The motion picture “Forrest Gump” earned six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Its most celebrated line perfectly captures the simplicity of the main character: “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re gonna get.”
We do not know what Mama said about philosophy, but if she said it was like a box of chocolates, she would be far from the mark.
My besetting problem as a philosophy teacher was to convince my students that philosophy is really nothing like a box of chocolates which are individual entities and separated from all the rest in the box. We get to pick and choose our chocolates. We cannot pick and choose great ideas; they are eternally interconnected in special ways. We cannot choose peace all by itself.
The year is a concatenation of four seasons linked together by nature. A farmer must know when to prepare the soil, when to plant, when to fertilize, and when to harvest. The succession of four seasons must be honored and obeyed. He is not free to pick and choose when he should bring in the crops. Farming is a way of acknowledging the primacy of nature over will.
Another quartet of elements set to a particular order is found in baseball where the four bases follow a numerical pattern. In this case their sequence is established by rule. A batter is not allowed to hit the ball and then run directly to third base. Such an egregious violation of the rule would result in the base runner’s ejection from the game.
In philosophy, the order of ideas is set not by nature nor by rule, but by wisdom. Pope John Paul II illustrates the point in the following way: “if you want peace, work for justice. If you want justice, defend life. If you want life, embrace truth.” His remark echoes St. Augustine’s definition of peace as “the tranquility of order.”
This third quartet of factors is et eternally set in the mind of God. But in the minds of men, they are often disconnected from each other and, consequently, in disarray.
Philosophy endeavors to reunite what is eternally united in God. It begins with truth that recognizes the inviolability of life and the justice that life is owed. The sequence of truth, life, and justice brings about peace. We cannot begin with peace no more than a batter can score a run without circling the bases or a farmer can harvest before he plants. Philosophy’s task is to join together what has been torn asunder.
America’s premier philosopher, the late Mortimer Adler, produced Six Great Ideas in 1997. The ideas he discussed are Truth, Goodness, and Beauty; Liberty, Equality, and Justice. The first three are ideas we judge by; the second trio represent the ideas we live by.
The main problem for my philosophy students, as well as for the masses in general, is in understanding the fact that these ideas are not like chocolates in a box that can be chosen for their own particular value, but part of a coherent fabric that transcends individualization.
People love liberty, equality, and justice. Social movements are organized in their honor. But they often fail to understand that these ideas are not self-supporting. They need to be ordered to other great ideas.
On the other hand, people are often suspicious of truth, goodness, and beauty. They doubt whether truth can be found and think that anyone who has claimed to have found it is presumptuous. They believe that goodness is a relative concept; what is good for one person is bad for another. They also hold that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Such “Great Ideas” are commonly viewed as anything but great.
Consider how dependent justice is on truth. Without truth, there can no justice. In a trial, for example, considerable effort is made to discover who committed the crime. Evidence is compiled, witnesses are questioned, motives are discussed in the exerted effort to discover the truth of the matter. When the judge renders his decision, it is referred to as the “verdict,” a word whose Latin roots are “verum” (truth) and “dicere” (to tell). The verdict alleges to tell the truth.
We cannot render justice to a person unless we know who he is and what he has done. We must know him in his truth. Abortion blocks the path to peace, as Saint John Paul II indicates, because in opposing the defense of life, it thereby opposes justice. In fact, abortion fractures the inter-relationships between the great ideas. It isolates liberty from both life as justice, as well as from peace. As a result, it deprives liberty of what it needs in order to be truly liberty. In essence, abortion pursues an illusion of liberty.
We affirm the relationships between the quartet of ideas to which John Paul II refers in their proper alignment by virtue of our freedom. That freedom, however, presupposes how peace, justice, the defense of life, and truth, are ordered to each other. As St. Thomas Aquinas has reiterated, “It belongs to the wise man to order.”
Philosophy is much more than an interesting vocabulary of ideas. It is the wisdom to know how these ideas relate to each other in a way that is as large as life. Philosophy is not a box of chocolates. It is a light that illuminates the path from man to God.
Photo by Monique Carrati on Unsplash