Leading by the Hand

What does one hope for in a teacher? Sympathy, to be sure, for it is a fearful thing to entrust oneself to another’s lead, and we do so willingly only when we believe the person to have a genuine concern for us. Truthfulness is another sine qua non. We do not willingly submit to lies, from anyone for any purpose, but especially not from someone placed over us as a master. These qualities, however, are not exactly what we hope for; they are what we demand. Over and above these minimal requirements, what we yearn for is to be led by the hand to marvelous vistas of new discoveries that we would not have happened upon alone. The more abstract and difficult the subject matter, the steeper and rockier is the ascent to the heights, and the more important it therefore is that our guide stay just one step ahead of us on the trail—not running off into the distance and hallooing at us to follow, but at every turn helping us to know how to climb without falling.

This excellence belongs to relatively few teachers and to relatively few authors of books, especially of books of philosophy or science. But it is present on every page of The Immortal in You: How Human Nature Is More than Science Can Say, the latest book by Michael Augros (Ignatius Press, 2017).

The work is a convincing demonstration of our philosophical knowledge of the human soul’s native immortality. It is also a reasoned defense of the philosophy of nature against the unreasonable claims and prejudices of some spokesmen for modern science. Above all, it is an invitation to accompany a truly gifted teacher along the path to one of wisdom’s highest peaks.

The Immortal in You consists of fifteen chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue. It is framed by methodological discussions. The prologue and first chapter clear the ground for an inquiry into human nature based upon our experience of ourselves as knowers, an experience expressed chiefly in ordinary language. Here and throughout the book, philosophical terminology is gently and appropriately introduced only when it has been found necessary to express with precision the convictions that we already hold. The final two chapters of the book return to these methodological starting points and defend them against the criticisms levied by the pioneers of modern philosophy and science in the seventeenth century (and their latter-day heirs). The eleven chapters in between are the ascent proper, beginning with our interior experience of sensing and knowing, proceeding through an examination of human beings as animals with an immaterial power—the intellect—and a primary cause of life and activity—the soul—to final considerations of how material nature is for the sake of mental or knowing nature and how the universe as a whole proceeds from the mind of God (or, as Augros prefers, to signal that he is philosophizing, god).

Each chapter begins with a vignette, typically a story from the author’s youth, which is always a fruitful subject for reflection. His boyhood dream of building an electric shark helps us to understand the difference between the imagination and the intellect. His youthful experience of a concussion and adult attacks of migraines enable us to begin talking about the relationship between the brain and the intellect. Primitive chemistry experiments, gazing at tadpoles in a drainage ditch, and first sightings of constellations all lend their hands to the work of discerning just what human beings are, where we come from, and where we are going. And the arguments themselves are eminently followable. The author’s conviction is that “philosophy is like thinking and breathing.” We cannot help doing either; what matters is whether we do them well or poorly. It was plainly the intention of Dr. Augros that we his readers should be able to philosophize better by doing so in his company.

As he mentions at one point, Augros has for years taught Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, which is perhaps the world’s greatest pedagogical masterpiece. Euclid was able to tell a tale about triangles, circles, and other such things that carries the reader from one page to the next with the same energy and progressive delight that one finds in the mysteries of Conan Doyle. From such simple beginnings as the definitions of point, line, and plane, one arrives by so many small and unerring steps at mysterious truths such as the Pythagorean Theorem and the Golden Section. So also in The Immortal in You, the reader is taken on an ascent of the mountain of philosophical truth that is both gradual and also provides frequent moments of rest along the way, from which the view out to the wide world becomes progressively more expansive and delightful.

The work is philosophically sophisticated, though its author wears his learning lightly. Most of the major objections to what might be called Aristotelian philosophy of nature are here confronted and overturned. Moreover, the testimony of the various fields of modern science—including evolutionary theory and contemporary cosmology—is also sympathetically viewed and honestly engaged. In short, this is a work that will bring profit and enjoyment to undergraduates—even to advanced high-school students—as well as to practiced scientists, philosophers, and theologians. Whether you are coming into Dr. Augros’s classroom as a colleague, a stray visitor, or a youthful neophyte, you will find him to be addressing you—your experiences and your questions—and inviting you to learn with him about one of the worthiest objects of your attention: yourself.

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Christopher O. Blum is Professor of History & Philosophy and Academic Dean of the Augustine Institute. He is the editor and translator of St. Francis de Sales' The Sign of the Cross: The Fifteen Most Powerful Words in the English Language (Sophia Press).

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