Wednesday, June 15, 2005


Wayfaring Strangers, Part 18

(Wayfaring Strangers is a continuing series about our experiences as my wife and I study to convert to Catholicism.)

Aquinas, Plato, Aristotle, and a Side Order of Nietzsche

I haven't posted a Wayfaring Strangers entry in a while because I've been waiting to come up with something conclusive to post about what I've been reading. In the last episode, I had been reading Thomas Aquinas, trying to further my understanding of Catholicism by studying the theology of this sainted philosopher's Summa Theologica. Aquinas's work was heavily philosophical and daunting, so I decided to go back further and learn something about the Greek philosophers who'd influenced him; namely, Aristotle (who's work had been something of a template for Aquinas) and Plato, who'd taught Aristotle. Along the way, I took a quick look at Friedrich Nietzsche, who's work I'd tried to understand when I was young, confident, impressionable, agnostic, and desperate to be an "independent deep thinker."

After all this reading, I have something conclusive to report: I can report that I have concluded that all of this philosophy I've been reading has been a fun, irrelevant distraction. It's been a little illuminating, I guess, to really take in these influential perspectives... but it's been a side-bar item, at best, and contributed little to my study of Catholicism in specific, or my spiritual development in general. I think it's time to get back to the Bible.

However, since I have done this studying, and since I do have some ideas about what I've read, I'll go ahead and post a bit.


Play-Doh PlatoPlato's philosophy IS very useful to me as a Christian, actually... although it seems now that I've been "Platonic" in my thought processes without even realizing it. I'd probably have continued to be so if I'd never read anything about Plato. It is easy to see his clinical influence on the theologians I love. Plato's ideas about "the Good," and his beliefs about the virtues of wisdom, temperance, courage and justice, fit perfectly into a Christian belief system. In fact, you could almost think of him as a pre-Christ Christian. I like his geometric approach to virtue. It's something like this: Even if humans hadn't stumbled across the concept of a circle, the idea of a circle, the perfect, ideological form of a circle, would still exist, independent of our awareness of it. The same is true of virtues like justice. Even if a person or a society is totally unjust, the virtue of justice still exist. From evidence in our lives and the fact that we are drawn to virtues like justice naturally, Plato theorized that life was dualistic... that our spiritual lives were as real as our physical ones. Of course, that agrees with Christianity. I also like Plato's illustration of human existence as "a man in the cave," seeing only shadows on the cave walls. Plato believed that the journey to real truth was like the slow, arduous, dangerous journey out of a dark cave. Many people... most, in fact... are simply unwilling to make that journey. Plato also believed that we are the product of conscious design, which jibes with Christianity, of course. I don't think his "great society" idea was anything more than idealistic dreaming, even if it was the headiest, smartest kind... and I think that Plato probably knew that, too. That kind of society isn't obtainable in this life. Still, Plato's methods are important to Christian philosophy, and contain early blueprints for a basic Christian life.


Play-Doh PlatoAristotle was a student of Plato's who studied his teacher's ideas intensely and decided that a great many of them were off base. If I understand his work, he felt that Plato's ideas about abstract forms were too academic to be of any real value, and that it was almost a waste of time to contemplate them. It might be fair to argue that Aristotle was more "pro-active" than Plato, or at least more concerned with the physical world than his master had been. Aristotle zeroed in on ideas about God that were, by and large, harmonious with the Judeo-Christian ideas about God. It's easy to see how his work and methods would have influenced Aquinas. I like Aristotle's ideas about form and matter, and how pleasure and happiness are rarely the same thing. I also draw a lot of comfort out of his ideas that everything in the world is naturally drawn to God, and that we have to behave counter to our best interest and natural inclinations in order to draw ourselves away from God. It was probably inevitable, in fact, that he'd be a favorite of Aquinas's. He took Plato to a higher level, made his master's philosophy more "practical" and less purely academic. If it weren't for Aristotle, I doubt that Plato would have ultimately influenced Christian philosophy as much as he has.


Play-Doh PlatoWhen I last wrote about Aquinas, I wrote that I was having trouble understanding a lot of what I'd read by him. He was a bulky writer. His masterpiece, the Summa Theologica, is longer than the complete works of Aristotle, in fact. What I like about Aquinas is that he was very clinical. Not "academic," so to speak, but very clinical in his approach. Thanks to a very elementary text that I read, I have a better understanding of the metaphysics behind Aquinas's "five proofs of God," and I think that they're all as sound and valid as I could have wanted them to be. The fact that I am a professing Christian who is still looking for "proofs of God," however, is another matter. It might be an indication that I'll spend the rest of my life fighting doubts. I hope not. It isn't really necessary for me to cover this ground again and again. I'm trying to really decide if I keep covering this ground repeatedly because I just like doing it, or if I have some larger internal doubts that I have to address.

The big lightning bolt that struck me from Aquinas's work, however, was his ideas about the division between the intellect and the soul. Aquinas believed and taught that the intellect exists independent of the soul. He believed that it is possible in a single person for one (the soul or intellect)to be corrupt and the other healthy. I believe that myself, and it is also a fundamental belief of Catholicism. From my readings, I've learned that many protestant churches do not believe that. It seems that many protestant churches do believe that the intellect and the soul are connected, and that if the soul is corrupted, the intellect will naturally suffer and deteriorate. I don't know specifically which protestant churches believe that, I haven't had much luck in tracking down that info. In any case, I have to say that I agree with the Catholic church on this one. It's yet another sign that Catholicism is the faith for me. I do believe that it is possible to have a terribly injured and neglected soul and still have a brilliant intellect. Which brings me to the next guy:


When I was young, I was desperate to understand Nietzsche. He seemed like the "cool" philosopher, and I believed that if I read his work and understood it, the people I admired would admire me, too.

I mentioned that I was just a kid, right? Teens and early 20's. What did I know?

Nietzsche was an atheist and a philosopher... sort of... who believed that life was pointless, that there was no God and no hope, and that the best thing a person could do was accept that and find their own belief system and rely on it entirely. He believed that morals were a lie, and that people who tried to live their lives by moral guidelines where "slaves." He believed that the only people who were masters of their own lives... supermen, as he called them... were those who'd shaken off ideas about morality and were living in the moment, focused on their own self interest. Nietzsche believed that each person had their own perspective, and that each person's perspective was as valuable and "real" as anyone else's. He believed that the only things that are actually "good" are those things that lead to each individual's happiness, and that ideas like "absolute good" were "lies" and "errors."

I know all of this because I've just read a text about Nietzsche. It's almost impossible to understand his beliefs by reading his writing itself. Nietzsche seemed to enjoy playing games with his readers, and wrote in a subversive style that read like crack-head poetry or the bizarre ranting of A.A. Milne on acid.

In fact, I think that's the best way to describe Nietzsche and his pithy sayings and self-congratulatory ideas. He was like a product of A.A. Milne on acid... sort of an evil Winnie the Pooh, designed to appeal to Christopher Robins who've shaken off their dependence on the original Pooh and are looking for a new stuffed animal.

Nietzsche's ideas didn't even agree with themselves. For instance, if the best thing you can do is to adopt your own belief system and live by it, wouldn't the person who adamantly believes in God in the face of an atheistic society be as much a "master of his own life" as anyone else? And for that matter, if each person's perspective is as much a "reality" as anyone else's, wouldn't the perspective of a devoutly religious person be as real as Nietzsche's atheistic perspective? And, for that matter, if ideas about "absolute good" are "lies" and "errors," wouldn't there be a "truth" and a "correctness" to compare them to? Nietzsche's ideas didn't stand up when compared to themselves, much less to any other philosophers. The poor guy died insane and penniless in his 50's.

It's easy to see why Nietzsche would appeal to young know-it-alls, like I used to be... even if I couldn't understand him, myself. At this point I'd submit that nobody can really understand him, but since his ideas are all impossible to understand, anyone who wants to can argue that they get it and anyone who doesn't get it is simply ignorant of the truth. Whatever. I have to believe that Nietzsche's ideas weren't real philosophy, they were simply his attempt to destroy all the philosophy and theology that came before him and maybe gain some fame and make a little money along the way. Nonetheless, I am glad that I went back and finally figured out where I stand on the guy.

So, anyway, there's the grand results of my philosophical side-trip. Not much else to report. As far as what I'll be reading next, I'm ready to get back in the Bible itself. With regard to Catholicism, I have pretty much accepted and embraced a lot of the church's teachings. I believe in transubstantiation and in purgatory, and I've pretty much come around on birth control, as well. I've agreed with the Catholic church on the death penalty and abortion and other "culture of life" issues for some time now. I've still not found any personal satisfaction on the issues of Mary's assumption or coronation. Those are the areas that I need to be working on. Will I come to believe them or won't I? I still can't say for sure. We'll see.

Interesting take. I like that reading this stuff directs you to your own beliefs and illuminates potential stumbling blocks. I've taken many college classes where people kept trying to disagree with the philosophers, as if to prove them wrong, but that isn't the point, is it?
Meepers: I've taken many college classes where people kept trying to disagree with the philosophers, as if to prove them wrong, but that isn't the point, is it?

Well, that's a good point. Although, I think that disagreeing with a given philosophy is a valid way to explore, define, and refine your own beliefs... but if you're disagreeing just to argue, that's kinda pointless.
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