It is customary in any “Introduction to Philosophy” course to explain to students that “philosophy” means “love of wisdom.” Unfortunately, what often follows is a sea of epistemological fog otherwise known as relativism, skepticism, cynicism and nihilism.
If a little more attention were paid to the basic meaning of philosophy, it might be noticed that philosophy begins with an act of love. Stating it in this manner draws attention to the fact that philosophy, being an act of love, has already secured an object of knowledge. Love presupposes the existence of the known object while, at the same time, it affirms its value.
No one has ever said to another, “I love you, but I have one question to ask you: Do you exist?”
Love is preceded by knowledge. Philosophy begins when love affirms the reality of something beyond the self, specifically wisdom (and the Greeks had the good sense to personify wisdom as a woman — Athena). In this way, relativism and other foggy notions about reality and the object of knowledge lose their foothold.
What this comes down to is that love presupposes truth. Love is neither blind nor intellectually bankrupt. It has already secured the truth of its object. Indeed, love is a response to that truth. When Pascal explained, “You would not have sought Him had you not already found Him,” he was affirming this basic tenet of philosophy — namely, that the love that seeks proceeds from the mind that knows.
In the popular mind, however, love and truth are separated and regarded as distinct entities. People like the idea of love, for love promises warmth. On the other hand, they view truth as undecidable and therefore replace it with relativism.
This matter is sufficiently widespread and critical that Pope Benedict XVI refers to relativism as “the most profound difficulty of our day.”
“In certain aspects,” he goes on to say, relativism “has become the real religion of modern man.”
Those who champion relativism, however, do not notice that by rejecting truth, they undermine love, since it is truth that supports love. Love does not begin in the dark. To reject truth is to imperil love.
“What good is it,” one may rightly ask, “to be warmed by love if we are still in the dark about truth?” No one wants to remain in the dark. We need the light of truth as much as we need the warmth of love. This is why Pope Benedict continually reiterates the fact that the God of love is also the God of truth.
Let us consider an existential example. A young boy, fleeing some unfortunate incident he has experienced with a friend, rushes into his mother’s arms. There he finds the warmth and comfort of his mother’s love. Soon, she asks her son about the nature of his problem. She assures him that she will defend him if he is right, but correct him if he is wrong.
Her expression of love flows into her regard for truth. Her work as a mother is not complete unless she has the light of truth by which she can guide and direct her son. Concerning the proper raising of her boy, she is not a relativist (no loving mother is), but a realist. Would that she ultimately relinquish him to the care of teachers who are similarly realistic.
Because love and truth are inseparable in reality (just as fire produces both warmth and light), the rejection of one will inevitably lead to the rejection of the other. People may think that they can be relativistic about truth, but they would be wise to consider how termites in the basement can undermine the structure of an entire house.
Love is always welcomed, whereas truth can often be demanding. We are not free, however, to select the one that happens to accord with our convenience. We must choose love and truth together, even though truth may be disagreeable. The two are an indissoluble tandem.
The rejection of truth, perhaps covertly but certainly inevitably, moves love to the edge, where it can be reclaimed only by the recovery of truth.
Donald DeMarco is a professor
emeritus at St. Jerome’s University
and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary.