Thursday, June 14, 2007

Raising A Wise Man (or Woman)

After a morning of singing "Knick-knack paddy-whack" and "Open, shut them," I am not sure how well the gray cells are firing. I am still, however, anxious to contemplate the sort of woman I would like Miriam to become. So, here are some Aristotelian meditations on the wise man (yes, I know, "person").

The wise man, as we said in the previous post, is the one who seeks the why of things. Why do ducks migrate? Why are men and women so different? Why do I want to be both bad and good? Why does Mummy not let me eat ants on my sandwich?

There are several common opinions of what makes a person wise. Aristotle lists these in Chapter 2 of the Metaphysics: a wise man has comprehensive knowledge, he knows difficult things, he is capable of teaching others what he knows, he has a speculative (read: useless) type of knowledge, and he is the guy in charge. That sounds about right--the sort of answers you would get if you asked "the man on the street."

Aristotle, of course, takes it one step further. Wisdom, he says, is more than just knowing lots of particular facts (who was the 22nd president? what is an alloy? is lipstick waterproof?). Someone might know lots of trivia and win Jeapordy, but still not be wise.

Wisdom is having a universal knowledge (or, as a priest professor I had liked to say, "Catholic" knowledge!). A wise man knows what is common to many things. This is a difficult knowledge, because it requires that the intellect take what it knows from sensations and draw from those particular things common truths. The most wise man of all will know what is common to all things: he will know BEING itself. He will be able to express the act of being as the first principle.

First principles are the key here. A first principle is foundational--if you've got it, you've got the key to understanding all things, the key to wisdom. The first principle is also called the first cause--it is the why of all things. It's the beginning and source of everything else. The wise man has ascended the chain from his particular little sensations to knowledge of the causes and principles of all things.

This may seem awfully difficult. But Aristotle insists that the first cause is the most knowable thing of all. In his terms, it is the most intelligible. That's because it is the source. You can follow the stream of all particular beings back and back to their one source--the first principle, their cause.

That is true wisdom--to see the first cause in all its effects, to see the unity of beings in their source.

Pope John Paul II was very keen on this part of philosophy. For him, as for me and you, contemplating the source was a personal encounter with God, the first cause. This poem is from his trilogy, "Roman Triptych."

I. Wonderment

The undulating wood slopes down
to the rhythm of mountain streams.
To me this rhythm is revealing You,
the Eternal Word.

How amazing is Your silence
in everything, in all that on every side
unveils the world of creation about us ...
all that, like the undulating wood,
runs down every slope ...
all that is carried along
by the silvery stream's cascade,
rhythmically falling from the mountain,
carried by its own current --
carried where?

2. The Source

The undulating wood slopes down
to the rhythm of mountain streams ...
If you want to find the source,
you have to go up, against the current.
Back through, search, don't yield,
you know it must be here somewhere.
Where are you? ... Source, where are you?

Silence ...
Stream, woodland stream,
tell me the secret
of your origin! ~John Paul II, The Stream

That is the sort of prayer I would like Miriam to pray one day. It is the prayer of the wise man.

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