The Role of Philosophy in Human Life, "Know Thyself" - Introduction to Fides et Ratio by Pope John Paul II

Fides et Ratio is an encyclical from Pope John Paul II that deals with the Catholic Church's relationship to philosophy and the use of philosophy. The introduction is quite beautiful and JPII expresses an idea that is central to this blog, that the human spirit is drawn toward questions that are perennial in nature, always returning to his consciousness in every age, and that it is only by attempting to find answers to these questions that we will have some understanding of who we are as people and what our purpose is. 

Introduction - "Know Thyself"

As human consciousness grows and we become more and more aware of ourselves and our place in the universe over the ages, the desire for an answer to the meaning of life becomes more and more intense. It is clear that human beings across cultures share this phenomena, while animals do not. Here JPII mentions a set of questions that can be found in writings across the globe. "Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life?" 1 These are the questions and answers that guide the fate of human cultures. 2

These are the same questions that Christians deal with. Thus, the Church not only seeks to journey with people on a philosophical level, working out answers to these questions, but also is obliged to share the certainty she has received from God in Christ Jesus about theological answers to these questions, with an ever awareness that nothing will be complete until the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time. 3 Thus, as a Christian, philosophy is a noble endeavor. It is an endeavor which helps to unite cultures in laying out universal answers to these questions. 4 It is an endeavor which sparks a desire to attain ultimate answers and truths, not simply relative or limited ones. It is an endeavor which leads us to a journey which we are meant to take alone. Rather, human beings are drawn towards others as we realize that, in actuality, we share the same situation and same destiny in this experience of life. 

The philosophical endeavor produces rigorous systems of thought and logical coherence, yet all of them are incomplete, a fact which should draw one back to philosophical enquiry as such. Yet, this is not to relativize philosophy. There are clearly truths which have manifested themselves which are objectively true. 5

"Although times change and knowledge increases, it is possible to discern a core of philosophical insight within the history of thought as a whole. Consider, for example, the principles of non-contradiction, finality and causality, as well as the concept of the person as a free and intelligent subject, with the capacity to know God, truth and goodness. Consider as well certain fundamental moral norms which are shared by all. These are among the indications that, beyond different schools of thought, there exists a body of knowledge which may be judged a kind of spiritual heritage of humanity." 6

Even those who do not explicitly understand these principles in some way still live by them. This being the case, they should form a core set of truths to philosophy as a whole, regardless of the different schools of thought. What JPII calls from the long tradition, "right reason." 7 

An Attack on Right Reason

This right reason, then, can serve as the beginning place for the reception of faith, as well as serve to make human life better here on earth. Certainly the history of the last 500 years of Modern philosophy has sought to know more about man, his subjective experience of the world, and how to make his life better. While this is good, if this endeavor is removed from the search for transcendent truth or ultimate truth, something about human beings is lost, and has often led to human abuse. 8

"Sundered from that truth, individuals are at the mercy of caprice, and their state as person ends up being judged by pragmatic criteria based essentially upon experimental data, in the mistaken belief that technology must dominate all." 9

This can happen when humans become to focused on technical knowledge, seeking only to understand and control the material world, forgetting man's capacity for higher realities. Modern philosophy, in so many ways, has become focused, instead of on being itself, upon the instrument of knowing and in such a way to lead many to skepticism even to the most basic truths. The final result is an unbridled pluralism in which every truth is equally valid, regardless of its content, and a sense of loss regarding real answers to the meaning of life. 10

"With a false modesty, people rest content with partial and provisional truths, no longer seeking to ask radical questions about the meaning and ultimate foundation of human, personal and social existence. In short, the hope that philosophy might be able to provide definitive answers to these questions has dwindled." 11

The Role of the Church 

JPII makes a clarion call for theologians, philosophers, as well as his brother bishops to recover authentic philosophy, searching for objective truth, as well as affirming our ability to know it. It is also necessary to continue that theme of objective truth in contemporary theology and its relation to philosophy. This lack of authenticity in our culture has led many young people to the brink of nihilism, having no meaning great enough to sustain their lives. 12

"The need for a foundation for personal and communal life becomes all the more pressing at a time when we are faced with the patent inadequacy of perspectives in which the ephemeral is affirmed as a value and the possibility of discovering the real meaning of life is cast into doubt. This is why many people stumble through life to the very edge of the abyss without knowing where they are going. At times, this happens because those whose vocation it is to give cultural expression to their thinking no longer look to truth, preferring quick success to the toil of patient enquiry into what makes life worth living. With its enduring appeal to the search for truth, philosophy has the great responsibility of forming thought and culture; and now it must strive resolutely to recover its original vocation." 13


1 - Pope John Paul II. Fides et Ratio. Paragraph 1. 

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