Philosophy is not virtue

“Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith. Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. … Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.”

John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, Discourse V., section 9.

3 thoughts on “Philosophy is not virtue

  1. Hmmm. Philosophy = love of wisdom; ‘fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ sayeth the Psalmist. The love of truth is the love of God, as Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. So I’m not so down on philosophy, in the sense of loving wisdom and seeking truth, as Newman, even though I’d agree that philosophy as studied in the school for the past 450 years has been a disaster.


  2. Oh, I don’t think he’s down on philosophy. In fact, earlier in the same discourse he says,

    “While the world lasts, will Aristotle’s doctrine on these matters last, for he is the oracle of nature and of truth. While we are men, we cannot help, to a great extent, being Aristotelians, for the great Master does but analyze the thoughts, feelings, views, and opinions of human kind. He has told us the meaning of our own words and ideas, before we were born. In many subject-matters, to think correctly, is to think like Aristotle; and we are his disciples whether we will or no, though we may not know it.”

    In the context, Newman is arguing against those who would say that studying philosophy does no good, as evidenced by the fact that “Useful Knowledge” accomplishes much good in the world, whereas philosophy — knowledge for its own sake — doesn’t. Philosophers may be good people or bad, sincere or hypocritical, no more or less than anyone else. Newman says that, even assuming that’s true, so what? Studying philosophy doesn’t have as its end making people better and more virtuous, any more than studying biology or accounting:

    “[Philosophy’s] direct business is not to steel the soul against temptation or to console it in affliction, any more than to set the loom in motion, or to direct the steam carriage; be it ever so much the means or the condition of both material and moral advancement, still, taken by and in itself, it as little mends our hearts as it improves our temporal circumstances. And if its eulogists claim for it such a power, they commit the very same kind of encroachment on a province not their own as the political economist who should maintain that his science educated him for casuistry or diplomacy.” Or, say, an astronomer who thinks his science educates him about God.

    I agree with Newman in the sense that being better and more virtuous is, strictly speaking, a matter of will, not intellect. Of course the will should follow the intellect, and so we need to know truth before we can exercise the will to obey truth. Nevertheless, knowing truth doesn’t automatically result in willing good, and I think that’s his point.

    Of course as a Christian, I would say that virtue is the province of religion. At least in my case, coming to believe in God is what made me determine to live virtuously. Philosophy has a place in religion, in fact it’s indispensable in a religion which claims to make sense of life generally and put everything in its proper perspective. But philosophy is not religion per se.

    What then is the end of philosophy? “Liberal Education [which, if I understand him right, Newman uses interchangeably with ‘studying philosophy’], viewed in itself, is simply the cultivation of the intellect, as such, and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence.”


  3. I should clarify that last sentence: Newman speaks of liberal education as acquiring knowledge for its own sake, rather than for its material usefulness. And philosophy of course is love of wisdom. He speaks of philosophy as the thing which we use to “coordinate” the knowledge gained in the various fields of study, the science of sciences, so to speak. So I guess it’s me who is using “philosophy” and “liberal education” interchangeably. A liberal education makes you, not a scientist in a particular field of study, but a philosopher in the sense of one who understands how the various fields of study fit together and what the end of each is, how they interact with each other, and what their over-arching purpose should be.


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