Why Do Things Exist? On the Meaning of Being | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | September 24, 2007 | IgnatiusInsight.com
Why Do Things Exist? On the Meaning of Being | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | September 24, 2007
"Ridentem dicere verum:
quid vetat? – What prevents a
man from speaking the truth while smiling?" -- Horace, Satires, I, 24.
"Philosophy means reflecting
on the entirety of what is encountered in experience from every conceivable
standpoint and with regard to its unique meaning. The philosophizing person is
thus not so much someone who has formed a well-rounded worldview as he is
someone who keeps a question alive and thinks it through methodically." --
Josef Pieper, "Tradition: Its Sense and Aspiration" 
"Thinking means connecting
things, and stops if they cannot be connected." -- G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy 
The citation above from
Josef Pieper concerns what it is we philosophize about. In a passage that might
otherwise seem innocent enough, Pieper has really targeted those whose
definition of reason is limited to what can be known by mathematically based
"science" or "reason" taken in its most narrow sense of excluding almost
anything that does not come under our own power of making or calculating. In
his Regensburg Lecture, the pope called this latter restriction the
"self-limitation" of reason. He implied that this "limitation" was a
"self-imposed" one, not something that corresponded to the full nature of
things. John Paul II called it "reductionism"; that is, we accept the method's
own presuppositions; to wit, only that part of reality will be admitted as real
that is amenable to a method based on matter and mathematics. Not all of
reality is composed of matter.
Scientific reason is
legitimate enough in its own area, of course, but it is not coextensive with
all of reason's scope, with all we really know and can know. Before there is
reason (the same faculty) that calculates and orders, there is reason that
intuits, that sees directly into things. Pieper is cautious about a
"well-rounded" intellectual worldview. He is aware of how easy it is to close
everything off because our system seems to be so complete, so coherent by our
reckoning. All human knowing, with its search for knowledge of the whole, with
its love of wisdom, awaits and expects a new light from what is. Even when we know--and know that we know--we are
aware that we do not yet see even the tiniest thing in its fullness. The fact
that we do not know everything by our methods does not mean that we know
nothing by them. What we do know does not necessarily militate against what we
seek to know, but incites us to seek more light.
Elsewhere, in discussing
Plato, Pieper observes that at any moment something unexpected--something we
know nothing about--can come crashing into our self-contained world: a person,
an idea, a crime, a book, a song, a sickness, a love, or even the Word of God
itself. It makes us vividly aware that we are not in charge of everything, a
knowledge that can, in fact, be a consolation. This newness of being can
utterly undermine our own "worlds." Yet, in being so "undermined," we become
more aware of a reality that we did not anticipate with our theories.
We are pleased that, after
all, there is something more of reality than we at first suspected. All loves
are really of this nature, as are all gifts, which in their essence are signs
of love, of giving oneself. The greatness of being a human, I sometimes think,
is the fact that, though we know much, we still remain aware that we do not
know everything. The mystery is that we still want to "know" and experience
everything. Why is this? How did such a being as ourselves ever come to be in
the first place?
Philosophy means not only
that all of our experience, all of what is (not just some of it), is the object of our knowing powers, but it
includes "reflecting" on this reality. We do want to understand what it means,
where it came from. Indeed, reality does not seem sufficiently real or complete
unless someone understands it, unless in the universe itself a being exists
with a power to do so. We assume that if the universe was created by God, He
appreciates it. But that is no more than saying that God knows Himself and His
works. If God created the universe solely because He just wanted to see it, as
it were, floating out there, there would be no real reason for Him to create
it. He must have had something else in mind.
Later in the same essay,
Pieper cited a short passage from Aquinas' commentary on Aristotle's De
Coelo (#228) in which, in a familiar
theme, Aquinas explains what it means to cite from "authority." It means, to be
sure, that if someone like Plato, Aristotle, or Augustine said something, we
should pay attention because each of these men knows what he is talking about.
But more profoundly, it means that we should be familiar with the argument that
is being cited and its relation to the point of our concern. The author is not
especially important--but his argument is. And arguments are not themselves
merely spectacles or displays of intellectual finesse. They are designed to
know the truth; they are designed to be settled. And what settled argument
means, at bottom, is to arrive at the truth of what is.
One of the principal sources
of what we come to know, or at least of our personal coming to know it, is
through the guidance of others who have thought through an issue often before
we ourselves were ever born. We must be "teachable." We really can learn from
others if they know how to teach us and have something to say. But what they
are teaching us is not their personal doctrine or possession but what is true--what
is. We do not go to college to learn
the opinions of the professors. We go to the university to learn the truth of
things, in the pursuit of which, hopefully, the opinions of professors are
helpful. They are not always, to be sure. If I assist a student in arriving at
the truth of something through his own reflection so that he sees the point for
what it is, he does not end up knowing "my" truth, but truth itself. Truth is
free. No one "owns" it. This is the glory of our kind. This is why, ultimately,
we can all live in the same world that we did not make. Indeed, this is why we
can ultimately be "given" all things.
After Aquinas tells us about
the status of authority, which is useful and helpful, or can be, in knowing the
truth, he goes to the heart of the matter. What is important finally is "how
things are in reality."  We do
well to ponder such a phrase. It says, in effect, that what exists out there in
reality is already there without our having anything to do with it.
Moreover, the world does not
come across to us as something inert, even when it is "inert." The poets are
right when they tell us that we can never exhaust the depths of even the
tiniest thing. The philosopher adds that "the what it is" of a thing and "the that it is" are not the same. Christian theology tells us that what
is, as we know it, is created, one of those pieces of information to which Pieper referred when he told us that
philosophy is interested in the whole of our experience. With this explanation,
other things we could not grasp become explainable when we tried to make sense
While it is possible to
imagine a world that does not exist, which is what fiction is about, we cannot
imagine a world that cannot exist, that is, a world simply built on
contradictions. This is the problem with theoretic voluntarism in God as an
explanation of the source of reality. If God, to show his power or will, could
make "the what exists" standing before me, while it exists, at the same time
not to exist, then I can have no idea of what is really out there. My knowledge
of reality depends not on my knowing power but on an act of faith that what God
wills is still what I see before me. My senses and my mind do not inform me of
what is there since it might be otherwise.
If I "blaspheme" God by
saying that He cannot make what exists not to exist as it exists (this is what
the principle of contradiction is about, what Deus Logos est is about), I am faithful to Him at the expense of
the world itself. The unrestricted power of a god who is not dependent on Logos, on God's truth, evaporates any possibility of
confidently knowing what is out there. It leads to a despair of things in the
name of praising God. It makes science impossible. Not only, on such a basis,
can I not "prove" that God exists from existing things (the opposite of what
Aquinas held), but I cannot even be sure I myself exist.
This confusion is the
problem of Islam and Western voluntarism about which the pope often speaks. We
want to worship God so much that we deprive His creation of any substantial
reality. With it, we deprive our minds of any object to know. We want, in a
kind of excessive piety, to say everything that we see is what God, by His
arbitrary power, is making us to see here and now. But it all could be the
opposite. With such presuppositions, we are not deriving our knowledge from an
actual creation that we can observe with our own minds as it is there before
Our imagination, however,
includes being and the principles of being within its very operation. Our
thinking is about the existence of things, including ourselves. This is the
thinking that we can and do test against being. As Chesterton implied, if we
cannot connect what we think with reality, we stop thinking about it. In this
sense that connections can be made, even imagination, myth, and fairy tales are
connected with reality which is why, for example, we read the Lord of the
We have lively minds. They
are, as Aristotle said, capable of knowing all that exists. Indeed, they seek
to know all that exists and are uneasy if they do not. More especially, we want
to know why all that exists does
exist. Our initial experience is that we are--but we are limited, finite. On
the plain of existence, we arrive already having been given what we are. We
wonder, "Why?" We are not asked if we want to exist, a contradiction in any
case. We notice other things besides ourselves. We are, if we can get out of
our own self-concern, fascinated by those other things. We find that some of these
other beings also wonder, as we do, about this wanting to know everything. But
we are confined to the space and time of our individual existence. This very
experience makes us wonder of our souls are somehow immortal. This seems to be
what concerned Socrates at the end of The Apology.
These reflections were
caused by an e-mail, which I received the other day. A young man, evidently a
teacher, wrote to me something he admitted sounded "strange" and almost
"funny." He observed that "for the majority of my students the existence of
things is almost irrelevant; for them everything is how you choose to think
about it. But then I suppose that the job of the philosopher, especially the
Christian philosopher, is to insist on the obvious because that's what's most
likely to be taken for granted." I was so taken by that passage that I read it
to a class. "The existence of things is almost irrelevant." For me, the existence of things is the most relevant fact about the things
we daily encounter. Then I began to notice that about half the people that I
meet walking across campus have an i-Pod or some similar contraption in their
ears. When you pass them, they do not hear you unless you are loud. You have to
wave in front of their eyes. Though music itself is a "thing" and cities are
artifacts of many generations, it almost seems that my friend is right. A wall
of sound exists between man and things.
It is the task of the
Christian philosopher to insist on the obvious, on what is most taken for
granted. What is amazing about something is not "how we feel" about it, or even
what we will do with it. Before we can have any of these reactions, we must
know, acknowledge, and even celebrate the very existence of things. Much of
modern thought, I think, has been a desperate effort to prevent us from knowing
this existence of things. Instead we know our consciousness, or a priori's, or theories of things. It is as if we wanted a
knowledge of the world, provided it did not require us to wonder why there is
something rather than nothing.
Several decades ago, Jean Cardinal Dani四ou wrote, in words that still seem appropriate: "I
believe that there is a certain sickness of contemporary intelligence, a
certain powerlessness to adhere, a certain powerlessness to say 'yes,' and in
an absolute primacy of the 'no.' This situation is contrary to that which
constitutes for me the basic dignity of intelligence which is the possibility
of grasping being."  If we are primarily interested in how we "feel" about a
thing, and not in the thing itself and what sort of "feelings" that might be
appropriate to it, we cut ourselves off from being. "The basic dignity of
intelligence is the possibility of grasping being," to repeat Dani四ou's principle.
Karl Marx once said, in a
famous passage in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, that wherever he looked he wanted to see only man.
He wanted a world without a window that would cause us to wonder about it all.
He was, in fact, setting up a closed world against God. If all we ever see is
man and our own theories and artifacts, we will never be interested in anything
but ourselves and what we can make or rule. Nietzsche, of course, gave up on
any of these theories that sought to explain reality by some coherent
philosophic system once the connection with being had been lost beginning with
Descartes. He thought we would be more honest just to seek power and make what
we wanted without any pretense that it conformed to a reality that we could not
These remarks I have
entitled "the existence of things." The first of the initial citations was from
the Roman poet, Horace. He remarked that no contradiction exists between our
joy or our smiling and our knowing the truth. Chesterton made the same point.
Someone once said that he could not be serious about what he said because he
was so witty in saying it. Chesterton in effect made the same reply as Horace.
He said that the opposite of "funny" is not "serious." The proper opposite of
"funny" is "not funny." There is no reason why the truth cannot also be funny,
amusing. I cite both Horace and Chesterton on the same point because reason, in
properly knowing things, is a cause of delight, of amusement, of joy. The
intellect, as Aristotle said, has its own unique pleasure. The existence of
things flows out of the abundance of things and points not to necessity but to
A short poem of Chesterton
begins, "There is only one sin: to call, a green leaf grey, / Whereat the sun
in heaven shuddereth."  Why is it a "sin" to call a green leaf "grey?" The
basic answer is because it is green and we know it. When we say of something
what it is not, if it is not, we abuse it. Our minds work by identifying what
is, by showing how things
differentiate one thing from one another. Before we choose to do anything about
something we must first have a moment in which we see its existence--what it
is, that it is. Plato was right, truth is to say of what is, that it is, and of what is not, that it is not.
Philosophy, Robert Sokolowski said, consists in first making distinctions.
Knowing is first contemplative. And we want to make distinctions because we not
only want to know that something is, but all about it: how it is, where, when,
and even why.
In a passage reminiscent of
Aristotle, Yves Simon wrote, on this same point: "There is nothing more
profound in the life of the intellect than our eagerness to know, without
tepidity and without fear, under circumstances of a certitude totally
determined by the power of truth."  This is a remarkable sentence. It is
precisely this "eagerness" to know that is the striking thing about us. But
Simon adds that this eagerness is not just a kind of gushiness about novelties.
Rather it is that this power of knowing we have is directed to the truth. We
want to know not just that a thing is true but the evidence and arguments for
it. Simon wisely added that we want to know the truth "without fear." I had
said earlier that modern thought is often guilty of the one "sin," of calling
the green leaf grey, but also, even more, of doubting its very existence as
coming from outside itself.
Usually, if we do not want
to follow the truth, and we suspect where it might lead us if we do, we will do
everything we can to explain it away, or to interpret it in a way that avoids its
sharp distinctions and demands. The truth is when we conform our minds to what
is and know we do so. We accept
without fear that things that constitute the path we must follow in the great
journey to "know ourselves." "The principle that truth (and knowledge) is worth
pursuing is not somehow innate, inscribed on the mind at birth," John Finnis
wrote. "On the contrary, the value of truth becomes obvious only to one who has
experienced the urge to question, who has grasped the connection between
question and answer, who understands that knowledge is constituted by correct
answers to particular questions, and who is aware of the possibility of further
questions and of other questioners who like himself could enjoy the advantage
of attaining correct answers." 
Finnis, of course, is not
denying that a child is born with the potential capacity to know. What is
striking about Finnis' observation is his emphasis on what it means to know
when we are old enough and disciplined enough to know. But even more, I think,
is how awareness that we are delighted not only with questions and, more
importantly, with answers leads us to others of our kind who "enjoy" this same
knowing the truth of things. What ultimately binds us together is this common
knowledge of a truth that none of owns, but all of us pursue and enjoy, without
In conclusion, going back to
the comment of Horace, the existence of the things we immediately know really
does not, at bottom, fall in the category of necessity. Of course, there are
necessities in nature. But the fact that we have anything at all before us
bears rather the character of gift. The knowing of what is, of the existence of things, has the same effect as
gifts, a sense of delight and joy that someone gives us something that stands
for himself. Thus the question is this: What understanding of the existence of
things can support this gift status of things? Only that understanding, I
think, that finds in existence itself as we know it no reason why it must be,
no reason, in itself, why it might not be. The existence of things bears all
the marks of choice, abundance, and truth. And if this is so, what is the
primary human reaction to the existence of things, one that must be there
before all others? It can only be, I think, that of gratitude, something that
Chesterton as a young man already understood.
"For the majority of my students, the existence of things is almost irrelevant." "Philosophy means reflecting on the entirety of
what is encountered in experience." "How are things in reality?' "There is only one sin, to call a green leaf grey."
"What, after all, prevents a man from speaking the truth while smiling?"
 Josef Pieper, "Tradition: Its Sense and Aspiration," For the Love of Wisdom: Essays on the
Nature of Philosophy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 289.
 G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday Image,  1974). 35.
 Pieper, 209.
 Jean Dani四ou, "La crise actuelle de l'intelligence (Paris: Fl残he, 1968), 40.
 G. K. Chesterton, "Ecclesiastes," Chesterton: Stories, Essays & Poems (London: Dent, 1957), 285.
 Yves Simon, A General Theory of Authority (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980),
 John Finnis, Natural Law and Neural Right (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980), 65.
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Benedict on Aquinas: "Faith Implies Reason" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political
Philosophy at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing,
Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing,
and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning. His most recent books are
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and
The Regensburg Lecture.
Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!