The earliest philosophers were called “wise men.” Believing such an appellation to be presumptuous, Pythagoras coined the term “philosophy” (philia + sophia) around 500 b.c. to indicate that philosophers should be known not as the epitome of Wisdom but as her friends or lovers. A philosopher, then, came to be known as a “lover of wisdom” and philosophy as the pursuit of wisdom insofar as it is accessible to human nature.

This new identification gained philosophers an important measure of modesty. And yet, this modesty itself was a mark of wisdom. The hold that any philosopher can claim concerning his attainment of wisdom is, at best, tenuous and insecure. Human nature is weak and beset by innumerable external temptations. The 20th-century Aquinas scholar Jacques Maritain once said that a philosopher is no more than “a beggar at the door of wisdom.”

But, more importantly, this new modesty brought into focus two cardinal principles of philosophy that have both established its rectitude and set it against the prevailing — and far less wise — “spirit of the times.” The first, according to the maxim philosophi est distinguere (philosophy is to distinguish), distinguishes the philosopher from the wisdom he seeks, which is to say the imperfect from the perfect.

At the same time, it distinguishes the actual from the ideal. Therefore, the philosopher operates with the abiding belief that his actual situation, imperfect and tainted with foolishness as it may be, can become more perfect and less foolish as it approximates that which he loves, which is wisdom. This principle is also one of hope.

The second principle relates to ordering, according to the maxim, sapientia est ordinare (it belongs to the wise man to order). The proper ordering here is not the reduction of wisdom to the actual state of the philosopher, but, on the contrary, the subordination of the philosopher to wisdom. The philosopher seeks to be enriched by wisdom, not to identify wisdom with his existing state of being. This principle is also one of humility.

Through these two principles, of distinction and subordination, the philosopher sets himself on his rightful path, enlivened by the hope of acquiring greater wisdom and sobered by the humility that permits the recognition of his own imperfections.

Winsome Wisdom

Philosophy, then, is dynamic and enriching, elevating and fulfilling. Thus could St. Thomas state in his Summa Contra Gentiles: “Of all human pursuits the pursuit of wisdom is the most perfect, the most sublime, the most profitable, the most delightful.”

It is most perfect because of the way it fulfills or completes its pursuer, most sublime because of the exalted status of its object, most profitable because of how it enriches its seeker and most delightful because of how it confers upon him a sense of wholeness and happiness.

The modern world, however, has lost sight of the value of philosophy, as well as wisdom, in its zealous pursuit of lesser goods. Karl Marx, whose primary pursuit involved wealth, pronounced the death of philosophy when he declared that we should no longer try to understand the world, but to transform it. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel claimed to have brought philosophy as a discipline to an end by reconciling the tension between individual freedom and communal authority in the Prussian state (1815-1871).

The American philosopher John Dewey excoriated all wisdom from philosophy when he reduced it to the service of building a political technology. Nonetheless, as George Santayana has observed, it is curious how philosophy continues to bury its undertakers.

And if these lesser pursuits were not social, they were personal. The Freudian school sets its sights on pleasure; that of Nietzsche, power; that of Sartre, freedom; that of Darwin, competition; that of Derrida, deconstruction.

These lesser pursuits that certain individuals embark upon are appealing mainly for three reasons. The have immediacy, simplicity and expediency. As the pursuit of wisdom becomes more disreputable in our society, people prefer instant gratification (immediacy), freedom from struggling with the paradoxes of life (simplicity), and things that they can put to practical use (expediency).

Bill Maher, host of the popular television talk-show program “Politically Incorrect” (which turns out to be as amplified a platform for political correctness as there is just now), aptly captured the state of disfavor to which the pursuit of wisdom has been relegated in the contemporary world. “Philosophy,” he said, “is as useful as a bidet in a gorilla cage.” Noting the pervasiveness of this sort of perspective, journalist Chris Matthews, who moderates television's Hardball, opined that the only “philosopher” the average American might be able to name is Hugh Hefner.

Wisdom is neither a native notion nor a trival pursuit.

More cynically, Ambrose Bierce defined philosophy as “a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.” Not to be out-done, deconstructionists say that “the world is made up of empty rooms, with impenetrable walls and no doors, in which individual minds are bent upon reading texts with a slight smile.” Their point is that there is no such thing as the real world; it is merely a text that is read and misunderstood. According to the high priest of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida, “America is deconstruction.”

Deconstructive Criticism

Philosopher Allan Bloom, who labored to place his students at wisdom's starting gate, lamented in The Closing of the American Mind that “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” The state of students leaving the university may not be any better, as wisdom is systematically excluded from their relativistic purview.

Toward the close of 1999, the Toronto Star did a series of articles on the seven deadly sins. In a wrap-up piece, Christopher Hume offered his reflections on the dispositions that reasonable people throughout history understood to be deadly. The title of his article, “It's the sinning that makes us human,” perfectly encapsulates the secular and anti-philosophical notion that all we are is what we happen to be at the moment. We live without hope in improving or further humanizing ourselves.

We have no aspirations, goals or projects that could add either grace or stature to our humanity. Consequently, as he tells us, the seven deadly sins are really consistent with who we are (it's philosophy that is troublesome — “Only a fascist would choose to inhabit the City of Perfection”). Hence, “What is envy, after all, but motivation? What is lust but biology? What is sloth but nature's way of telling us to slow down? What is pride but self-respect? What is anger but righteous indignation?”

It is not naive to pursue wisdom. What is naive is the belief that we can, having abandoned wisdom, avoid foolishness. Wisdom is not an idle fabrication to be deconstructed; it is a meaningful ideal to be emulated.

The sad state of philosophy in the contemporary world raises the question: “Does philosophy have a future?” The answer turns on our attitude toward the correlative virtues of humility and hope. Humility, unfashionable and discomforting as it may be, requires us to take stock of our own ignorance.

“A man who is puzzled and wonders,” wrote Aristotle, “thinks himself ignorant … therefore [he] philosophizes to escape from ignorance.” Hope demands our subordination to something higher than ourselves. It requires shedding all illusions about self-sufficiency. It offers us the startling paradox that, by pursuing something other than ourselves, we can discover ourselves.

We will return to humility and hope as our desire to escape from ignorance becomes stronger than our preference for self-delusion, as our belief in wisdom, especially in its divine embodiment, becomes stronger than our hope in scientific progress.

As humility and hope return (and, concomitantly, our ability to distinguish and to subordinate), so will philosophy. And as our belief that we can be touched by God's grace returns, so will our love of wisdom:

“Sensum tuum, Domine, quis scire poterit, nisi tu dederis sapientiam? … “O Lord, who can understand what you mean unless you gave [him] wisdom?”

Donald DeMarco is a professor of philosophy at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ontario.