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Philosophy and the Sense For Mystery | Josef Pieper | A Selection from For The Love of Wisdom: Essays on the Nature of Philosophy

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In what follows, it is not my intent to discuss what philosophy or certain philosophers have to teach about a specific topic, "mystery". Rather, I shall be talking about the notions of philosophy and philosophizing insofar as a specific relation to mystery is peculiar to them.


During the high watermark of philosophical self-awareness, which, however, appears to be coming to an end, one was prone to forget that the notions of philosophy and philosophizing had from the outset been conceived as negative concepts-at the very least, more like negative concepts than positive ones. I need not repeat here the well-known tale of Pythagoras, already a legend in classical antiquity, whereby this great teacher of the sixth century B.C. was the first to coin the term "philosophy": God alone can be called wise; man may at best be called a wisdom-loving seeker after truth. [1] Plato, too, speaks of the difference between wisdom and philosophy, between sophos and philosophos. In the Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates say that neither Solon nor Homer should be described as "wise": "To call him wise, Phaedrus, would I think be going too far; the epithet is proper only to a god. A name that would fit him better, and have more seemliness, would be 'lover of wisdom,' or something similar." [2] And Diotima, who in the Symposium gives voice to Plato's most profound thoughts, expresses the same idea in the form of a negative: "[N]one of the gods are seekers after truth" (that is, philosophizes). [3]

What else can this mean if not that from the very outset philosophy--and philosophizing--were construed as something that is not sophia, not wisdom, not knowledge, not understanding, not the possession of truth?

This way of thinking is, however, not peculiar to Pythagoreanism or Platonism. Aristotle, the initiator of a critical, scientific form of philosophizing, proceeds farther along the same path, at least as far as metaphysics-the most philosophical discipline--is concerned. And Thomas Aquinas, in his masterly commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics, accurately presents the views of that outstanding Greek when he writes that the metaphysical truth about Being does not, strictly speaking, fall to man as his possession ("non competit homini ut possessio"); it is not held by man as his property but rather as a loan ("sicut aliquid mutuatum"). [4] Aquinas then goes on to endow this circumstance with a speculative significance of such extreme depth that it can hardly be plumbed; here all that can be done is to gesture toward it. Aquinas is arguing, namely, that wisdom cannot be man's property precisely because it is being sought for its own sake: what we possess fully is incapable of satisfying us to such a degree that we would strive after it for its own sake: "That truth alone is sought for its own sake which does not fall to man as his own possession." [5]

It is not that, on Aquinas' and Aristotle's view, man would be cut off from any relation to sophia--this is precisely what is not being said. The philosophical question does, indeed, aim at wisdom; what in the act of philosophizing is inquired after is, in fact, an ultimate, comprehending knowledge. But--and this can be affirmed with great certainty--we not only do not possess such wisdom, but we are incapable of possessing it on principle, and this is why we will also not possess it in the future. By contrast, we are undoubtedly capable of possessing the answers provided by the special sciences (they, on the other hand, cannot satisfy us to the degree that we would pursue them "for their own sake".) It belongs to the very essence of a philosophical question that it inquire after the definitive nature, the final meaning, the ultimate origin of the real. A genuine philosophical question takes the form: What is man, truth, knowledge, life, or whatever "in the final analysis and as such"? Now that means that this type of query aims by its very nature at an answer that both includes and expresses fully and without qualification the essence of that which is being asked about. Such questioning demands an answer in which, as Aquinas says (when he is defining what it means to "comprehend"), "the thing is so far known as it is intelligible in itself." [6] Accordingly, an adequate response to a philosophical question would have to be one that exhausts its object, a statement in which the intelligibility of the real thing being questioned is drained off until nothing knowable is left and everything that remains is known. I have said that this would be an adequate answer to a philosophical question; "adequate" here means that the answer formally corresponds to the question; the question, however, let us recall, concerns the definitive nature, the ultimate origin of a real existing thing. The philosophical question aims, by its very nature, at a comprehending response in the strict sense. Aquinas would claim, however, that we are absolutely incapable of comprehending anything-unless it is our own work (insofar as this really is our own work: the marble as such is not part of the sculptor's work!).

All this implies that it belongs to the very essence of a philosophical question that it cannot be answered in the same sense in which it is asked. On this point, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas find themselves in complete agreement with the major traditions of mankind. And it would already constitute a rationalistic aberration from the philosophia perennis were one to overlook this negative element in the original conception of philosophy. Let us cast another glance at the tradition of the philosophia perennis to see whether such an unusual and perhaps even scandalous statement can really be found there.

Aristotle, in an extremely festive and, as it were, very un-Aristotelian formulation, says that the question of what Being is, "both now and of old, has always been raised, and always been the subject of doubt.' [7] Aquinas not only comments on this sentence without raising any objections, he uses such formulations himself. For example, he himself notes that the exertions of all the philosophers combined have not yet been sufficient to track down the essence of even a single mosquito. [8] And how often does the sentence recur in the Summa theologica and Quaestiones disputatae de veritate: "We do not know the essential differences between things", [9] which means that we do not know the essence of the things themselves; and this is the reason why we are also unable to give to them their essential names. Aquinas even goes so far as to speak of the imbecillitas intellectus nostri, of the stupidity of our minds, which are not adequate to the task of "reading off" in natural things what is naturally revealed in them about God. [10]

It would then truly appear as if Aquinas had with a very extreme formulation not only laid the foundation for a theologia negativa ("This is the highest form that man's knowledge of God can take: to know that we do not know God insofar as we recognize that God's essence lies beyond all that which we know of him" [11]) but also formulated the guiding principle for something like a philosophia negativa (although this neologism is perhaps more at risk of being misunderstood and misapplied than that of the theologia negativa).

This essential peculiarity of a philosophical question--aiming at an answer that cannot be given adequately-distinguishes it from the questions of the exact sciences. The sciences have a fundamentally different relation to their respective objects; it belongs to the very nature of a science that it formulate its question in such a way that it can be adequately answered-or at least in such a way that it is not in principle unanswerable. One day the medical profession will finally know what the ultimate cause of cancer is. But the question concerning the essence of knowledge, of spirit, of life-the question of the ultimate meaning of this whole world, so wonderful and awful at the same time--these questions will never be definitively answered in a philosophical manner, although they can certainly be expressed in a philosophical form. What is explicitly und unmistakably being sought in the philosophical question is knowledge of the highest cause (as Aquinas says, wisdom as such, genuine wisdom, consists in just this knowledge), [12] but philosophy will persist in this search, on this path, passionately inquiring, as long as man--and mankind generally--is on this path, in statu viatoris. Thus any claim to have found the "cosmic formula" can be dismissed without need of further inspection as unphiosophical. It belongs to the very essence of philosophy that it cannot take the form of a "closed system"--"closed" in the sense that the essential reality of the world would be adequately reflected in it.


What, however, becomes of this "negative" element when philosophy becomes Christian philosophy? It is a commonly held opinion that Christian philosophy is superior to non-Christian philosophy in that it, the Christian philosophy, is in possession of more polished, final answers.

This, however, is not true. Christian philosophy really does have one advantage, though, or, at any rate, it can have this advantage at times. This notwithstanding, the superiority of Christian philosophy does not consist in its having at its disposal conclusive, exhaustive, ultimate answers to philosophical questions. Wherein does it consist, then? Garrigou-Lagrange, in his beautiful book on the sense of mystery,* writes that it is precisely the distinguishing mark of a Christian philosophy not to have at its disposal more refined solutions but rather to possess to a higher degree than any other philosophy a sense of mystery. Again, what does this distinction mean? To what extent can it legitimately be regarded as evidence of Christian philosophy's superiority-when not even Christian philosophy itself can arrive at a final resolution of these problems?

Now the superiority that is being asserted here on behalf of Christian philosophy consists in its being able to attain to a higher degree of truth. Christian philosophy really does contain a higher degree of truth in that it is more profoundly aware of the fact that that the world and Being itself are a mystery and for that reason inexhaustible. The more profoundly one comes to recognize positively the structure of reality, the clearer it becomes that reality is a mystery. The reason for this inexhaustibility of the real is that the world is creation, a creature, that is, that it has its origin in God's incomprehensible conceptual knowledge. Now it is peculiar to all Being to be a product of God's creative knowledge, which is absolutely and infinitely superior to human knowledge; this characteristic of Being comes to the fore all the more compellingly, the more profound the insight into reality. And it may reasonably be suspected that, when reality is experienced as an inexhaustible creature, it is known and grasped in a much more profound sense than when it is simply translated into a perspicacious and seemingly closed system of theses.

But does the recourse to theological truth not make a definitive solution possible? This question may be countered with another question: whether the purpose--so to speak, the soteriological purpose of theology is not to prevent mortal thought from arriving at "solutions" that, in their abstract transparency, may perhaps constitute a strong temptation, a powerful form of seduction, but are not consonant with the mysteriously multiform structure of reality. Such "hindrances", which are in fact a godsend, do not exactly make Christian philosophizing easy from an intellectual standpoint; one might, on the other hand, argue that the ensuing complications are, for their part, a distinguishing mark of Christian philosophy. When Aquinas appeals to theological arguments, it is not with the purpose of being able to offer more refined solutions but rather to break through the methodological confinement of "pure philosophy" and to open up the genuine impetus behind philosophical questioning--above and beyond the aporia of natural thought--to the realm of the revealed mystery.

Now, what is meant here by mystery is not something exclusively negative and more than simply what is obscure. In fact, when understood more precisely, mystery does not imply obscurity at all. It connotes light, but a light of such plenitude that it remains "unquenchable" for a knowing faculty or a linguistic capacity that is merely human. The notion of mystery should not suggest that the effort involved in thinking runs up against a wall but rather that this effort exhausts itself in the unforeseeable, in the space--the unlimited breadth and depth-of creation.

Thus the promise and priority of Christian philosophy he in the fact that it is called upon to deliver a more profound insight into both the plenitude and the inexhaustibility of truth. The more profound the insight into its plenitude, the more profound is the insight into its inexhaustibility. The insight into the inadequacy of human knowledge increases in proportion with this knowledge itself. While the sciences may properly restrict themselves to the realm of the positively knowable, philosophy, whose nature it is to inquire into the origins of what is real and so penetrate various strata of its createdness, is formally concerned with the incomprehensible, with the creature as mystery.


[1] Phaedrus 278d 3-6.
[2] Ibid. [Quoted after the translation by R. Hackforth, in Plato: The Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, 1961), p. 524.]
[3] Symposium 204a1. [Quoted after the translation by Michael Joyce, in Plato: The Collected Dialogues, p. 556.]
[4] In Met. I, 3 (no. 64).
[5] Ibid.
[6] SuperJoh. I, ii (no. 213).
[7] Metaphysics 7.I.1028b1-2. [Quoted after the translation in Jonathan Barnes, ed., The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation (Princeton, 1984) 2:1624.]
[8] Symb. Apost., prologue (no. 864).
[9]Ver. 4, I ad 8; see also 1, 29, 1 ad 3.
[10] Ver. 5, 2 ad 11.
[11] Pot. 7, ad 14.
[12] 1, II, 9, 2.
* [Der Sinn für das Geheünnis und das Hell-Dunkel des Geistes (Paderborn, 1937), pp. 112f.--ED.]

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Author page for Josef Pieper
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Other Josef Pieper books published by Ignatius Press:

Josef Pieper: An Anthology
Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power
Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart
Divine Madness: Plato's Case Against Secular Humanism
The End of Time: A Meditation on the Philosophy of History
Faith Hope Love
Guide to Thomas Aquinas
Happiness and Contemplation
Hope and History
The Human Wisdom of St. Thomas
In Defense of Philosophy: Classical Wisdom Stands Up to Modern Challenges
In Search of the Sacred: Contributions to An Answer
Leisure: The Basis of Culture
On Hope
Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation

Josef Pieper (1904-1997) is widely considered to be one of the finest Catholic philosophers of the 20th century. He was educated in the Greek classics and the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. He was a professor of philosophy at the University of Münster in Germany. His books have earned international acclaim from both Catholic and non-Catholic scholars. Read much more about his life and work on his IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page.

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