Socrates had important answers to the big questions in life. But he was especially good at asking questions, helping his students use their own reason to discover answers that were available to them all along.
I have had a similar experience whenever I am a guest on Jesuit Father Robert McTeigue’s “Catholic Current” radio show (distributed by the Station of the Cross Catholic Radio Network). He asks great questions, arising from a great depth of knowledge and his long experience as a philosophy and theology professor in North and Central America, Europe and Asia.
So when I read his new book, Real Philosophy for Real People by Ignatius Press, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to ask him a few questions myself.
I asked Father McTeigue about the importance of Catholics studying philosophy and noted Saint John Paul II’s teaching that faith and reason — theology and philosophy — are closely related. Father replied that philosophy is “the love of wisdom,” and the wise man’s task “is to put things in their proper place and order,” as taught by the great St. Thomas Aquinas.
Many great thinkers have noted the importance of philosophy to everyday activity. “Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living; but examining it is not enough,” Father noted. “One has to act upon what one has discovered via the examination. Aristotle, I believe, would agree that the disordered life cannot be lived well. Saint Augustine said that peace is the tranquility of order.”
Relevant to life
It’s common to think of philosophy as something that is highly abstract, controversial, above the heads of most people, and irrelevant. Not so, says Father McTeigue.
“Philosophy, done well, helps one to attain the peace of a well-ordered life, a life that can be lived well,” he told me. “Catholics know that we are meant to serve God in this life, to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to be ready to enter eternity prepared to see the face of God and live. The guidance of true philosophy can help one to arrange one’s life, community, culture and civilization towards that end.”
But what about students — and maybe even their parents and educators — who find philosophy to be of little practical value?
Father McTeigue said “they’re likely doing it wrong.” He acknowledged that philosophy “is a work of leisure, done for its own sake. At the highest level, it is speculative rather than practical, contemplative rather than constructive.” The average student might have difficulty with that, because “humans are more than intellects, more than just souls. We are physical, appetitive and social. We need guidance to coordinate all those dimensions of our lives.”
He recommends studying “real philosophy for real people” — not the theoretical conundrums that have obsessed philosophers for centuries, but the truthful and practical knowledge about such things as justice, prudence, and temperance that correct reasoning and a proper moral formation can discern.
I have been teaching logic and basic Aristotelian philosophy to Catholic homeschool students in grades 7 through 12, and they understand it quite well. So although Father’s book is aimed broadly at equipping “real people” of all ages with “real philosophy,” it made me even more eager for Catholic schools to teach philosophy and reasoning skills at younger ages.
This is especially important today, since many students never study logic or philosophy in college. If they do, it is often highly distorted and even dangerous.
In Real Philosophy for Real People, Father McTeigue writes that we should expect education “to inform — to impart knowledge. A proper education will also form — that is, actualize heretofore untapped potential. The best education will also transform — that is, correcting what is in error and improving what could be better.”
I asked him to put this in the context of a Catholic education, which is grounded in the truths of the faith, grace of the sacraments, and sure guidance of the Church. “For a human person to live and become all that God intended for us who are all human yet also distinct individuals,” Father explained, “we must have the healing, illumination and inspiration that can come only from a Catholic life lived fully.”
“The essential dynamics of true education — to inform, form and transform — are best done in the context of a robust Catholic community that can draw upon the graces of the faith as well as the tools and treasures of the Catholic intellectual, moral and aesthetic heritage,” he said.
That context is missing from secular education, where Father said philosophy is often taught like this: “In the beginning, there was Plato and Aristotle… then nothing happened for 2,000 years… and then one day, Descartes emerged from nowhere.”
“That’s as unhelpful as it is dishonest,” he warned. “Also, non-Catholic schools can be more prone to be subject to philosophical trendiness, because they don’t have the tradition of perennial philosophy to draw upon, unlike faithful Catholic schools.”
A true philosopher
Of course, learning philosophy — like anything else — often depends on an excellent teacher. For Father McTeigue, that was the late Paul Weiss, to whom Real Philosophy for Real People is dedicated. The book describes him as “a philosopher, a scholar, a teacher, a mentor, a friend, and a father.”
“If I believed in reincarnation (which I don’t, of course),” Father told me, “I would say that Dr. Weiss was the reincarnation of Socrates. He had a relentless, fearless, unselfconscious, uninhibited commitment to finding the truth.”
Unlike many academics, Dr. Weiss was “not simply a curator of ideas or a custodian of texts,” Father recalled. “He was a true philosopher — he wanted to know; he drew upon the works of the best and brightest; he devised his own tools for finding the truth. I could never repay him for what he gave me and the example he offered me; but I can honor him by teaching others as he taught me.”
Father McTeigue has surely accomplished that throughout his life, and it is no small work. He said that Dr. Weiss “told me that he would like his legacy to be that he helped the next generation to see farther than he did.” I have no doubt that Father wishes the same for his readers.
May God grant that many generations of students and teachers continue the legacy of these devoted philosophers and educators, and may they extend the great Western and Catholic philosophical tradition far into the future. St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.
This article first appeared at the National Catholic Register.