of particulars ruled by laws continually improved upon, and only measure by nature per accidens, in the sense that eventually the techne can eliminate this chain of phusis, which it truly is, a chain, and no measure.

From this it seems that the modern and post-modern effort has pointed out (perhaps unwittingly) the key difference. Is it not that the perfection of the new scientific method is extensive, whereas the perfection of the old wisdom is intensive? The new science bases itself upon the massive historical categorization of particulars according to laws, assisted with the powerful tools of imagination and mathematics, and is in itself a sort of snowball, which gathers speed and appears to be making great progress, but at the same time separates the various parts from the others and makes a fragmentary whole. This kind of expansive, or extensive, or more material perfection evidences itself in the mode of training: it is discoverer and disciple, who in turn surpasses the previous discoverer as merely another link in the chain.

On the other hand, the old science bases itself upon an approach to what is formal and intensive, which requires an intellectual discipline that makes it appear as mysticism, for the approach from what is magis nota quoad nos to what is better known by nature is fraught with many difficulties, and requires certain sacrifices, virtues, and material conditions (e.g. leisure). Furthermore, this penetration into the universal, the intellectual, and the realm of the fundamentally real, cannot produce "results" in the material sense because it is more noble and indeed prior to such an endeavor. This old science is the wondering after the causes, about which man can truly do nothing, and realizes he can do nothing, almost as a fuzzily conceived prerequisite to entering upon such speculation. As this method prescinds from the material and humanly changeable (insofar as its perfection is concerned), it cannot be transmitted easily, or simplified, or improved upon by later "discoverers" of shortcuts. Hence this kind of intensive and "occult" knowledge requires a mode of training that likens the student to the one who has already mirrored in his intellect the order of reality.

Now, granted, in both kinds of learning, the student will pass from a state of ignorance to a state of knowledge. Furthermore, in both "kinds" of science improvements have been made by later thinkers upon their predecessors. Nevertheless, it seems consistent that the old science improves itself by becoming clearer, whereas the new science improves itself by expansion and becoming more powerful. Finally, I would submit that anytime the new science is improved by becoming clearer, it is actually participating in the old.

How then can we relate the two branches? Do they grow from the same tree? Is the elder a demented sot inebriated with his soured vintage, or is the younger a frightful bastard monster that should have been exposed?

Perhaps they can be brought into harmony:

"If by philosophy of nature is understood a science in a quite rigorous sense, that defined in Posterior Analytics I.1, and if by experimental sciences we mean those branches of the knowledge of natural things which remain in a condition of dialectical movement because they cannot sufficiently detach themselves from the singular and whose generalizations will thus always be tentative and provisory, it is understood that the two are quite distinct. Nevertheless, they bear on the same subject, their principles have a common origin, sensible matter; their term is the same, knowledge of natural things as much as possible in their proper principles. In this respect, the experimental sciences are only a continuation of the properly demonstrative science of nature. But this continuation requires the use of another method, not only in the search for principles, but for the choice and positing of the principles themselves [cites Topics I.16]" (4)

In this, then, seems to be the burden: to effect a reconciliation between the fragmented parts that constitute modern science, care must be taken to see what is prior and what is posterior, and then one can recognize that a true unity is to be found.

(1) C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, HarperCollins, New York, 2001; pp. 60-61
(2) Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, Cambridge, 2000; p. 7, "Preface to the Great Renewal"
(3) Phaedo, 76c
(4) Charles DeKoninck, "Are the Experimental Science Distinct from the Philosophy of Nature?", from The Writings of Charles DeKoninck, transl. and comp. by Ralph McInerny, Notre Dame, 2008, p. 453


  1. Frater Asinus said...
    First of all, some thoughts on discipleship, by a true disciple, and master in his own right, Marc Berquist.

    "All learning requires some kind of trust and faith; one has to believe that at least he is getting good direction from his teachers. One does not necessarily believe everything his teachers say, but he at least believes that they will direct his mind rightly in the study of what he wants to know.

    When St. Thomas says, then, that it is necessary for the learner to believe, that is not just true of the Christian, it is true of any learner who is dealing with anything that is difficult to understand. What is not always known is that in point of fact one does trust, without even being aware of the fact that he does.

    This direction by another is in some ways the most crucial part of discipleship. The learner does not know the order in which he should proceed. It is like when I try to cook something, I look at the recipe, and it tells me the order in which the various steps should be done. I must add the water to the cornstarch, not the cornstarch to the water; if I do not do it in the right order, the whole thing comes to naught. So one has to do things in a certain order or he will not reach the goal he is aiming for. "

    If you want to read the whole thing you can go to http://www.thomasaquinas.edu/news/newsletter/2006/winter/berquist.html

    I think that this goes together with what Lewis is saying in your opening paragraph.

    Secondly, I had an excellent discussion today about the relationship between empirical sciences and Natural Philosophy.
    We had been reading a portion of a book by Joseph Bubik, Aquinas on Matter and Form and the Elements
    The particulars of his argument involved making a case for quarks as fitting the definition of an element. What is more interesting and valuable from his work, however, is the wonderful synthesis of modern empirical "science" with philosophy.

    I tend to get lost in modern theories somewhere between the 11th dimension and the universe being a hologram. Modern science so quickly throws out things that we know, in order to "make the math work." This seems to be sanctioned because of the inaccessible heights (or depths) at which these abstract thinkers dwell.
    Bubik makes a very compelling case for using the principles on nature that we know to interpret and understand our empirical data.
    We cannot deny the value of modern empirical discovery. Nor can we turn our back on the great deposit of wisdom and knowledge that we have inherited from those who have gone before.
    Bravo DW! Well written.
    Dawnwatchman said...
    Frater, thank you for the link and comments.

    I'd never heard the universe as a hologram one. But it's very true what you say, the order has been reversed in modern science: math dictates to physics what should be found in sensible matter, and the mathematical model is corrected only when the effort to find the quantitative properties in sensible matter has been proven impossible or the project has run out of cash. At the same time, this seems to be a great asset to modern science, because the method of hypothesis and construction of mathematical models affords a precision of inquiry into the particular kinds of being and its particular modes of existence that would be impossible at the level of general principles of substance as mobile, etc.

    I have put the book you mentioned on my list...

    Pax, Frater!
    Vincentius said...
    For another example of a true disciple immersed in what Lewis calls "the Tao", see the Preface to St. Thomas' Contra Errores Graecorum:

    "Unde, si qua in dictis antiquorum doctorum inveniuntur quae cum tanta cautela non dicantur quanta a modernis servatur, non sunt contemnenda aut abiicienda, sed nec etiam ea extendere oportet, sed exponere reverenter."

    Here is neither blind faith nor rash individualism. I hope to write an article soon exploring his method of "reverently reading" the Holy Fathers and the possibility of expanding the notion to pagan philosophers.

Post a Comment

Newer Post Older Post Home