Natural Born Philosophers

Jerry Walls

Pope John Paul II is not only one of the greatest spiritual leaders of our time, he is also one of the most beloved and influential popes in the history of the church, admired by Protestants and Catholics alike. Before he became John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla was respected for his work as a philosopher. It is no surprise that he would celebrate the twentieth anniversay of his papacy with an encyclical which articulates the nature and significance of philosophy.

Entitled Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), the document was twelve years in preparation and is a ringing declaration of the crucial role of philosophy for human life and culture.

Indeed, John Paul goes so far as to claim that "the human being is by nature a philosopher." Concern for truth is not exclusively or even primarily the concern of a group of academics in departments of philosophy. As the pope puts it: "Every life shows how concerned each of us is to discover for ourselves, beyond mere opinions, how things really are. Within visible creation, man is the only creature who not only is capable of knowing but who knows that he knows, and is therefore interested in the real truth of what he perceives."

The real truth about things is not merely an abstraction which provides fodder for obscure speculation. Rather, it is crucial to the very practical matter of how we live our lives. As the pope observes: "The truth comes initially to the human being as a question: Does life have a meaning? Where is it going?" Nothing less is at stake in the issue of truth than the very meaning of our lives. Consequently, we cannot be indifferent about the truth of the convictions by which we live our lives. Once more, in the words of John Paul, it is esential "that the values chosen and pursued in one's life be true, because only true values can lead people to realize themselves fully, allowing them to be true to their nature."

So being a philospher is fundamentally about the very pertinent matter of self realization, a matter which all rational beings care deeply about. Self realization is not about being self-centered. Ironically, the truth commended by the pope would insist that it is impossible to achieve true self realization by being self-centered. Our nature is fulfilled when we live in love and service to others. This is not the sort of truth which is obvious at first glance. Rather, it is discerned by thoughtful reflection, the sort of reflection which all persons are naturally inclined to if they stop long enough to realize it.

Only when basic questions about meaning and truth are answered can we live truly satisfying lives and do our best. This is why philosophy is essential fare for those engaged in business, industry and law as much as those engaged in education and religion. Because all of these endeavors are carried out by "the human being who is by nature a philosopher."


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