“Love of Wisdom”
In this painting, the Renaissance artist Raphael portrays the great philosophers of ancient Greece. While the great thinking of all helped build the foundation of Western Civilization, it was Socrates, Plato and Aristotle who became—and who remain—the central figures in logic and philosophy. Raphael affirms their centrality, by portraying them at or near the middle of his work and rendering them in discussion. Plato, Socrates’ prized student, is walking with his most esteemed student, Aristotle, and the two seem to be comparing their thoughts while carrying what are perhaps the key texts of their respective works. Notice how Plato’s hand is pointing upward, suggesting his emphasis on the ideal, that the essence or form of man is perfect while man himself is not. The hand of Aristotle, in contrast, points straight ahead to suggest both his scientific and logical mind, and how we can use our senses and reason during experience in order to uncover the truth within nature—and not lose ourselves in the ephemera of Plato’s imaginary “perfect man”. This was the foundation of logic, and the Scientific Method.
One way to help understand the difference between Plato and Aristotle would be to watch a sporting event on television. In many cases, either the play-by-play announcer or sideline reporter simply report the facts of the game, while the color commentator adds “color” by putting flesh on the bones of those facts. In many cases, the first two individuals know about the game but never played in one, making their “knowledge” theoretical. The commentator, on the other hand, can add that color because he knows the game from having played in many. Therefore experience, and the first-hand knowledge gained from it, is one of the key differences between the teacher and his former student.
Off to the left of those two philosophers we can see Socrates, who seems to be engaged in the famous “dialogue.” His Socratic question and answer discussions helped participants discover the highest truth he believed was within each of us and which needed to be brought out in order for us to live the good (i.e., moral) life. This “Socratic dialogue” is known as “maieutics”, or midwifery, as it helps to birth the truth. It is also in contrast with the Sophists, whose relativistic beliefs about truth Socrates sharply criticized. One must be careful not to misunderstand Socrates’ understanding of truth, and think it means each person has his own “truth” as this would therefore make it relative. The philosopher believed truth to be an objective and eternal reality that is inscribed upon our soul, and not something each of us creates in the form of an opinion about what we believe. But do the virtues of philosophy bring us to the highest truth, limited as it is to reason and the senses?
Plato’s highest Good illuminates the truth as the sun brings to light the reality that surrounds us. But is there more? Christians believe the answer is yes, as I describe in my new book, A Boy for All Seasons, but a Man...? "As great as philosophy is, we found it could bring us only so far because of its reliance on the inherent limitations of our senses and reason. But what is the transcendent source of this reason? Unlike the rest of, say, instinctual creation, humans chose to believe there had to be more, using our will to move us further when reason had reached its limit. This transcendence is implied in a gentle caution by Dickens’ Pickwick, 'Such are the narrow views of those philosophers who, content with examining the things that lie before them, look not to the truths which are hidden beyond.'” Two big differences between philosophy and, say, Christianity, are the belief in the revealed truth of a loving Creator and the agape (divine) love behind that revelation that each of us can give to another. This action love emphasizes how others can live a fuller and better life by our intentional actions, rather than emphasizing how good our lives can become by what we do for ourselves. The goodness of Aristotle’s virtue of excellence in what we do is more self-directed, when compared with the charitable (i.e., “love”) virtue of Jesus Christ in directing our excellence toward others.
Of course the greatest example of this is found in the Gospel of John, with the evangelist’s inspired words affirming, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” And no greater demonstration of this love exists, than when Jesus lay down his body on that cross. Behind all this love is the love of God, who thought enough of his creation that he would send down His Son in order to save us—for Him.