Questions, Opinions, and the Philosophic Life I, with Quotations from Authorities

I gave a talk this week at our college (Thomas Aquinas College) which I entitled, “Questions, Opinions, and the Philosophic Life”. In it, after sharing something of my experience as a sometimes joyfully, sometimes painfully driven questioner, I tried to argue that the natural, normal, and even highest mode of the philosophic life for most of us  is that of questioning.Below I share quotations from some authorities (mostly Plato) on this topic.

In the talk, I drew on Plato’s Socrates as both a model of the philosophic life, and as one who gives the best accounts of what the philosophic life is like. I distinguished the philosophic life from the teachings that are called philosophy and become objects of study. Socrates’ life, as exteriorly manifested, is dominated by relentless, exacting, formalized questioning during which opinions, questioner, and answerer are subjected to examination. Questions aim to determine the consequences that follow from an opinion, and to reveal the more comprehensive ideas which underlie opinions. Socrates strongly believed that this life of continual testing is the proper way to live if one cares for his soul above all, and so he strove to arouse it in anyone who would listen, especially the most promising young men of his day. He believed that in doing so he was fulfilling God’s will, acting as a divinely appointed gad fly to the great city of Athens. He looked forward to death as the great opportunity to question, test, and examine the heroes who had gone before him.

Socrates believed this because he thought that our thought as expressed in words is always in a state of opinion, rather than knowledge. Though right opinion is as good a guide as knowledge, he said, a life content with opinion without pursuing knowledge ardently is “not worth living”, even though it might lead to a form of virtuous living.

Is he right? Do we who pursue wisdom live in a state of opinion that demands continual questioning and examining? Certainly Aristotle and St. Thomas agree (as evidenced by the dialectical practice of beginning every topic by a thorough going-over of difficulty after difficulty after difficulty) that knowledge is only going to be acquired through a consideration of many of the opinions that men have held on a given topic. But they also present answers to questions and resolutions of difficulties that seem assertions of knowledge, not opinion.

[more to follow]

 

John Milton Gregory, The Seven Laws of Teaching

The most important stimuli used by nature to stir the minds of men have already been noted. They might all be described as the silent but ceaseless questions which the world and the universe are always addressing to man. The eternal questions of childhood are really the echoes of these greater questions. The object or the event that excites no question will provoke no thought. Questioning is not, therefore, merely one of the devices of teaching, it is really the whole of teaching. It is the excitation of the self-activities to their work of discovering truth. Nature always teaches thus….

An explanation may be so given as to raise new questions while it answers old ones. The explanation that settles everything and ends all questions, usually ends all thinking also.

After a truth is clearly understood, or a fact or principle established, there still remain its consequences, applications, and uses. Each fact and truth thoroughly studied leads to other facts which renew the questioning and demand fresh investigation. The alert and scientific mind is one that never ceases to ask questions and seek answers. The scientific spirit is the spirit of tireless inquiry and research.

As with the world, so with the child. His education begins as soon as he begins to ask questions. It is only when the questioning spirit has been fully awakened, and the habit of raising questions has been largely developed, that the teaching process may embody the lecture plan. The truth asks its own questions as soon as the mind is sufficiently awake. The falling apple had the question of gravitation in it for the mind of Newton; and the boiling teakettle propounded to Watt the problem of a steam engine.

Plato, The Theaetetus

Socrates, I often wonder like mad what those things can mean; sometimes when I’m looking at them I begin to feel quite giddy….It seems that Theodorus was not far from the truth when he guessed what kind of person you are. For this is an experience which is characteristic of a philosopher, this wondering. This is where philosophy begins and nowhere else.

Plato, The Symposium

Something much more painful than a snake has bitten me in my most sensitive part – I mean my heart, or my soul, or whatever you want to call it, which has been struck and bitten by philosophy, whose grip on young and eager souls is much more vicious than a viper’s and makes them do the most amazing things. Now, all you people here have all shared in the madness, the Bacchic frenzy of philosophy. (Symposium)

Plato, The Meno

I certainly do not think I am guessing that right opinion is a different thing from knowledge. If I claim to know anything else – and I would claim that about few things – I would down as one of the things I know.

There if it not through knowledge, the only alternative is that it is through right opinion that statesmen follow the right course for their cities. As regards knowledge, they are no different from soothsayers and prophets.

Plato, The Phaedo

The happiest of these [who are choosing to return to a body] are those who have practiced popular and social virtue, which they call moderation and justice and which was developed by habit and practice, without philosophy or understanding….no one may join the company of the gods who has not practiced philosophy and is not completely pure when he departs from this life, no one but the lover of learning.

Plato, The Apology

The greatest good for a man [is] to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others for the unexamined life is not worth living for men.

Plato, The Phaedo

Taking as my hypothesis in each case the theory that seemed to me the most compelling, I would consider as true…and as untrue whatever did not agree….If someone then attacked your hypothesis, you would ignore him and would not answer until you had examined whether the consequences that follow from it agree with one another or contradict one another. And when you must give an account your hypothesis itself…you will assume another hypothesis, the one which seems to you best of the higher ones until you come to something acceptable….

Plato, The Republic

(This happens) when many gathered together sit down in assemblies, courts, theaters, army camps, or any other common meeting of a multitude, and, with a great deal of uproar, blame some of the things done, and praise others, both in excess, shouting and clapping; and besides the rocks and the very place surrounding them echo and redouble the roar of blame and praise. Now in such circumstances, as the saying goes, what do you suppose is the state of the young man’s heart? Or what kind of private education will hold out for him and not be swept away by such blame and praise and go, borne by the flood, wherever it tends so that he’ll say the same things are noble and base as they do, practice what they practice, and be such as they are?

Bacon, The New Organon

The syllogism consists of propositions, the propositions of words, and words are tokens and symbols of notions. If therefore the very notions of the mind (which are, as it were, the soul of words, and the basis of the whole system and structure) are badly and carelessly derived from things, and vague, inadequately defined and circumscribed, in short, if they are defective in many ways, then everything collapses.

Aristotle, The Metaphysics

WE must, with a view to the science which we are seeking, first recount the subjects that should be first discussed. These include both the other opinions that some have held on the first principles, and any point besides these that happens to have been overlooked. For those who wish to get clear of difficulties it is advantageous to discuss the difficulties well; for the subsequent free play of thought implies the solution of the previous difficulties, and it is not possible to untie a knot of which one does not know. Now those who wish to succeed in arriving at answers will find it profitable to go over the difficulties well; for answers successfully arrived at are solutions to difficulties previously discussed and one cannot unite a knot if he is ignorant of it. But the difficulty of our thinking points to a ‘knot’ in the object; for in so far as our thought is in difficulties, it is in like case with those who are bound; for in either case it is impossible to go forward. Hence one should have surveyed all the difficulties beforehand, both for the purposes we have stated and because people who inquire without first stating the difficulties are like those who do not know where they have to go; besides, a man does not otherwise know even whether he has at any given time found what he is looking for or not; for the end is not clear to such a man, while to him who has first discussed the difficulties it is clear. Further, he who has heard all the contending arguments, as if they were the parties to a case, must be in a better position for judging.

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About Andrew Seeley

With over 30 years of immersion in a Great Books based, fully integrated curriculum at Thomas Aquinas College in California, I enjoy sharing the fruits of the discussions I have with students, colleagues and friends about authors and ideas. As the Director of Advanced Formation for the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and a founding member of the Justin Martyr Fellows, I work to share my good fortune with Catholic educators and students around the country. As a lover of God, Church, family, America, Tolkien, Shakespeare, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, I like to write about them in particular ways.
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3 Responses to Questions, Opinions, and the Philosophic Life I, with Quotations from Authorities

  1. Hi Andrew,

    What a fantastic post. There is certainly great joy in philosophical questioning. For me, though, there was a greater joy in arriving at what I consider to be Truth (in relation to the God/world relationship). But I still love philosophy so very much.

    Best wishes,

    Steven

    • Amen to that! Thanks be to God that our life of questioning is part of our whole orientation to the Logos Incarnate.

      Yet, I can’t say that questioning is always joyful. It is delightful when it results from knowing so much I can’t put it all together. It can be frustrating, painful, and discouraging when I focus on how far I am from really knowing what I deeply desire to know. It is most joyful when it orients me in hope towards the One I will know most perfectly after death.

      It is amazing how much Plato’s Socrates also seems to have had this orientation towards ultimate fulfillment in afterlife vision.

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