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Why Do Things Exist? On the Meaning of Being | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | September 24, 2007

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"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" [1]

"Thinking means connecting things, and stops if they cannot be connected." -- G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy [2]


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." [3] 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 of revelation.

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 us.

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 Rings.

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 Daniélou 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." [4] 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 Daniélou'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 know.


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 gift.

A short poem of Chesterton begins, "There is only one sin: to call, a green leaf grey, / Whereat the sun in heaven shuddereth." [5] 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." [6] 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." [7]

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 fear.

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?"


[1] Josef Pieper, "Tradition: Its Sense and Aspiration," For the Love of Wisdom: Essays on the Nature of Philosophy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 289.
[2] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday Image, [1908] 1974). 35.
[3] Pieper, 209.
[4] Jean Daniélou, "La crise actuelle de l'intelligence (Paris: Fléche, 1968), 40.
[5] G. K. Chesterton, "Ecclesiastes," Chesterton: Stories, Essays & Poems (London: Dent, 1957), 285.
[6] Yves Simon, A General Theory of Authority (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980), 91.
[7] John Finnis, Natural Law and Neural Right (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980), 65.

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Secularity: On Benedict XVI and the Role of Religion in Society | 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 website.

Visit 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!


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