The Message of Leisure & Scholé: Chapter 2, part 1 – Knowing is a spiritual activity

As a summer special, Scholé Sisters is publishing a blog series through Josef Pieper’s Leisure, the Basis of Culture. This is the book that brought scholé back into our vocabulary. Instead of writing about the book or writing additional commentary, however, we’re taking a thought-by-thought paraphrase approach, chapter-by-chapter. Like The Message is to the Bible, so this series is to Leisure: common idiom, loose paraphrase, maybe a little clarification or connection added for the reader’s benefit. Enjoy!

Previously: Chapter 1 – What We’re Missing

We live in a world whose god is the Economy. Whether capitalist or communist, our conception of the world and society is defined by production and consumption and money. In one domain particularly we see that the economy is our idol: the intellectual life. It is no longer a life, but a means to a livelihood.

Instead of philosophers – with patrons or simply as a life-giving pursuit – we have “knowledge workers.” We even seek a quality education so that we – or our children – may get such lucrative positions. We want them to have jobs where they use brains, not brawn. We don’t care about knowledge for the love of knowledge and for virtue; we’re after better-paying careers.

Our time, abilities, and even identities are bound up in our jobs. We have a world where our work defines us.

But what has intellectual work been in the past? How should we now consider it if it is not primarily a means for an income?

The idea of intellectual work has always been based upon an understanding of human knowing. How do we come to know? Because we value careers as of primary importance, we tend to emphasize the effort that it takes to study and to observe. We see value in terms of effort expended. However, this was not the perspective of older philosophers.

What happens when we look at a rose? What are we doing? Of course our mind is active, taking in the object. But there’s a difference between a gaze, a “taking in,” and observation and study. One is a relaxed receiving and the other is what one philosopher termed “an act of aggression”: counting, measuring, subjecting the thing to analytical scrutiny.

What about ideas? Is there such a thing as mere “looking” when it comes to knowing what is beyond our senses? The scholastics referred to “intellectual vision”; ancient and medieval philosophers depended upon such a thing, while modern philosophers deny it altogether. For example, Kant taught that all knowing requires investigation, abstraction, deduction; he said, “the understanding cannot look upon anything.” Nothing can be received, knowledge must be seized through active mental effort. It is not simply that knowing requires activity; in Kantian thought, knowing is nothing but activity.

It was on this basis as knowing as activity that Kant began calling philosophy a form of work. He said, “property is possessed through labor,” and property includes knowledge gained – it only comes by labor. On this basis Kant even dismisses Plato as “the father of all raving enthusiasm in philosophy,” while admiring Aristotle’s philosophy as “truly work.”

Now ancient and medieval philosophy held quite a different view, though they never called knowing easy. Even Kant’s beloved Aristotle, as well as Plato and all the great medieval thinkers, believed that there was an element of pure “looking” in knowing something, not only when it comes to knowledge gained through the five senses, but even when it comes to ideas.

In fact, the medievals classified the intellect into two different sorts: ratio and intellectus. Ratio refers to discursive, investigative, analytical, reasoning. The intellectus, on the other hand, was the ability of “simply looking” at truth in the same way we look at a landscape.

The ancients understood that all knowing involves both sides of the intellect. They understood this because they recognized that knowing is a spiritual act, a truth that moderns deny. They taught that the logical activity of the reasoning mind must be accompanied by the receptive penetration of the intuitive mind.

And that is not all; oh no, that is not all.

The ancients, while holding both types of intelligence to be necessary, held that the reasoning ratio was the human element to knowing, whereas the intuitive intellectus was a super-human, or supernatural, element. Now it becomes clear why modernity rejects it – it is the unscientific, spiritual force from a human soul and from the Holy Spirit.

Ancient and medieval philosophers knew what modernity has rejected: man alone cannot know all he wants to know. It requires spiritual illumination to reach understanding.

Thomas Aquinas taught this when he said:

Although human knowing really takes place in the mode of ratio, nevertheless it is a kind of participation in that simple knowing which takes place in higher natures, and we can thus conclude that human beings possess a power of intellectual vision. (qtd. in Pieper)

True knowledge is a participation in, a partaking of, the power of vision which the angels enjoy: the ability to see truth just as clearly as we see a flower, to hear truth just as clearly as we hear a sound.

Their vision is not clouded by sin; they live in the presence of God; their understanding is pure as someday ours will be. The wholehearted seeker-after-truth grows, slowly but surely, in receptive, perceptive understanding. Knowing is a spiritual reality more than it is a physical, chemical happening within the brain.

Human knowing has an element of spiritual, receptive vision which is beyond our physicality, beyond our material selves. It happens because we are made in the image of God, able to participate in transcendent reality. To deny transcendent, spiritual reality is to deny truth – which is what postmodernity has recognized in modernity and accomplished.

To be “truly human” as Aquinas has phrased it, is to be contemplative in truth-seeking, to be “non proprietary humana, sed superhumana”: not properly human, but superhuman. We are more than our physical bodies. We need illumination from the Holy Spirit in order to truly know anything. That illumination happens in common grace – God is generous within His providential care over His creation – but it’s grace nonetheless.

The laboring, striving nature of discovering truth is real, is work, is difficult. It is the earthly component of knowledge. But there is a component of discovering truth that is not work. The recognition, the flash of insight, that allows us to see truth within facts, connections within knowledge – this is a gift and comes not at our bidding nor through our control. The experience reminds us that we are not mere mortals, earth-bound creatures, but are made for higher things. We are made for worship, for knowing God, and that does not come through effort alone.

So if we define philosophy as labor, as a job to work at, we are missing the point. If we think the point of growing our intellectual capacity is to get a higher paying “knowledge worker” job instead of a trade, we are cutting ourselves off from really knowing and experiencing truth.

Of course there must be effort as we come to know, but it is not effort alone. It is effort aided by the divine.

Let us not deny our souls as we pursue learning. Let us not neglect that we are images of God, made for knowing and worshiping Him in all we do. Therefore, there will be – there must be – a supernatural, a spiritual dimension to all our pursuits.

Next: Chapter 2, part 2 – Effort is not virtue

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