Wisdom, the Health of Mind, Is the Gift of the Church

‘Sanity, remember, does not mean living in the same world as everyone else,’ says Frank Sheed. ‘It means living in the real world.’

“Sts. Peter the Martyr and Thomas Aquinas Refute the Heretics,” Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy
“Sts. Peter the Martyr and Thomas Aquinas Refute the Heretics,” Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy (photo: Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock)

It is not possible to go a day in our world without hearing something about mental health. Laws are passed in the name of mental health. People spend vast amounts of money on medicine and therapy to maintain mental health. Mental health is cited to justify accommodations allowing people to do things that others can’t, like bringing an animal into a store, restaurant or airplane. I have heard statistics (the word of god to our society) claiming that one in four people suffer from some mental health disorder.

A list of common mental health disorders includes depression, anxiety, behavioral and mood disorders, which would indicate that mental health extends to our emotions, self-control, and actions. The will and the emotions, though, are different faculties from the intellect, and the intellect would seem to be the meaning of the word mental since the mind has to do with the intellect. Volitional and emotional disorders would seem to be separate from each other, and both would seem to be separate from mental disorders, but our common language does not account for such philosophical distinctions.

In a narrower, philosophical sense, what would be the meaning of mental health? That depends on the two words in the phrase: mental and health.

Health means proper function. A healthy eye sees well. A healthy ear hears well. A healthy digestion digests well. A healthy heart pumps blood well. Other uses of the word health correspond to this meaning. A healthy meal is one that will contribute to the proper function of the body. Healthy urine is urine that is evidence of proper function in the body, i.e. the kind of urine that is produced by a healthy body.

Mental, as has already been noted, means having to do with the mind, also known as the intellect. 

And so, mental health, in its strictest sense, should mean the proper functioning of the mind. This, indeed, is something worth time, effort and money. Having a mind that does what it ought to do is one of the primary purposes of education. As Epictetus wrote, “Only the educated are free.”

What is the proper function of the mind? What is the mind for? If eyes are for seeing, what are the right actions of the mind?

In short, the mind is for truth. Mortimer Adler wrote, “The possession of truth is the ultimate good of the human mind.” James Schall agrees: “The life of the mind is ultimately concerned with truth.” A healthy mind is one that can find and know truth. 

What is truth? A common question in a relativistic society (where mental health often means something quite different from the ability to recognize truth), but the answer is very simple: truth is the correspondence between thought and thing.

It is this intellectual ability that sets humans apart from the other animals. One of the oldest definitions of a human is “rational animal,” i.e., an animal that can think rationally. The mind is the highest part of our being, and everything else in us is ordered to the mind. It is the mind that should rule the will and the emotions. It is as rational beings that we are created in the image of God, and the intellect is what makes our free will possible.

The highest function of the mind, though, is not mere knowledge of facts, as in Professor Gradgrind’s school (see the opening of Hard Times). No, the healthiest mind is exercised not for trivia, but for wisdom, for understanding, and for making judgments based on the deep and profound truths about ourselves, the world and God.

This wisdom, this health of mind, is the gift of the Church, where philosophers throughout the centuries like Justin Martyr have found refuge and answers to their profound and honest questions. And since the mind is the highest function in us, as the mind is transformed and enlightened, the whole person is transformed. St. Paul instructs us: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

So the health of the mind affects the whole person, and all the other actions and functions of the person affect the health of mind and the wisdom we can or cannot attain. Even when it comes to science, Pierre Duhem tells us that freedom of mind depends on not only intellectual conditions, but moral conditions, because humility and honesty are necessary to admit one was wrong. Jesus declares that understanding follows from what we do (John 7:17). Thomas Aquinas tells us that “Man, by all his proper operations fittingly ordered and rightly directed, strives to attain the contemplation of truth.” The whole person is directed to the Summum Bonum of the contemplation of God.

Our whole self affects the mind, and the mind affects the whole self. Perhaps this is what is implied, though unwittingly, but attributing the title of mental health to behavioral and emotional considerations; our behaviors and emotions are related intricately to our minds, the highest power, which is made for God. Strictly speaking, mental health is about health of mind, but the mind is not a separate and independent function; it is a power of the human self which is an ordered and organic whole.


Bruce Clark and Mary Kay Clark

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