Did you, like me, forget to celebrate the International Day of Philosophy? It always falls on the third Thursday in November (the 16th this year). I am not good at remembering family days and assorted holidays, and Philosophy Day is at the bottom of my list. Let’s hope it doesn’t become another occasion for exchanging gifts. Can you imagine gifting Uncle Henry with something like “Platonic Ideas for Woodworkers” or Aunt Thelma with “Nicomachean Ethics and Fashion?”
I can happily ignore Philosophy Day, which was something UNESCO decreed, but philosophy itself grabs my attention for reasons that I shall summarize. The origin of the word itself reveals the main ones. Philosophy — Philosophia — means literally “love of wisdom.” In one of his dialogues, Plato — perhaps the greatest mind of antiquity — described philosophy as an intense, near erotic, passion for understanding. Plato took understanding to mean more than merely knowing things in their singularity and isolation. Instead, for him it was the contemplation of reality in its multiple dimensions and interconnected levels. The Greek philosophers called these visions Theoria, theory or reality as a unified system. This characteristic Greek tendency toward universality was to launch science and philosophy — originally a single discipline — on the course they have followed ever since. English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once said that all philosophy since ancient Greece consists of footnotes to Plato.
Building on the Platonic insight, Iberian thinker Ortega y Gasset described philosophy as “the general science of love.” It remains my favorite summary, for Plato also described love as “the divine architect” who came down from heaven to shape and beautify the world for mankind to discover and enjoy. For him and the later New Testament writers truth was Aletheia, which meant the sudden unveiling or disclosure of reality.
There are two other concepts of truth that shaped Western cultures: Veritas, the Roman idea of precision and reliability. It was truth understood in an exact legal and technical sense. No wonder the Romans were the greatest engineers and legalists of their age. For the ancient Hebrews, truth was Emunah — related to Amen — which looked to human destiny and was rooted in the faith that divine prophecies would come to pass.
Aletheia is more than simply waking routinely from the drowsiness of ignorance, as one rises to another ordinary day. Instead it is the euphoria of ascending suddenly to a higher level of consciousness, of seeing the world and its contents from a superior perspective. Aristotle called it the “life of the mind.” In a Christian context Aletheia can be illustrated spiritually by the dramatic conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus Road. Knocked to the ground, the scales would fall from his eyes and he would see all things in a new light. Henceforth he would be Paul, the model missionary.
The great German writer Goethe summarizes the transformative experience as a life quest: “I am of those who from the darkness aspire to the light.”