A Lesson in Philosophy

As a classroom lesson in philosophy, I was fond of presenting to my students a pair of contradictory philosophies for them to scrutinize. It was my hope that they would recognize that both could not be true at the same time and then realize that one view must be wrong. The next step was to ascertain which view might be true.

According to the ancient Greek philosopher, Protagoras, “Man is the measure of all things”. This philosophy, which endows the individual with a great deal of discretionary power, has had continuing appeal over the centuries. It appears to give man a great deal of freedom. However, this freedom exists only in the imagination and cannot be translated into reality. A person is free to think he is Napoleon, but he is not free to be Napoleon.

In contrast with this view is that of St. Thomas Aquinas who stated that “The human intellect is measured by things so that man’s thought is not true on its own account but called true in virtue of its conformity with things”. In this case, man’s freedom is tempered by the world around him. His freedom is conditioned by the reality that is external to him.

Another brace of contradictory philosophies I would set before my students is found in Plato’s dialogue, Euthyphro where Socrates asks the question, “Do the Gods love what is holy because it is holy, or is something holy because the gods love it”? We could cast the same question in a more contemporary manner: “Is a person good because he has been elected or has he been elected because he is good”? In other words, which comes first, the candidate’s goodness that makes him worthy of being elected or the mere fact that he has been elected? We may recall that Caligula appointed his horse as consul.  

Now, as a philosopher, the answers to these questions seems obvious. A person is not loveable because he is loved, but he is loved because he is lovable. Let us not be led astray by Dean Martin crooning, “You’re nobody ‘til somebody loves you”. Love honors the loved one, it does not create lovableness in him. Nonetheless, the resolution of such incompatible philosophies has not been easy throughout history, even for Supreme Court judges. Consider that following pair of contradictory philosophies: “The humblest is the peer to the most powerful” and “I build myself up by tearing other people down”.

The first view is eminently Christian. All human beings are created equally in the image and likeness of God: “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). It is a view that is unifying, uniting all human beings together as equally human beings. The second view is essentially divisive, separating people according to differences that do not pertain to their essential humanity.

The above quotation referring to the peerage of the humblest with the most powerful belongs to Supreme Court judge John Marshall Harlan. His was the lone dissenting view in the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision (1896) which upheld a Louisiana statute claiming that blacks were “separate but equal”. This notion of segregation was not overturned until 1954 in the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling.  

Judge Harlan was known as the Great Dissenter.  He was, however, firmly rooted in the tradition of Aquinas, Socrates, and Christ. Today, we seem to be falling away from this philosophically sound tradition. The belief continues to gain acceptance in certain quarters that man is the measure of all things and that he can be whatever he claims to be and do whatever he claims to be right. Philosophy is witness to this slide. We need more dissenters like Judge Harlan, who are willing and courageous enough to affirm what is sound and reject what is aberrant.

I continue to offer lessons in philosophy, not so much in the classroom anymore, but in writing for what I hope is a larger and less time-bound audience.

Photo by Joanna Nix-Walkup on Unsplash

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Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus, St. Jerome’s University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College. He is is the author of 42 books and a former corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy of Life.  Some of his latest books, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling, and Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, Restoring Philosophy and Returning to Common Sense and Let Us not Despair are posted on amazon.com. He and his wife, Mary, have 5 children and 13 grandchildren.  

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