Picture the ocean, an expanse of wild water so massive that it covers most of the earth. In the middle of this vast aquatic desert are two sandy islands, slight glittering hills that barely interrupt the undulating, wind-swept surface of the deep. You find yourself standing on one of these islands. You look around and see in the distance another lonely island among the waves and ripples. You cannot stay where you are; you have no choice but to make for the other island.
One island is birth, and the other is death. Your swim between them represents your life and everything in it. The effort of such a swim will challenge you in a number of ways. Oceans are unpredictable. Threats—everything from bad weather to cross-currents—abound. Now, imagine that during your swim, you decide to close your eyes and begin to doze off. Imagine what it would be like to nap while swimming in the open ocean. Imagine what might happen to you while you slept.
You can be certain that you will reach the other island. What is uncertain, however, is the condition in which you will wash up on shore. Will you arrive discouraged or invigorated? Whole or in pieces? Awake or asleep? In this life, we all move inexorably toward death. It is in light of this that I speak to you today—what it means to swim the waters of life between birth and death either awake or asleep.
We can imagine what it might be like for the unfortunate person who sleeps during such a swim. Let us turn instead to the one who remains awake. The one who remains awake, I will argue, is the philosopher. A philosopher is one who does philosophy, and so I shall make an attempt to define philosophy.
When the average person thinks of philosophy, he may think of ivory towers, navel-gazing, incoherent claptrap, rhetoric, solipsism, skepticism, sophistry, or straight-up good old-fashioned wasting-one’s-time. While there are plenty of people who do and have done those things (and worse) in the name of philosophy, they are—at least as I will define it—not really doing philosophy at all.
I define philosophy as the art of closing the gap between appearances and reality. Reality I define as anything that has happened, is happening, or will happen.
“But Eliot,” you may say, “how is a philosopher supposed to close such a gap given man’s obvious limitations?” You may say, furthermore, that reality is the sort of thing that requires interpretation, and there are so many options. I grant that this is true—reality is vast and perspectives abound. So I suppose I ought to propose an optimal frame of reference for reality.
The frame of reference that I have in mind is omniscient, and it exists outside of time and space. It is not swayed by public opinion or propaganda. This frame of reference recognizes the purpose and intent of all things. It is not limited by physical needs or defects. This frame of reference is good—not categorically, but definitively. The perspective that I propose is God’s. God’s perspective is perfect and complete. Nothing escapes His observation. All elements are weighed and prioritized appropriately. There is nothing to improve, refine, or expand.
“But Eliot,” you may say, “God and man are so very different. How can man ever hope to begin to approach reality from God’s perspective?” Well, it would be utterly impossible to take on God’s perspective—unless, that is, God could share His perspective with us.
I will concede that to do philosophy as I have defined it is not easy. To take even the first step one must be willing to consider that there might be significant differences between how things appear to one and how things actually are. To begin to do philosophy is to recognize that in the world as I encounter it, there is truth and there is untruth and that I may need to work to sort out the difference. This sort of work, however challenging, is preferable to the alternative—not doing it. For not doing it is as perilous as sleeping during a swim in the middle of the ocean.
Some may imagine that they are quite well-informed about how things actually are—that the gap between appearances and reality is not as wide as we might think. Given my own experience with philosophy, however, it seems to me, at least, that quite often the gap in one’s mind between appearances and reality can make the Grand Canyon look like a crack in the sidewalk. For instance, it might appear as though you are sitting perfectly still. However, astronomers claim that we are currently spinning at 1,000 miles an hour on the surface of the earth. Yet you feel nothing. Likewise, it would appear that you are sitting on solid furniture. Physicists, however, would argue that what you are sitting on is mostly empty space made of indeterminate electron clouds, protons, and neutrons. Yet you feel something. Things are not always what they seem—appearances can be deceiving.
This is not because God is a deceptive God. It is we who, in our profound un-God-likeness, are deceptive. With the wrong questions, assumptions, and definitions, we can spend years practicing the wrong way of looking at things—telling ourselves that we are awake when we are actually asleep and that our dreams are reality. In order to acknowledge this, the philosopher has to accept a rather unflattering picture of himself. Coming to grips with the self will pose recurrent problems for the one who takes up philosophy because he will always be tempted to prefer his own perspective to God’s.
I would like to turn back to the one who sleeps during his swim in the ocean. In sleep, we dream. We will need to explore the dream of this sleeper and why this dream might seem pleasant to him. I will call his dream the Great Dream.
Four pillars of the Great Dream are outlined in a revealing work that all Gutenberg students read. In Propaganda, the 20th-century French sociologist Jacques Ellul offers up what he calls the Four Great Collective Presuppositions of the Modern World. They are as follows: first, everything is matter; second, man is naturally good; third, man’s aim in life is his own happiness; and fourth, history develops in endless progress.
If I’m not mistaken, I believe the logic of the Great Dream works something like this: First, if everything is matter, then everything in the universe can be known; if known, controlled; and if controlled, it cannot harm me, and I have nothing to fear. Second, if I am naturally good, then so are my choices and actions—all of my decisions are justified by my inherent goodness. Third, if my aim in life is to maximize my own happiness, then I am right to pursue whatever ends maximize that happiness. Anyone who helps me maximize it is good, and anyone who hinders me from maximizing it is bad. Finally, if everyone is good and pursues his own happiness, then logically, history will develop in endless progress toward the good. Science and technology will make life increasingly easier and reduce suffering, which stands in the way of happiness. Changes of this sort will move the human species (and me along with it) toward greater happiness.
Such is the Great Dream of the swimmer sleeping peacefully on the wave. The philosopher, on the other hand, might ask things like: Are these the right presuppositions? Do they accurately describe human nature and the human condition? Is this the best explanation we can come up with? Some philosophers have already logged responses to these questions.
On happiness, the 20th-century Russian historian Alexander Solzhenitsyn said:
If, as claimed by humanism, man were born only to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to death, his task on earth evidently must be more spiritual: not a total engrossment in everyday life, not the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then their carefree consumption. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become above all an experience of moral growth: to leave life a better human being than one started it. (“A World Split Apart,” 70)
On materialism, the British writer G. K. Chesterton observed:
As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of . . . [a] madman’s argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out. … [The materialist] understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world. The thing has shrunk. … The parts seem greater than the whole. (Orthodoxy, 18-19)
On progress, Chesterton remarked that it is the sort of thing in which “we alter the test instead of trying to pass the test. We often hear it said, for instance, ‘What is right in one age is wrong in another’. … If the standard changes, how can there be improvement, which implies a standard?” (ibid., 30-31).
I think Chesterton might be onto something when he points out our need for a standard. The Great Dream speaks of goodness, betterment, and progress, but by what standard shall we assess these? Standards have been a challenge for man for thousands of years. Ellul laments the condition of modern man in mass society:
He is on his own, and individualist thinking asks of him something he has never been required to do before: that he, the individual, become the measure of all things. Thus he begins to judge everything for himself. In fact he must make his own judgments. He is thrown entirely on his own resources; he can find criteria only in himself. … He becomes the beginning and the end of everything. … His own life becomes the only criterion of justice and injustice, of Good and Evil … burdened at the same time with a total, crushing responsibility. (Propaganda, 92)
Is man to be the measure of all things, as the Great Dream suggests? Man, ever changing his mind? Man, ever breaking his own rules? Man, ever acting at odds with his words and beliefs? Are we to chart our course by a fickle star, or scale a mountain on a shoestring?
If we are, then I see little hope for man—but only if. We’ve looked at happiness, materialism, and progress, but what of goodness? For the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, goodness was that which “cannot be defined by anything else but which defines everything else” (What Is Art? 77), while Jesus said, “No one is good—except God alone” (Mark 10:18). As coherent as the Great Dream is, then, it does spark disagreement among those willing to question it. Let us return to philosophy to see if it can help. As we shall see, it is at this point that philosophy can lend our wakeful swimmer some buoyancy.
The word philosophy is made up of two other words: philo- (“love of”) and sophia (“wisdom”). Philosophy is literally the love of wisdom. If philosophy is the art of closing the gap between appearances and reality, then wisdom is the skill of seeing and understanding that gap for what it really is.
So, what are the conditions for one to become wise—a philosopher? Solomon writes, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10). According to Solomon, the minimum criterion for wisdom is the fear of the Lord. The concept of fear could certainly encompass sheer terror, but it could also include a posture of awe, respect, and submission and an acknowledgment that God is both supreme and superior in all ways—that He is authoritative in His righteousness and His powerful capacity to compel.
The source of wisdom is God. Yet it seems that not all people who fear the Lord possess the same amount of wisdom. How is one who fears the Lord—and thus has the beginning of wisdom—to increase in wisdom? The Apostle James writes: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5).
If I am to have any wisdom, the fear of the Lord is my starting point. Once I have the fear of the Lord, then I have to ask God for wisdom. I have to believe that God is there before I fear Him, and I have to fear him before I ask Him.
This approach seems to resolve the crushing responsibility of having to rely on one’s own life to be the only criterion for justice and injustice, good and evil. I don’t have to swim alone if I acknowledge God and ask Him for assistance. This is what a real philosopher does.
In short: No God, no wisdom. No wisdom, no philosophy. No philosophy, and I will struggle to close the gap between appearances and reality because I will ultimately struggle to tell the difference between them. I will struggle to tell the difference between being asleep and being awake in this life. And it seems far more prudent to swim while awake.
If, as Jesus says, only God is good, then it is to Him that we ought to look for our definition of goodness. Goodness, in that case, may be defined as 1) everything that God is, 2) everything that God says, and 3) everything that God does.
Where does this leave our swimmer? The one who stays awake while swimming the waters of life is the philosopher. This philosopher—this lover of wisdom—has the fear of the Lord and has asked the Lord for wisdom. In asking the Lord for wisdom, the philosopher gains a better understanding of God’s perspective, applies God’s categories, and strives to live a life that acknowledges God as the supreme authority.
This article was adapted from a talk given at the 2020 Gutenberg College Commencement Ceremony and first appeared in print in the Fall 2020 issue of Colloquy, Gutenberg College’s free quarterly newsletter. Subscribe here.