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The Basic Tenets of the Perennial Philosophy


The following is a brief summary of the doctrines of the Perennial Philosophy, an Aristotelian-based philosophical realism. This also represents in general the views of Contexual Realism, Neo-Aristotelianism, Thomism and Neo-Scholasticism.




(Epistemology, Philosophy of Knowledge, Logic)

What is the value of human knowledge? In the Aristotelian-based realistic systems, knowledge is the discovery of reality, not a creation of the mind, as Idealism holds. This discovery is made initially by the senses, then more perfectly by the intellect.

The senses give man a material perception of the external world. The intellect understands the essential and universal nature of the objects which come into contact with the senses. This essential and universal knowledge is made possible by the formation of concepts or ideas.

The concept is an intellectual representation of the object which has been contacted by the senses. Sensitive knowledge stops at the object as given by experience: for instance, I see this particular circle drawn on the blackboard. The intellect investigates this impression in its essential aspect and obtains a knowledge of the notes representing any circle, past, present or future. The intellectual representation of these essential notes is called the concept. It is through the concept that the intellect acquires the essential and universal knowledge of a circle, that it understands certain necessary notes which have to be found in any circle.

The intellect arrives at the formation of the concept through classic abstraction (total and formal). By virtue of such an abstraction, the intellect prescinds from any consideration of accidental circumstances which would indivduate this circle, and forms a representation of those notes only which any circle must have in order to be a circle.

This traditional solution of the problem is entirely in keeping with the structure of the human being, who is composed of body and spirit. The body is so constructed that it perceives the singular data of experience by means of its organic faculties; the spirit, which is an immaterial substance, reaches the immaterial element of the object perceived by the senses, i.e., the intelligibility of the object in its essential and absolute aspect.

Furthermore, the classical solution, by drawing the concept from experience, explains and justifies the coincidence of the order of ideas with the order of reality. It is on this conformity that the true value of human knowledge is founded. "Veritas est adaequatio intellectus et rei."

Finally, it is this solution to the question of knowledge that makes possible both philosophical and scientific knowledge. Indeed, the intellect, once it reaches the concepts, makes use of them through its power of comparing, judging and inferring. By so doing, the intellect builds not only a systematic knowledge of the universal causes of being, which are the object of philosophy, but also draws up the well-ordered knowledge of particular causes of contingent beings, which are the object of the positive sciences.

All solutions which deny the real value of the concept and try to replace it either with associationism or a priori forms must ultimately end in the denial of both metaphysics and science, and inevitably lead to Skepticism.



(Ontology, General Metaphysics)

Our immediate experience, both interior and exterior, is constantly assuring us of one undeniable fact, i. e., the existence of finite being in a state of continuous becoming. Indeed, which one of us can say that he is exactly the same today as he was yesterday? Similarly, the things that surround us are constantly subjected to superficial or profound changes.

It is from this undeniable fact that every philosophical investigation must start. The philosopher must offer a rational explanation that coincides with such incontrovertible evidence. This is possible only if we suppose that finite being is composed of two distinct elements: the one, which determines being in so far as it is such a being, is called act; the other, which places in being a real exigency for what it is not actually but might be, is called potency.

Moreover, becoming would be impossible unless an actual agent intervened and made the possibility become a reality. The agent could not produce such an effect unless it were determined to do so by its nature or by its will. This determination is called the end.

Thus becoming finds its rational explanation in four causes: the formal (act), the material (potency), the efficient (agent), and the final (end). These four causes are the most splendid blossoms of Greek speculation and the very solid pillars of a genuine realistic metaphysics.



(Theodicy, Natural Theology)

The rational proof of the existence of God is nothing more than a particular application of the above principles; the outline of the proof is as follows.

Finite being, whether considered as a limited series or an unlimited series, is essentially incapable of being the cause of its own becoming. Becoming finds its rational explanation only in the Immutable. In like manner, motion is explainable only by the Immovable; the contingent, by the Absolute.

But the Immutable, the Immovable, the Absolute, is God.

This metaphysical argument, first proposed by the Greek thinkers, was adopted and developed by the medieval philosophers. Its value is absolute because it terminates in the existence of God through metaphysical necessity. This argument must not be replaced by or subordinated to any other. Other arguments proving the existence of God are derived from the universal consent of mankind, from the necessity of a rational foundation for morality, from psychological exigency, etc. These and the like are good; but they are conclusions drawn from convenience, not from metaphysical necessity.

This metaphysical argument makes it possible for us to acquire some knowledge of the nature of God. From it, indeed, we conclude the God is Pure Act, i.e., totally devoid of any potency. By mentally elevating to the absolute the perfections we find in created beings, we obtain such concepts as the good, the one, the true, the beautiful which give us, in an analogical sense, some understanding of the Being of God.



(Cosmology, Philosophy of Nature)

The complex of finite beings in which matter is present is called the world (or physical nature), and is the object of cosmology.

The metaphysical structure of material being is explained according to the principles of ontology, that is, by act and potency. Since, however, we must consider in cosmology the presence of matter, act and potency are given a new terminology, namely, substantial form and prime matter, Prime matter is an element undetermined in itself but capable of determination by the substantial form, which is the element determining matter. What might appear as mere tautology in this statement actually emphasizes the close interrelationship existing between these two elements. For it is the form which makes matter what it actually is.

Prime matter and substantial form are imperfect being. They do not exist separately from one another. The existing being is a composite of both matter and form, which is usually called substance. In the composite substance, prime matter represents the passive element (potency), the substratum of all change. The substantial form, on the other hand, represents the specific perfection of the substance; it is the substantial form which endows the substance with the particular activity it happens to have (the nature). The substantial form is the source of all the activities of the substance.

Besides the substantial form, there are in any substance other forms perfecting it in its existence and its activity - e.g., the forms of shape, color, weight, etc. These forms are called secondary or accidental because they presuppose a being already established by prime matter and substantial form.

The world, through its element of form, is intelligible, ordered and active. Moreover, this world was created by God. The ancient Greek philosophers believed that matter was uncreated, but Christian thought, by developing the Aristotelian principle of God as Pure Act, affirmed that matter was created. For if matter were uncreated, God would be passive in relation to it, and, consequently He would not be Pure Act.

In addition, if God created the world, it is also ordered and ruled by Him. This is the concept of providence, which was unknown to Greek speculation.

In cosmology we discover that time and space do not exist independently; they are correlated to existing being. They take their root in existing being and are not simply concepts of the knowing faculty (a priori forms), as Kant maintained.



(Rational Psychology, Philosophical Anthropology)

According to the principles of metaphysics, man is a composite of prime matter and substantial form. These two elements in man are labeled body and soul.

The soul is the principle of life and the unique source of operations. From it derive both mechanical and immanent actions. Besides its organic operations, such as nutrition and sensation, the human soul has the power of understanding, an operation which is essentially inorganic.

Knowledge is made up of two different operations: the sensitive and the intellective. The sensitive is a function of the soul, but it requires an intimate co-operation of the physical organs. The intellective is the work of the soul alone. This faculty of understanding is called the intellect, and the intellect is inorganic. It is concerned with the universal essence of material beings and, in addition, performs the vital operations of judging and reasoning.

Psychology teaches that man is endowed with free will, which takes its root in free judgment. The will also is an inorganic faculty.

Since the human soul is capable of inorganic operations in spite of its intimate relationship with the body, the soul is inorganic as regards its being. It is a spiritual substance and cannot be corrupted by the deterioration of the body. Having posited the spiritual nature of the soul, we logically conclude that this human soul is immortal.



(Ethics, Moral Philosophy)

Man tends naturally to his own perfection, which is nothing other than his own happiness. Thus we say that the end of man is his own perfection. And since perfection is the end of man, it must pre-exist in the mind as an idea in order to be actuated. This idea of human perfection is realized by actions that are in conformity with the moral law.

But where do we find this idea of perfection? How do we know the proper way to reach it? Traditional philosophy answers the question by returning to the principles of the metaphysics of being. Metaphysics teaches that every being has certain inborn inclinations, which it carries out by force of the principles of its nature. For example, water has a tendency to flow, and it does so by reason of its nature, that is, because it is water.

Man also tends to his own perfection, and such a tendency must be actuated along the lines of the specific nature of man - that is, of a rational being endowed with intellect and free will. Our reason allows us to understand that man is a finite being, that every finite being is dependent, and that every dependant being receives what it possesses. In other words, the intellect discovers the bent of the laws of humanity as implanted in man's nature. These laws of man, in so far as he is man, are called the natural law. This law does not compose itself mechanically. Such a notion is alien to the very nature of man, a free creature.

Consequently, man must follow the dictates of the natural law freely because his intellect shows him that such is the way to reach human perfection and happiness.

The command of the natural law can be expressed in the following imperative form: Be what a rational being endowed with free will must be.

Is man capable of attaining his proper end? We know that Aristotle remained perplexed at this question and finally concluded that this was impossible for the majority of men. However, the Christian concept of God as the Creator of being has always included the notion that God is cognizant of the exigencies He has placed in created beings. Consequently, everyone acting according to the rules of reason can reach a relative happiness in the present life and the fullest joy in the next.



(Politics, Social Ethics)

The tendency to perfection brings man into contact with others. He establishes the family, the first society in the order of time, and thus assures the continuation of the human race.

But the family alone is not a sufficiently wide field for all the activities of man. He needs a larger society - the civil society, which is rooted in the natural tendency of man toward perfection and not in a contract freely made, as the materialists and Positivists would have us believe.

The concept of authority is drawn from the very notion of society; authority comes from the Author of nature and not from the will of the associates. We must remember that no determined form of society is established by nature, and different forms can be constructed according to the needs of the people or of the times. Authority, which represents the whole of society, has the positive duty of procuring all that is best for the citizens. From this arises the concept of right, which determines what each man can do in the order of the common good. From the concept of right flows the concept of sanction, which is directed toward repairing injuries.

Since it is based on a requirement of human nature, society was created for man and not vice versa. Since the end of society is the common good of the associates, a juridical regulation will be just if it corresponds to this good; otherwise, it will be unjust.



(Religion, Sacred Theology)

Metaphysics shows the complete dependence of every finite being on God. Man, a finite being with understanding and free will, is obliged to acknowledge his dependence according to the nature of a rational being. Consequently, man, as an individual, as a member of a family, and as a unit of society, is obliged to know, obey and love God, from whom he has received a natural inclination toward perfection.

Beyond this point philosophy does not go. However, since philosophy finds it reasonable that God could have revealed some special form of knowledge, it demands that man remember such a possibility.

It is the duty of theology to show that a special revelation was truly made, and to unveil God's love for man in providing him with a supernatural society, a supernatural means, and a supernatural end for his complete happiness.

For books about Classical Realism, see Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty's Recommended Bookshelf for Students of Classical Realism

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