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The following is Part X in a series defending the claims of the Catholic Church. Read Part I here; Part II here; Part III here; Part IV here; Part V here; Part VI here; and Part VII here; Part VIII here; and Part IX here

‘Truth is what the mind is after; truth is what the mind desires; truth is what is the mind is for. And the quest for truth, down to its last foundations, is a philosophical quest,’[1]Mgr. Paul Glenn 

(LifeSiteNews) — In the previous article we saw that a true philosophy is possible because man is capable of reaching true conclusions about realities beyond the direct grasp of the senses.  

In this article we will see how the origin of philosophy lies in human nature, that is, in our natural desire for knowledge and in the sense of wonder we experience when we contemplate the world around us.  

Man by nature desires to know  

Aristotle begins his Metaphysics with the simple statement: 

All men by nature desire to know.[2]

Man’s natural desire to know follows from his possession of an intellectual soul. The intellect was made for knowledge and seeks it. Indeed, man’s final end is knowledge: immediate knowledge of God in the beatific vision of Heaven. In seeing God, intellectual creatures – men and angels – know perfect happiness.   

Moved by his desire to know, man seeks to understand the world around him ever more deeply. His search for truth was eloquently described by Monsignor Paul Glenn:  

Philosophy, the loving quest for wisdom, the tireless pursuit of knowledge to its deepest origins and roots, comes into being, foremost, because the human mind is ever seeking to know, and to grasp the ultimate how’s and why’s of what it knows.   

Man has a quenchless thirst for knowledge. Nor is this a desire for mere data, for bare facts and events; it is a desire for data with their explanations, their justifications, their evidence, their proofs. And if a proof or explanation is not in itself an evident and inescapable reality, the mind looks for proof of that proof. So the search for solid and reliable knowledge – for truth, in a word – is carried forward, or naturally tends, to be carried forward towards fulfilment. 

The mind proves truth by truth; it holds truths in relations and connections; it delves deep to unify and clarify its findings in an ultimate understanding.  

Thus man is, by his very nature, philosophical.[3] 

The relationship between wonder and philosophy 

The desire to know is evident in human beings from the very earliest weeks of life.  

Babies and children show increasing interest and curiosity in the world around them as they grow, exploring, and asking questions as soon as they are able. They have a natural wonder about the world they encounter. This wonder, continued into adult life, is the basis of philosophical thought. 

In Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus Socrates remarks: 

Wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.[4]

Philosophy is born from the wondrous contemplation of the realities of the world. Man observes the phenomena of nature and wants to understand them, not just because this knowledge is useful to him, but because he truly wants to know the truth about the things he observes. 

Immediately after his famous declaration that all men by nature desire to know, Aristotle states: 

An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else.[5]

When we sit by the sea and watch the waves crash against the rocks, or when we stand by the window and watch the sunrise, we are simply taking delight in the exercise of our senses, and the contemplation of creation. This contemplation leads us to ask deeper and deeper questions.   

Later in Metaphysics Aristotle comments:

It is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and of the stars, and about the genesis of the universe. 

Man seeks this knowledge because of his desire for truth:  

A man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant… therefore since they philosophized order to escape from ignorance, evidently, they were pursuing science in order to know, and not for any utilitarian end. 

The pursuit of knowledge requires a certain degree of leisure and freedom from urgent necessities: 

And this is confirmed by the facts; for it was when almost all the necessities of life and the things that make for comfort and recreation had been secured, that such knowledge began to be sought.  

Knowledge is not pursued to meet immediate needs or temporal wellbeing: 

Evidently then we do not seek it for the sake of any other advantage; but as the man is free, we say, who exists for his own sake and not for another’s, so we pursue this as the only free science, for it alone exists for its own sake.[6]

In one of the surviving fragments of the Protrepticus, a work written by Aristotle to encourage the study of philosophy, he maintains that:  

It is by no means strange that philosophic wisdom on first sight should appear to be devoid of immediate practical usefulness and, as a matter of fact, might not all prove to be advantageous. For we call philosophic wisdom not advantageous in a practical sense of the term, but good. It ought to be pursued not for sake of anything else, but rather exclusively for its own sake.[7]  

In this text Aristotle presents Pythagoras (c570 – c495 BC) – best known to us for his famous Theorem about right angle triangles – as an earlier philosopher who also regarded philosophy as having its origin in wonder at the created world.  

Pythagoras when asked why God created mankind, supposedly answered: 

To view the heavens. 

And, writes Aristotle, “he added he was a viewer of nature, and that he had come into this life for that very purpose.”[8]

There is a tradition that purports it was Pythagoras who coined the term “philosopher,” which as we saw in a previous article, means “lover of wisdom.” The Roman philosopher Cicero presents Pythagoras as delivering this speech: 

The life of a man resembles a great festival… At this festival some people sought to win the glorious distinction of the crown; and others, again, were attracted by the prospect of material gain through buying and selling.  

But there was also a certain type of people, and that quite the best type of men, who were interested neither in competing, applauding nor in seeking gain, but who came solely for the purpose of the spectacle itself, and, hence, closely watched what was done and how it was done.  

The best men, suggests Cicero/Pythagoras, are those who come into this life not for personal gain, but “solely for the purpose of the spectacle itself”; that is, the wonderous contemplation of reality. The speech continues:  

And so also, we, as though we had come from some city to a crowded festival, leaving in like fashion another life and another nature of being, entered upon this life. And some were slaves of ambition, and some were slaves of money. 

But there were a special few who, counting all else for nothing, closely scanned the nature of things.  

These gave themselves the name of ‘philosophers’… And just as at these festivals the men of the most exalted education looked on without any self-seeking intent, so too, in life the dispassionate contemplation of things and their rational apprehension or understanding by far surpasses all other pursuits.[9]

The highest use of man’s natural faculties is the contemplation of the created world and its rational apprehension. And from this apprehension, the human intellect ascends from knowledge of created things to knowledge of the Creator. 

The relationship between contemplation of the created world, and the ascent of the soul to the worship of God was clear to Aristotle.   

A fragment of Aristotle’s lost work On Philosophy, preserved by Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, speaks of that one ultimate and supreme being: 

If some people, by means of their philosophic knowledge, have been enabled to gain a comprehension of the author and governor of the whole universe, they proceed in fact from the lowly to the most high 


Indeed, when they enter this world as if they were entering a city governed by good law, and when they contemplate the earth so exquisitely girdled with its mountain ranges and far-flung plains, strewn with shrubs and trees and fruit-bearing plants and also animals of all sorts, beholding in different places the oceans and the lakes and the many quiet streams and rushing torrents as well as the gentleness of the air and of the winds and the orderly annual changes of the seasons, and above them all the sun and the moon, the planets and the fixed stars and the heavens in their orderly and disciplined array 


When they behold all this they marvel greatly and are struck with awe, and they come to the conclusion which is fully consonant with these grandiose manifestations, namely, that such sublime order could not possibly be the result of a mere accident, but must be the deliberate handiwork of an artificer, the Creator of this universe.[10]

Aristotle therefore holds that the existence of God can be known by mankind, as a cause is known from its effects, through contemplation of the things which have been made.  

In another text of Philo of Alexandria, again considered to be a fragment of Aristotle, this conclusion is clearly stated: 

The first philosophers investigated how we succeed in formulating the concept of the Divine… They asserted that we had arrived at an understanding of the cause of the universe.  


To cite just one example: When we should behold a house perfectly constructed… we would indeed come to the conclusion that without … an architect the construction of this house could not have been carried out to its perfection. 


By the same token, if we were to enter this world as one might enter a gigantic house or an immense city, and one were to contemplate the heavens which rotate in perfect spheres embracing everything, including the planets and the fixed stars which move harmoniously and uniformly according to a law of symmetry and perfect harmony and in a manner that is  to the advantage of the whole universe, and if one were to contemplate the earth … and the running waters and the air that is between heaven and earth; and, furthermore, if one were to perceive the animated creatures … and the great variety of plants and fruits – if one were to behold all this, one would have to infer that these wondrous things could not possibly have come about without a perfect art and grandiose design, and that there existed, and still exists, an Artificer of this whole universe, namely, God.  

Those who reason in this fashion actually conceive of God through His shadow in that they acquire a knowledge of the Artificer through His artifact.[11]

Thus, we see that from his natural desire to know, man pursues deeper and deeper knowledge, until he attains the knowledge of the first and ultimate cause of all being: God. 

Not every man actually pursues philosophy 

Man’s natural inclination towards the pursuit of knowledge ensures that every human society is, to some extent, philosophical. But not everyone pursues the deepest levels of knowledge of which the human intellect is capable.  

There can be many reasons for this, particularly the difficulty of life in the fallen world. Men and women are burdened by the need to earn their daily bread for “in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to the earth” (Gen 3.17). We are beset by pain, loss, grief, poverty and other forms of sufferings.  

Others among us become distracted by superficial pleasures and distractions that keep the mind from contemplation of reality.  

Modern man often finds it very difficult to think of pursuing any end purely for itself and not for some practical purpose, like making money or, even, serving the public good. There is a tendency to regard intellectual pursuits that have only knowledge as their goal as in some way self-indulgent or inefficient.   

This contrasts with the fact that people will in fact spend vast quantities of time on superficial activities, such as hours spent scrolling through social media, or days wasted playing video games.   

Of course, being distracted by superficial things is a problem for men throughout the ages. 

Aristotle himself notes the absurdity of people spending time and money on activities of little value, while neglecting the wonderous contemplation of reality. 

In the Protrepticus he wrote: 

For as we journey to the games at Olympia for the spectacle itself – for the spectacle as such is worth more than ‘much money ‘ – and as we watch the Dionysia not in order to derive some material profit from the actors – as a matter of fact, we spend money on them – and as there are many more spectacles that we ought to prefer to great riches: so, too, the viewing and contemplation of the universe to be valued above all other things commonly considered to be useful in a practical sense.   

For, most certainly, it would make little sense were we to watch men imitating women or slaves, or fighting or running, but not to think it proper to view or contemplate, free of all charges, the nature and true reality of everything that exists.[12] 

Yet more two thousand years on, mankind falls into the same trap.  

We must continue to pursue truth anyway  

The failure of the many to pursue truth should not discourage us on our own quest.    

Glenn, writing in the early 1940s, urged us to continue on our way, despite the indifference or hostility of the society in which we live:  

We have no need to pause and argue with the inept, the lazy and the incurious. Our statement that the human mind is naturally philosophical in its efforts is manifestly true of the mind at its unspoiled best. That some minds are ill-directed and spend their energies amiss; that some are thwarted by incapacity; that some are quickly weary in the quest of truth – these facts are in no sense an argument against the native tendency of the human mind for ultimate truth. 

He continues: 

There is an explanation for the fact that many human beings fail to seek out ultimate causes and reasons, fail to realize or concern themselves with the meaning of existence, and are content with the second-best and third-best explanation of the world around them, of life, of duty, of effort.  

There is an explanation, and only one. It is the fact that something has, in human origins, gone wrong with man; something has hurt his mind, darkening it and making it subject to sudden weariness, willing to surrender its effort under the stress of exacting labor.  

The name of this fact is Original Sin.[13]

In the next instalment we will take up the history of philosophy with the fall of man and the primitive revelation entrusted to man by God.  


1 Mgr Paul Glenn, Introduction to Philosophy, (St. Louis, 1944)p28.
2 Aristotle, MetaphysicsBook I, Part I, trans. W. D. Ross.
3 Glenn, Introduction, p27.
4 Plato, Theaetetus, trans. Benjamin Jowett.
5 Aristotle, Metaphysics, I.I
6 Aristotle, Metaphysics, I.II.
7 Quoted in Anton-Hermann ChroustPhilosophy Starts in WonderDivus Thomas, 1972, Vol. 75, No. 1 (1972), p. 57.
8 Chroust, “Wonder”, p57.
9 Chroust“Wonder”, p58.
10 Chroust, “Wonder”, p60.
11 Chroust, “Wonder”, p60-61.
12 Chroust, “Wonder”, p57.
13 Glenn, Introduction, p29.