How To Dismantle Scientism

This article was written in 1946. It’s relevance has only grown over the decades.

If a man were to say to me, “I refuse to use my eyesight except through a microscope,” I might think that the man is queer or crazy, and I would certainly try to avoid his company. Imagine taking a walk with a man who keeps one eye closed, and the other, permanently fixed to a microscope!

Such a man is worse than blind, for a blind man who cannot see the stars, talks about them, and eagerly seeks to learn; but the man tied to the microscope neither sees nor seeks. The blind man knows that he is blind and acts accordingly, but the man with the microscope thinks that he is the only one who sees, and if you dare to mention the sky before him, he says, “But where is the sky!”, meaning, of course, that the sky could not exist unless it could be placed in his range of vision.

Now if you take this clumsy and most unlikely illustration and translate it from the order of sense to the order of intelligence, you get one of the most common intellectual types today, the type of a mind that will not apply its intelligence except through the scientific method.

This type of mind is apt to undermine common sense, on the ground that future scientific discovery might disprove any certainty. It discredits philosophy, because the objects of philosophy (God, the spiritual soul, cause, substance, etc.) cannot be weighed or measured, can neither be reduced to a mathematical formula, nor observed in a test tube. And finally, this type of mind discards all revelation, on the ground that religion is not a channel of knowledge and that its value is purely emotional and unintellectual. This is the attitude of mind that is gradually being recognized as a cultural danger by educators and social thinkers, and is coming to be called “scientism”. Scientism is not the same as science, but is rather an abuse of the scientific method and of scientific authority.

Here are some instances to illustrate what I mean by the term “scientism”: Physicists are now being consulted, not only on the development of atomic energy, but also on the morality of dropping atomic bombs.Professional experts must now tell us, not only whether children may be exposed safely to gamma rays, but even, whether children may be exposed to sun light.

Experts must decide whether mothers should be allowed to hug their babies. Einstein is teaching, on the grounds of mathematical physics, that God is not personal. Whitehead describes the attitudes of God in terms of quantum physics. Bergson builds biology into a false metaphysical religion. Bridgman moves over from the specialized field of high-pressure physics, to define democracy, investigate the foundations of morality, and pronounce on the freedom of the will!

I propose to study in this article some aspects of scientism, this cultural disease, which I hold responsible to a large extent for the alarming number of infidels and atheists in modern universities, and for the rise of dangerous beliefs and practices, the absurdities of which could be detected by a child, but not by the involved mind of the “scientific expert” and of those who worship authority. I hope to suggest that the remedy lies in restoring philosophy to its rightful place in education.

Philosophy has been called “the Queen of the Sciences”, and indeed, the realm of the sciences left without philosophy is like the kingdom in a state of anarchy. Philosophy defends the fundamental certitudes of common sense, establishes the grounds of morality, prepares the mind for revelation, and restores order in the house of science. Let the reader then be prepared to become more philosophically minded, if this article is to make its point.

To begin with, let us observe the place of knowledge in the life of man. Knowledge is the most characteristic activity of man. A man could, without knowledge, fall down from a balcony like a fainting acrobat; but no man could, without knowledge, climb up a balcony like Romeo. When the fainting acrobat falls down, we call that an act of man, because it is a man and not a stone or a log that is falling under the pull of gravity; but when Romeo climbs up, we call that, not only an act of man, but also a human act.

Knowledge must be present in every human act: in every art or profession, in humor and in prayer, in virtue and in vice. Man cannot even commit a sin without knowledge. Even man’s beatitude is defined in terms of knowledge, for “this is eternal life: that they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). If, therefore, knowledge plays such a tremendous role in the life of man, and if the consummation of this life in the beatific vision consists in the knowledge of all truth, would it not be extremely strange if God had restricted the privilege of knowing to that very small fraction of mankind who constitute the class of scholars and scientists?

As a matter of fact, by far the greater part of our knowledge belongs to the order of common sense. Even the expert scientist could not live one single day in this world, were he to depend exclusively on his expert knowledge in this special field. And besides, both science and philosophy presuppose the great mass of common sense knowledge, and could not proceed without it. If a student comes to a biology laboratory not knowing how to distinguish between a living and a non-living thing, what would stop him from observing the properties of life in a piece of chalk?

Also, both science and philosophy use the same knowledge-seeking faculties as we use in acquiring our common-sense knowledge; and therefore, if these faculties were discredited as they function normally in common sense, it is difficult to see how they could be trusted as they function artificially in other fields. A philosopher who cannot distinguish by common sense between his head and his headache, would never acquire that distinction by studying the abstract attributes of substance and accident.

Common sense knowledge has some remarkable qualities which are easily lost when knowledge gets to be artificially methodical. To mention just one quality, common-sense knowledge is somehow complete and integral; that is to say, that in common sense, the complete man knows in a certain manner the whole of reality. Common-sense knowledge is undivided and unclassified, it is knowledge about God and about the world, about men, animals, plants, seas, lands, time, space, institutions and objects of all kinds.

Certain knowledge is mixed with knowledge that is only probable, and knowledge which comes through the senses is not distinguished from knowledge which comes through the intellect. A soldier on the front line, does not say, “Let me abstract from the noises I hear and the sights I see, and reflect on the principle of causality” nor, on the other hand, does he say, “Indeed, I hear all kinds of sounds, and see all kinds of shapes and colors, but I must not make any further inferences.”

Common sense is also knowledge within a perspective. Only God, eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, can afford to know too much about too many things, without much reference to a purpose. The man on the front line knows all reality, but only as relating to the thing at stake, his very life. And the man of common sense is constantly on the front line, the line that divides time from eternity; consequently, he must know all things as they relate to the maintenance of his life in this world, and the salvation of his soul in the next. You cannot teach the man of common sense until you get him interested, and you can get him interested only by relating all things to the ultimate purpose of his existence.

But common-sense knowledge has its limitations, as the man of common sense very well knows. By mere common sense, no airplace can be constructed, and no medical operation can be performed. When the man of common sense needs to build a bridge, he does not go to another man of common sense; instead, he uses his common sense and goes to an engineer. It must be evident, therefore, that if we would have many of the things we consider desirable, common-sense knowledge would no longer be sufficient, and scientific knowledge becomes necessary.

But the discipline that is required for the acquisition of scientific knowledge makes that wholeness, that completeness of common-sense knowledge, impossible on the scientific plane. No man can possess technical scientific knowledge about everything; and therefore, every one must specialize in that part of knowledge needed for his profession, or for his function in society. Further, in contrast with the spontaneity of common sense and the directness with which it envisages its objectives, we find that science requires intricate and roundabout processes for its attainment. This makes it quite possible for man to lose every perspective of relevance, and to proceed along blind alleys of knowledge and research that lead nowhere. And yet all this is unavoidable and follows from the very nature of science.

It would be absurd to ask a medical student to justify in terms of ultimate human purposes every single action or assignment required in his general training for his profession. Hence we have another danger of specialized training; namely, when man is trained to know a part of reality, and to deal even with this part in a manner that is systematically artifical, this man develops more as a function than as a person .

Hence, it is that science and technology carry the danger of depersonalizing social relations. But man insists on being a person and on being treated as such; and as a person, he insists on his right of somehow knowing all reality and being concerned about his destiny as a complete man. Therefore, once his common-sense perspective gets to be distorted by the artificial mold which frames his mind in a special field, he tends to raise his special and partial science up to the dignity of a universal science.

“All reality is made up of material atoms or quantums of energy,” says the physicist. “Reality is a mysterious life force, elan vital ,” retorts the biologist, who would see all things from the window of biology. All history is made by economic forces (Marx), or by sexual energy (Freud). These and similar monisms, represent some of the grave dangers of scientism.

And then we have what is perhaps the greatest danger of scientism, namely, the philosophy of positivism. The primary interest of the special sciences is not the contemplative understanding and appreciation of reality, but the control of the visible world for practical purposes. In order to harness the powers of nature, all the knowledge needed is knowledge of certain accidential aspects of material things. Such an accident as the quantity of the thing, is all that remains of reality when the real thing is replaced by a measure and is introduced into a mathematical formula.

Of course any child could tell you that the quantity of a thing is not its complete reality, but the scientific expert tends to identify the quantity with the whole thing. Hence we get those quantitative ghosts called by such names as, energy, mass, atomic number, wave length, intelligence quotient, etc., floating around the scientific graveyards where the objects of common sense are deeply buried, and parading in the garbs of the real and substantial entities.

When this tendency of the sciences is built up into a complete philosophy, a world view, which denies the substance of things, denies the reality of causes, and admits only those surface accidents or appearances of material things which can be measured and made subject to the scientific method, when this thing happens, we get that most negative of all philosophies, namely, ironically enough, the philosophy of “positivism.” Now neither God nor the spiritual soul of man can be made subject to measurement or to test-tube analysis. Therefore, the positivist rejects on principle, all metaphysics and all religion.

But now, having seen some of the dangers of scientism, let us proceed to study the nature of science. This will lead us to determine whether philosophy is a science. The Greeks and the scholastics considered philosophy the science par excellence , but to the modern mind, this view cannot be taken for granted; it has to be justified.

What is a science, and how does scientific knowledge differ from the knowledge of common sense? The most superficial observation reveals to us that what we call sciences possess a certain form and order, i.e., they are organized bodies of knowledge and not random collections of facts. Now this order of the sciences is not imposed on them externally like the alphabetical order of a dictionary. It is an order which mirrors and reveals the order of real things.

The sciences have order because they put things together as things flow from common origins, principles, or causes. Science begins as soon as things begin to be systematically and methodically explained, and the more explained things are, the more orderly they appear to be. Man, therefore, can be said to have sciences, because he asks questions and seeks explanations of things that fall within his experience. And man is a great “question-asker.” As a matter of fact, man is the only question-asker in the whole universe. You could almost define man by this property, which flows from his very essence.

Now here is the reason why man asks questions. The human mind is made for a reality which is absolute, necessary, and simple, and which contains the sufficient reason for its being. This reality is, of course, God. Once the mind sees God, our intelligence is so thoroughly satisfied that it can raise no further questions, because no problem or mystery remain, either in God Himself, or in anything He caused. But when the human mind is confronted with a contingent reality which does not possess within itself a sufficient reason for its existence, the mind immediately tries to explain this reality, and explaining a thing means reducing it ultimately to a cause or principle which does not need to be explained.

To put what we have just said in more philosophic terms, we could say that the mind knows with absolute certainty that there must be a sufficient reason for everything that is. If we didn’t know that, we would never seek the “why” of a growing tree or of a falling apple. Every single science in the world owes its existence to this thirst for explanation, which all men share. This thirst for explanation is in our intellects and not in our senses. Animals never ask questions and never attain science. The stream of sense experience received in my skin from a flowing river does not raise any questions, but the notion of movement abstracted by my mind raises the problem of change, and starts the mind along the track of science.

The number of the sciences could be very large, because in addition to the great variety of objects that could be studied scientifically, there is a great variety of aspects from which to study things. A chair, for example, could be studied in physics, in chemistry, and in economics; and man may be studied in anatomy and in politics. In each case, the material object is one, but the formal object different.

But this variety of the sciences forms a natural hierarchy. For example, biology is superior to bacteriology, physics to metallurgy, astronomy to navigation, and economics to banking. What determines this hierarchy? The principle of explanation, in which the very essence of science consists. The superior sciences come closer to giving an ultimate explanation.

In every case mentioned so far, the superior science explains the principle of the inferior science, and defines its basic concepts. Hence, the inferior science of each pair presupposes the superior science, and depends upon it for being a science at all. Metallurgy presupposes the ordinary laws of general physics (such as the laws of heat and light, the principle of specific gravity, the laws of magnetism, etc.). If one were to stop and give a sufficient explanation of every term occuring in the science of metallurgy, one would have to include the greater part of general physics in every chapter on metallurgy; but, of course, physics is ordinarily taken for granted.

The hierarchy of the sciences is, therefore, a hierarchy of explanation. But along with this mark, others follow, stemming from it and depending upon it. The superior science is in every case a greater general interest and is valuable as knowledge in itself and for itself, while the inferior science is primarily of practical interest, and is valued on that account. No one studies metallurgy in order to become better educated.

Close to the top of this hierarchy, we find such sciences as physics, biology, and mathematics. Yet none of these sciences is ultimate, not even in their respective orders of knowledge. No book on geometry, for example, discusses the nature of quantity, continuity, shape, dimension, point, number, measure, space, etc. Geometry takes all these concepts for granted, just as it also presupposes its axioms and the general method of demonstration. The same could be said about physics and biology with regard to their basic notions and principles, such as the notion of matter, change, mass, energy, entropy, atom, field of force, life, generation, etc.

All these sciences, in so far as they are sciences, that is, in so far as they possess any explanatory value, presuppose the superior philosophic sciences of logic, cosmology, rational psychology and ethics. And these philosophic sciences, in turn, presuppose ontology or general metaphysics. Ontology is the absolute summit of natural knowledge; it is the one science which does not presuppose any other. Ontology studies all things under the most important aspects of all things. What ontology studies about being is more important than anything said about that being in any other science.

Is there any approach to reality more important than to study a thing in so far as it is one, true, good, and beautiful ? Supposing you take a society and remove from it all institutions and persons concerned with the attainment and expression of truth, goodness, and beauty, how much of that society is worth having? Or, let us take the history of man and remove from it the stories of its philosophers, scientists, poets, artists, saints and mystics; how much of what is left of that history is worth studying? As ontology studies all these attributes of being, it studies things in so far as they reflect the perfections of God; for God alone is supremely one, true, good, and beautiful.

Ontology thus establishes the highways on which the mind constantly travels from the world to God, and from God to the world. Moreover, ontology raises, formulates, and answers, all the most basic problems which torment the minds of men in all ages, and which underlie all great literature. Such problems as the problem of being and of change, the problem of evil, and the problem of knowledge, are solved in ontology as well as is possible for the human mind.

But then, have we any right to call ontology a science? According to modern usage, when we say science, we understand primarily something like physics, bacteriology, or perhaps even sociology. It should be clear however, from our discussion, that the notion of science applies primarily to ontology, secondarily, to the other philosophic sciences, and only in a very weak sense, to the special sciences. But since the discussion has been a little general so far, I would like to illustrate by a concrete example, the contrast between the philosophic and scientific outlooks (using the word “scientific” in accordance with modern usage).

Let us suppose that a philosopher and a scientist were to witness together the death of a man; the scientist would ask, “Why did this man die?”, and he would seek an explanation in such things as poison or heart failure. On the other hand, the philosopher perceives immediately a more fundamental problem: he would like to know, not the accidental reason why this man died, but rather why anybody should die at all.

The investigations of the scientist might contribute to the sciences and arts of medicine, pharmacy, and perhaps even chemistry; the reasonings of the philosopher, on the other hand, lead to a better understanding of a composite, material being, in contrast with a simple being, and therefore, to a deeper understanding of God and of man. Science goes hand in hand with the practical arts and artcrafts, with medicine, farming, engineering, industry, etc.; while philosophy associates with religion, poetry, and the contemplative arts.

Put in the language of philosophy, this difference between philosophy and the sciences can be expressed in the following terms: philosophy seeks the ultimate explanation, while science is satisfied with the proximate causes of things.

Now as far as the mind is concerned, proximate explanation is really no explanation at all. It explains only for practical purposes. To know that water can be decomposed into oxygen and hydrogen is useful information in case you are interested in manufacturing either of the two gases, but it certainly fails to explain the mystery of chemical union. And besides, the problems of science presuppose those of metaphysics.

Man would not seek the precise cause of malaria unless he knew that things like malaria must have a cause. For obviously the scientist does not try to determine whether malaria has a cause, but rather what the cause is. The scientist obviously knows that a contingent thing like malaria must have a cause, although he does not develop the notion of a “contingent being” and the notion of a cause, nor does he care, as a scientist, to reason out all the implications of what he implicitly asserts with regard to these notions. Were the scientist to stop and reflect on these matters, he would move out of the field of science and into the field of philosophy.

Philosophy, therefore, not only has the title to be called science, but has it in the highest degree: it is, as already intimated, the queen among the sciences. Beginning with ontology, and running down the hierarchy of sciences, we would get something like the following arrangement:

I. Ontology (or general metaphysics) of which the most important part is Theology.

II. The Philosophic Sciences (the sciences of special metaphysics): Logic, Cosmology, Rational Psychology, Ethics.

III. The Mathematical Sciences and the General Sciences of Observation and Experimentation: Arithmetic, Geometry, Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy, Biology, Politics, Economics.

IV. All the practical arts and sciences whose primary purpose is not the understanding or the explanation of reality but some practical utility. Their number is very great.They correspond with the variety of crafts and professions, especially those which are intricate enough to require the development of a science or perhaps many sciences. E.g. , all the sciences of medicine, engineering, farming, pharmacy, navigation, metallurgy, banking, jurisprudence, electrical engineering, etc.

One glance at this table reveals the root reason of scientism. The lowest order in this hierarchy of the sciences is the foundation of our material civilization: it builds our machines, runs our hospitals, and fights our wars. In order to maintain our culture we are bound to devote a great part of our time and attention to the cultivation of these lower sciences.This trend has been crowding out of existence those sciences of the highest two orders, which guarantee cultural unity and a balanced perspective.

The general science of the third order, like physics and economics, came to be regarded as the core of liberal education, but these sciences are ordered primarily to the practical interest and not to the speculative. Physics, biology, and economics are not innocent crafts like carpentry and masonry, which require the development of special skills, without distorting the truths of common sense. The latter are sciences of a kind, without being sciences to the limit. And when the mind is made to perform on the plane of science, it must either be led to final and correct answers, or find false substitutes in sophistry and ideological error.

We must restore philosophy, religion and common sense as valid means of knowledge, or else we are going to die from the sickness of scientism. It is nice to have a nose on one’s face, but when you see a nose swelling and about to efface the remaining features, you know that there is disease and danger. Culturally speaking, scientism is such a pathological inflation of science, at the expense of all other forms of human knowledge.

As for common sense, little can be done for it deliberately. As soon as common sense becomes reflective or methodical, it becomes something else; that is, it becomes either philosophy or science. Common sense cannot formulate or defend its convictions against the attacks of false philosophies and false religions, and therefore, unless the fundamental certitudes of common sense are developed and defended by good philosophy, false doctrines are bound to arise.

And as for revelation, it is foundationally in God, under His disposition; and, as long as we do not confuse ourselves by perverse use of our natural faculties, God can talk to us and lead us to the saving truth. Our own responsibility consists in using our natural powers according to the purposes intended by God, and God gave us intelligence, primarily, so that we may know Him and love Him, and, secondarily, in order that we may rule the material universe. We are putting a tremendous effort towards the attainment of the second of these objectives, but if we are to be faithful to the first objective, we must restore philosophy to its place in liberal education.

Of course, this advice cannot be given except to those who know where to find the one sound tradition of philosophic truth. This tradition is protected, and will always be secure, only in the shadow of the Catholic Church. Here is another confirmation of Christ’s promises, where he says: Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things will be added unto you.

Here is another temporal problem, which shall never be solved by those who do not care to discover the kingdom of God, as it exists in this world. If the place of philosophy is usurped by the confusion of all the false doctrines and perverse opinions of all times, then certainly that kind of philosophy will offer no remedy to the confusion of scientism.

They say, “You want to bring philosophy back to the modern man; but he already suffers from the complexity and diversity of his interests. Wouldn’t philosophy add just one more item to this complexity?” This is like saying about a man trying to find his way around in a crowded dark room, “Why crowd him further with a lamp?”

For that is precisely what philosophy contributes to the complexity of modern civilization: a lighted candle in a crowded dark room.

Brother Francis Maluf was born in Lebanon in 1913 and held a PhD in philosophy. Along with Father Leonard Feeney, he was a founding, in 1949, of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a religious Order. Brother Francis went to his heavenly reward in 2009. This article appears courtesy of

The featured image shows, “Fiat lux” (“Let there be light”), from the sketchbook of Francisco de Holanda, dated 1545.

Mathematics And Morality

Nothing could be more distinctive of the age in which we live than the overpowering prominence of mathematics. All through the Catholic centuries, arithmetic and geometry constituted all the mathematics that an educated Christian was asked to learn. Even these two subjects were treated from a more contemplative point of view, which made them far more harmonious with other liberal studies. Arithmetic consisted in the study of the properties of numbers; geometry in the study of shapes and figures. When not overdone, and when counterbalanced by the proper correctives from the other types of knowledge, geometry and arithmetic, as they used to be taught, cultivated a few desirable virtues of the mind like clarity and precision, and sharpened the mind for the perception of harmony, rhythm, and pattern in the study of nature and of Holy Scripture. But even then, many saints and sages warned against the excessive preoccupation with such studies, and especially against the seductive clarity of mathematics; for it is not enough for the mind to be accurate and clear; we are bound to ask “accurate and clear about what?” Since in mathematics accuracy and clarity are achieved at the price of the reality and the goodness of the object, it is a danger of the mathematical mind to continue to sacrifice reality and goodness for the sake of clarity in every other field in which man must seek and find the truth.

But in our time, education is overwhelmed by mathematics and on more than one score. For, while a contemplative interest in the properties of shapes and numbers is almost completely extinct, an illiberal and utterly inhuman form of mathematics dominates the years of learning of our boys and girls, almost completely from the very first year of the primary school to the very last year of college. In place of arithmetic and geometry, whose relation to reality is definite and understandable, there is now an indefinite confusion of branches which go by the name of mathematics, the nature of whose objects nobody understands! Such topics as topology, non-Eudidean geometry, Boolean algebra, transfinite numbers, projective geometry; not to speak of other more recognizable subjects like algebra, trigonometry, integral calculus, vector analysis and the theory of equations. These new subjects are not only more confusing but much more difficult to acquire, and therefore much less likely to leave the mind at leisure for other liberal studies. But the predominance of mathematics today is not restricted to those courses which go by its name, because mathematics, in some form or other, in matter or in method, has crept into every other corner of the curriculum. According to the modern positivistic conception, mathematics and not wisdom is considered as the prototype of science. In subjects ranging from physics to education, covering every field of human learning, there is an evident tendency to assimilate all knowledge to mathematical knowledge and to resolve all realities into mathematical formulas. This trend reaches its apex in the development of symbolic logic, in which guise mathematics invades even the field of philosophy, to distort all the basic conceptions of the mind, and to deflect all the activities of thought from attaining their fulfillment in true wisdom which consists in knowledge about God, by keeping them whirling endlessly around the nihilistic circle of sheer mathematical emptiness.

Now in an attempt to determine the influence of mathematics on the mind of a Christian, it would be folly to ignore the fact that after twenty centuries of Christian living, it is impossible to name one single patron saint for mathematics. There are Catholics indeed who occupied themselves considerably with mathematics and as far as we know kept the faith; but I know of no mathematician whose faith burned so brilliantly as to earn him a place among the stars of sanctity. Nor is this a mere coincidence, for any one of us can look into his own mind to find that there is no other kind of human knowledge or human experience which offers less in terms of value for the Christian message than mathematics. Almost all that one needs in the way of mathematics in order to learn all of Holy Scripture and all the Doctors of the Church, does not exceed the ability to count up to a thousand and to distinguish between a vertical and a horizontal line. Whatever it is you talk about in mathematics, it is never anything you can carry over to your meditations, or employ in your prayers; it gives you no courage in your moments of despair, and no consolation in your loneliness.

In the field of philosophy, mathematics has always been fertile grounds for sophistry. There is hardly any other intellectual interest which has contributed more to confuse men about fundamental truths regarding God, man, and the universe, than mathematics. Just to mention the names of Thales, Pythagoras, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Whitehead and Russell, would suffice to convince one even slightly acquainted with the history of thought about the great number of minds that were deceived by the mirage of mathematics, and misled to accept fraudulent substitutes for the saving truth. I believe that an unprejudiced consideration of the nature of mathematics and of the nature of its objects would reveal clearly that all these charges leveled against the mathematical mind are rooted in the very nature and essence of things.

But what kind of a science is mathematics? Is it a practical science which envisages the achievement of a good, or a speculative science which envisages the attainment of truth? A practical science, like medicine or ethics, would be eliminated by the elimination of the corresponding good. For example, if men were indifferent to health and its opposite there would be no criterion for distinguishing between a right prescription and a wrong one, and consequently, medicine would cease to be a science. In a similar way, if men per absurdum were suddenly to become neutral to the attainment of happiness or its opposite, that would be the end of ethics. But what good, if ceasing, would determine the end of mathematics? None whatever, for the simple reason that mathematics prescinds from all good and all value. Mathematics talks the language of a speculative science. It utters propositions which must be either true or false. Now a proposition is true or false depending on whether it is or is not in conformity with reality. Just as a practical science envisages a good to be achieved, which good functions as the criterion for right and wrong precepts in that science, so a speculative science considers some part or aspect of reality, which stands as the measure of truth and falsehood in that science. If there were no stars there would be no astronomy; and theology would be sheer nonsense if God did not exist. But what part of reality would destroy mathematics by being eliminated? What does the mathematician talk about? Is the object of mathematics a creature or a creator? Is it a substance or an accident? Is it something actual or merely potential? Is it changing or changeless? Temporal or eternal? Material or spiritual? Tangible or intangible? If one were to compose an inventory of all the subsisting realities of the whole universe, including God, the angels, men, animals, plants and minerals, would the objects of mathematics be on this list?

Am I asking too many questions? Well, here are a few answers whose reasons will either be supplied later, or be left to the reader to discover for himself. Mathematics is a speculative science whose value can only be in the practical order. It has no speculative value, because it does not convey any essential knowledge about any subsisting reality. It is not contemplative knowledge and therefore not essentially good for man, because it occupies the intellect with objects which the will cannot love. It is knowledge which does not proceed from understanding nor does it resolve in wisdom. It does not proceed from understanding, because the mathematical expression of any reality, never conveys any understanding of it. It may however convey the means for the control of that reality. You are not one inch closer to the penetration of the mystery of light and color when you know the number of Angstroms in each of the colors of the spectrum; nor about the nature, cause, or purpose of gravity when you resolve its laws into mathematical formulas. And it does not resolve in wisdom, because neither is mathematics concerned with the First Cause, nor does it lead to the First Cause. The manner by which mathematics deals with its objects abstracts completely from any dependence upon God, and as a matter of fact, attributes to these objects a species of eternity and turns them into quasi divinities completely independent in themselves. This explains the autonomous nature of mathematics, according to which, left to itself, it never leads to anything non-mathematical. A mathematician might be led to think about God by an accidental non-mathematical reason, but never from the very needs of mathematics.

As for the object of mathematics, it is not a physical entity but a mental entity; it is not real but ideal. There is nowhere in the world, outside of the mind of a mathematician, a point without dimensions, a line without width or thickness, or a square root of minus one. But these fictions of the mind are founded on reality, and their foundation consists of the accident of quantity and its properties and relations. Arithmetic is founded on discontinuous quantities or multitudes; geometry on continuous quantities or magnitudes; while algebra is founded on abstract quantity considered generically, prescinding from whether it is number or magnitude and therefore potentially capable both of an arithmetical as well as of a geometrical interpretation. Other mathematical objects, more distantly removed from this real foundation of mathematics, are rooted in these simpler elements and in the relations which hold among them. Having experienced the three dimensions of bodies in space and having represented these three dimensions by the three variables of an algebraical equation, nothing prevents the mind from creating the fiction of a space corresponding to an algebraical equation of four variables – hence four-dimensional space.

But what do we know about this accident of quantity, on which is founded, proximately or remotely every object of mathematics? We learn from philosophy that quantity is an accident of material substances, and that in contrast with the accident of quality, quantity manifests the material and not the formal aspect of these substances. Therefore the real foundation of mathematics is found in the material aspect of material things. Further, an accident when conceived as an accident always brings you back to its substance; but in mathematics the accident of quantity is conceived as if it were a substance. Further, a material substance concretely considered, has a nature through which this substance moves to the attainment of an end, but the mathematician considers quantity as a substantialized material accident devoid of any principle of change and abstracted from any movement to attain an end. The concrete material substance manifests itself through its sensible qualities by means of which it is known, but the object of mathematics, without being a spiritual substance like an angel, prescinds from all sensible qualities and can be known only by the intellect and not by the senses. Hence we have the apparent paradox that while the only foundation for the mathematical object is the material aspect of material things, still mathematics represents its object such as matter could neither be nor be known. For matter is nothing but a principle of change, while mathematics prescinds from change; and matter can only be known through the senses while mathematics prescinds from sensibility.

The object of mathematics is therefore an accident parading as a substance, a material reality pretending to be immaterial, an ideal entity which poses for something real. At the basis of all these antinomies is the fact that mathematics arises only when an intellectual mind, directs the light of its spiritual intelligence, not for the purpose of contemplating being, but for the purpose of controlling potency. The mathematical object is the shadow that matter casts on spirit. For when spirit knows spirit, there is not even the foundation for mathematics; when material cognition (sensation) knows material things, the objects of mathematics cannot arise; even when a spiritual being knows matter contemplatively it understands a material substance through its form and its qualities. It is only when a spiritual being concerns itself with matter and for the purpose of sheer control that mathematics finally finds its grounds.

But how about the truth in mathematics? If the objects of mathematics are mental entities (entia rationis) what is it that determines the truth or falsehood of a mathematical proposition? What reality stands as the measure to the judgment of the mind? In the classical branches, arithmetic and geometry, the foundation in reality was close enough to preclude any statements that are not justified by the real properties of multitudes and magnitudes. But as mathematics branches out and develops into newer mathematics, and higher mathematics, and purer mathematics, that control becomes less and less until finally the mind remains its own measure. Consistency and not conformity becomes the touchstone of validity.

Apart from mathematics, there used to be three other distinct types of knowledge: physical, logical, and ethical. All three led ultimately to God – the physical sciences under the aspect of Ultimate Cause; the logical sciences by way of the Prime Truth; and the ethical sciences by way of the Supreme Good. But in mathematics, the mind reigns supreme, lord of all it surveys. The mind finds in itself a sufficient cause for the kind of being the mathematical entity enjoys. It is the only ultimate measure for the truth of its judgments. It prescinds completely from the aspect of goodness. Of all the intellectual pursuits, mathematics alone does not lead to God.

It is like the web of a spider, it proceeds from the very substance of the spider and ends up being its own jail. It gets more involved and more intricate the more it is extended, and finally, when the web is intricate enough, the new threads do not have to measure up to any real independent distances of walls or furniture, for when the new-thrown thread fails to meet a point of support, it sticks on another thread of the same fabric.

From the spider of mathematics, may God deliver us.

Brother Francis Maluf was born in Lebanon in 1913 and held a PhD in philosophy. Along with Father Leonard Feeney, he was a founding, in 1949, of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a religious Order. Brother Francis went to his heavenly reward in 2009. This article appears courtesy of

The featured image shows a “Portrait of Luca Pacioli,” attributed to Jacopo de’ Barbari, painted before 1516.

What Is “Liberal Education?”

I. What Is Education

Plato conceived education as an art of perfecting man. According to this view, education is possible because man is a perfectible being. Nobody ever talks about perfecting God, because God is not perfectible, but perfect; nor do we ever discuss the education of angels, because, although an angel is not absolutely perfect, he is perfect within his own essence, which means that an angel receives all the perfection that is due and proper to his nature in one instantaneous act.

To be sure, there are in the visible world other perfectible things besides man; but even so, the notion of education does not seem to fit the modes of perfectibility of things that are not human. A machine, for example, can be constructed and improved, while a tree attains its proper perfections by growth. Yet we would all hesitate to talk about the “education” of a plant or of a machine; and it would be just as incorrect to speak of the education of an animal. A dog, for example, may be trained; but a dog could never be educated. A dog is trained by being made subject to human purposes and notions, not even remotely entertained by the dog itself. Besides, it is trained, not to become a more perfect dog, more suitable for beastly society, but rather, in order to become more useful or more amusing to man, even if in the process it loses its intrinsic properties and gets to be, not more, but less of a dog.

Education remains, therefore, a distinctively human affair, and as such, derives its distinctiveness from man’s peculiar way of growing into his perfections. Like all living things, man possesses within himself a vital principle of growth; but in man, this principle is further determined by rationality. It is by virtue of his rationality that man can consciously entertain his purposes, choose his means, and criticize his own actions. This coincidence of growth and rationality in the same being is a privilege which renders man unique in the whole universe.

Plato must have been fascinated by this marvelous blend of qualities in man, this blend of intelligence and growth, for he makes it the central theme of practically all his Dialogues. In these Dialogues we have a most vivid picture of education. In every case we find that education is a growth, a movement from confusion to clarity, from ignorance to knowledge; and also we find that in every case, the student is his own first teacher.

The role of the teacher is simply to help the student in his seeking and to guide his steps. The teacher of the Dialogues, usually Socrates, is supposed to be the wise man, the man who has already attained those perfections desired for and by the student. The teacher stands as a proximate exemplar; and, by virtue of the fact that he is supposed to see the end of the road, he can also guide and direct, by ruling out false starts and by suggesting better ones. To put it in a more characteristically Platonic simile, the teacher is a midwife, who assists at the birth of the idea in the mind of the student.

We can learn a great deal more about human nature and also about education, by observing with Plato, the way man grows into the attainment of his perfections. In contrast with other intelligent beings (God and the angels), man must accomplish his rationality through effort and discipline. Because human rationality is an accomplishment, it enjoys only a precarious existence.

All our human concerns which manifest man’s rationality under any aspect, whether of order, purpose, truth, or beauty (the sciences and the arts, institutions, laws cultural values, etc.), depend for their continued existence upon the disciplined activities of men. Cathedrals do not grow like weeds, and no painting was ever made haphazardly. Every new-born baby is an absolutely new beginning, and every new generation of babies is a terrific challenge and threat to the existing civilization and to the established order of things.

Indeed, our life here is an explosive situation! Man is a joining together of the nothingness and am infinity, and it is education which must span the chasm between the two extremes. No wonder that Plato, having understood the nature if education, should view it as the highest social function, commensurate with the whole of life, and absolutely necessary for the perfection of the individual and of society. Plato had such a profound appreciation of the importance of education, that starting to describe the building of a state, he ended up, in his famous Republic, with a kind of super-school on his hands.

But there comes a point where we must remind ourselves that, after all, we are with a pagan philosopher, and should be on guard lest we let him mislead us in matters about which we ought to know better. And we do, as a matter of fact, know more than Plato about the origin and purpose of our human existence. Let us, therefore, be on the alert for any possible defects in Plato’s educational theories and practices which might flow from his pagan errors about man.

Plato certainly understood that education must be of the whole man, which means of the complete composite of soul and body. He also rightly defended and emphasized the primacy of the soul in matters of education. He knew that the human soul is immortal, and at least vaguely suspected that man’s life-long educational activity finds its consummation in another life.

But Plato also held some erroneous doctrines about the soul. It is a well known fact, for example, that he taught that the human soul exists prior to this life. We Christians, on the other hand, know that every individual human soul is created singularly and immediately, at the moment of conception, by a separate act of God. Here we have in this issue what might seem at first glance like a slight difference of belief: but on more careful examination, this disagreement between the Christian and pagan outlooks, reveals such a chasm as can only be explained by the tremendous intervening fact of the Incarnation.

Plato can hardly be blamed for missing the point with regard to the fact, the manner, or the purpose of creation. This kind of knowledge requires a far greater intimacy with God than was given to the pagan world. It remains to the immortal credit of Plato that he attained, by mere reason, a clear concept of the kind of reality the human soul is. He knew the soul in its spirituality and in its simplicity; he recognized its power and its dignity; he understood its activity of life in the body, and its activity of knowledge beyond the body; and he proved philosophically, that this kind of being cannot be dissolved or destroyed by natural means.

But the same kind of argument led Plato also to believe that the soul could be neither made nor developed by any natural process. He, therefore, concluded that the soul is not only immortal, but also eternal, having no beginning as well as no end in time. The Christian alternative, namely, that the soul is created out of nothing by the omnipotence of God, did not present itself to Plato; for to him, God is neither infinite nor omnipotent, and the very idea of creation out of nothing would have sounded to him as no less that a philosophic absurdity.

Plato, therefore, according to his own lights, had to educate a soul which was never created, which had no beginning in time, and no definite destiny for the future. The human soul to Plato is a little sad deity which cannot die, but can lose everything else it ever attained; even to the very memory of its personal identity in previous lives. This unconscious deity is accidentally united to, or rather, imprisoned in a material body, which it must leave after a certain length of time, to be united, perhaps to another body, and to go through the same cycle all over again.

This soul has already had more intimate contacts with eternal realities that it has in this life, and therefore must have been in a higher state of perfection than in its present state. Unfortunately, however, it has lost all memory of these perfections and must now make a new start at re-ascending the scales of perfection to lose them again once more. How futile the whole thing must appear when viewed from the total perspective of eternity! And yet, this is as optimistic a view of human existence as the pagan world ever attained.

These errors of Plato are at least partly responsible for some of the most obvious defects in his theory of education: depreciation of the body and of sense experience; a false theory of knowledge according to which we learn by remembering what we already knew in a previous life; and, most seriously, a relative disregard of personal values by treating the individual primarily as a function of the state. Yet, in spite of these defects, Plato remains, even today, a great master of the art of teaching, and the leading champion of the very concept of liberal education. It is in this last capacity that we are now primarily interested in Plato, and therefore, let us proceed to examine more specifically what Plato means by liberal education.

II. What Is Liberal Education?

We are used to distinguishing between two kinds of education: liberal and vocational. But Plato, while recognizing the need of developing the practical arts and professions, reserved the term “education”, at least in its absolute unrestricted sense, to what we would call liberal education. “This is the only training which, upon our view, would be characterized as education: that other sort of training which aims at the acquisition of wealth or bodily strength, or mere cleverness apart from intelligence and justice, is mean and illiberal, and it is not worthy to be called education at all.”

From following the thoughts of Plato we get a hint as to the essence of liberal, or in his language, true education, which distinguishes it from all kinds of training for useful skill or for useless cleverness. Liberal or true education is education whose end is man himself. It is the education of man as man.

When a man is trained for the perfection of what he makes, he receives vocational training, or, if we call it education, we are using the term in a forced sense; but when a man is trained and instructed for the perfection of what he is and what he does (immanently) within himself, then we may say that he is being educated in the most absolute sense of the term. We may teach a man to become a carpenter, a farmer, a physician, or an engineer. We may also teach a man to become a good man, good not only in the moral sense but primarily in the ontological sense, in the sense of perfected, developed, accomplished, in the sense that he can exercise and apply his faculties coordinately and for their natural purposes.

When men are trained vocationally we have every right to expect better products (potatoes, chairs, medical services, or efficient machines), but we have no right to expect better men unless somewhere in our educational plans and activities we aim at the proper perfections of a man. You are as likely to produce a well-constructed bridge by accident and without aiming at it, as you are to produce a well-educated man by a scheme of training thoroughly directed to other ends.

It should go without saying and as part of nature’s justice, that in a society where leaders receive specialized vocational training without liberal education, no sound norms can rightly be expected and no human values are secure. When the present trend towards vocational training finally succeeds in overwhelming and washing away the last vestiges of liberal education, we can expect to live in a world of good things and bad men. We shall have, to give one good example, unintelligent and confused leaders, on the one hand, and excellent atomic bombs, on the other!

What are, then, those human perfections which constitute the end of liberal education? Plato’s answer to this question is in a way the major theme of all his writings. If one dares put it briefly and succinctly in one sentence, this is what it would be: man’s proper perfection consists in the knowledge of the absolute good, and in response to beauty. The absolute good is the good-in-itself and the source of the goodness all other things.

It is good, not mediately as being the cause of something else, but immediately, ultimately, as being the end to which all other things are means. Man seeks this end, not only by his senses but by his intellect, and can attain it only with his intellect. But man must begin with his sense experience, and gradually advance, through higher and higher aspects of the good, reflected in the world of contingent things, until he is finally ready to see the primal source of all goodness

On the way to this absolute good, beauty is the sign-post. Man, therefore, must begin by learning to respond to beauty as given to the senses and as found in the visible universe, but he must not dwell in it nor let it conceal that invisible beauty it is meant to proclaim.

Not all knowledge, therefore, is conducive to the perfection of man, and consequently, not all knowledge has value in liberal education. All the sciences of space and time, of experience and experiment, of statistics and measurements, such sciences as mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, history, economics, etc., must find their justification primarily in the practical order, in the order of what man makes outside of himself.

Man’s perfection consists in a growth from the fragmentary knowledge of sense experience to a unified vision of the mind; and hence all the above mentioned experimental sciences, can figure in the course of liberal education, only in so far as they lead the way to philosophic science; they must be treated as preludes to philosophy. Their end must be the understanding of the eternal truth, first as reflected in the visible world, but finally and consummately, as it is in itself. The climax of liberal education consists in philosophy and theology, and all its earlier stages must be ordered to this end, both in the selection of their subject matter and in the mode of their presentation.

It is especially remarkable that Plato, who is the greatest pioneer in the field of philosophy, should recognize the necessity of revealed truth, and admit the superiority of such truth over the highest truths of human reason working on its own. Although he was handicapped by an inadequate pagan religion, he still had the genius to see that those intimate truths of the inner life of God could only be known if God Himself were to reveal them, and that once known, such truths would unquestionably be the crown of all human knowledge, and the summit of wisdom in this life.

Thus in the Republic, after making Socrates describe the building of a state by the guidance of reason, Plato makes one interrogator raise the question as to whether any thing is left out. “Nothing to us,” replies Socrates, “But to Apollo, the god of Delphi, there remains the ordering of the greatest and noblest and chiefest things of all.”

“Which are they?” asks again the interrogator.

“The institution of temples and sacrifices, and the entire service of the gods, demigods, and heroes. . . These are matters of which we are ignorant ourselves, and as founders of a city we should be unwise in trusting them to any interpreter but our ancestral deity. He is the god who sits in the center on the naval of the earth, and he is the interpreter of religion to all mankind.”

III. The Epochs In Plato’s Educational System

The key for Plato’s system of education is the Greek word μουσικε (sounds like “musikay”) which has survived in our modern languages in such words as “music” and “museum”. To the Greeks the term had a wider signification, including within its comprehension all the liberal arts. Greek mythology personified the liberal arts, making each one of them a goddess, a Muse, who guides, inspires, and stands as a type and an ideal. Thus we have the Muses of history, poetry, astronomy, eloquence, music, dance, tragedy, comedy, and lyric poetry.

The Greeks saw beauty everywhere; whenever reality is known, it reveals rhythm and harmony, and hence education must progressively direct the mind to higher and higher aspects of beauty. The mind rises from beauty in the plane of sheer sense experience, the rhythm and harmony of sounds, shapes, and movements, to the beauty of law and order manifested in the visible world, the music of the spheres; and finally to the source of all beauty, Beauty in itself, the eternal Logos, attained by the art of dialectics.

Every one of the arts and sciences is called μουσικε in this sense; and it is in this sense that we must understand the passage in the Republic where Plato makes Socrates say: “When the modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state change with them.” Corresponding to the different planes of knowledge, we can distinguish four epochs in Plato’s educational plan. Here is a brief description of each of these epochs in their sequence.

1. The first twenty years are concerned mainly with the body and with the organic faculties. The children, as early as the age of three are introduced to mythology; this is meant to train their imagination, and to cultivate love of valor and heroic deeds. The mythology must be purged of any references to the gods which might degrade the concept of divinity in the child.

The fact that mythology does not give the factual or historic truth does not matter, but it must be censored and purified from anything that might give a permanently false impression of reality. Factual truth is not so important at this stage, because it is an intellectual concern, and this stage of education is mainly concerned with the senses.

After mythology, follow in sequence: gymnastics, reading and writing, poetry and music, and mathematics, until finally this epoch is rounded off in two years of military training, from the eighteenth to the twentieth year. Plato recognized the imitative tendencies of the soul, and thus he prescribes that the child must be surrounded from early childhood with beautiful objects which embody the truth he will come to understand later on in life. Hence the surroundings and environment are tremendously important in this formative period.

2. The second period, extending from the year twenty to the year thirty, is concerned with the sciences of measurement and understanding. Plato mentions plane geometry, solid geometry, astronomy, and harmonies. He conceives their role as a prelude to dialects.

Evidently, he envisaged a patient treatment of these topics, with sufficient time for creative reasoning on the part of the students, and meditations on fundamental truths and notions which prepare the way for philosophy. This is clear from the amount of time he allows for this kind of work, although the amount of facts, principles, experiments, in such a variety of sciences, and in such a short time, that we leave him no leisure for reflection, meditation, wonder, nor for any creative work on his own initiative.

Furthermore, the language of these experimental physical sciences today, is so little related to the language and truths of philosophy, that instead of being a prelude to philosophy as Plato intended, these positive sciences stand in our day as a tremendous handicap to philosophic thought.

3. The third epoch, which occupies the years thirty to thirty-five, is concerned with the art of dialectics, “the art which elevates the mind to the contemplation of what is best in existence”. This is the crowning mark of liberal education; the mind’s eye, which so far had been trained only to recognize the reflections of Good, must now be exercised to see the Good itself, the ultimate source of truth and beauty in the universe.

To Plato, philosophy was not an organized science, or a system of sciences. The task of organizing truths of philosophy was to be carried out by his disciple Aristotle. This is why Plato was mainly concerned with the art of attaining philosophical knowledge, and this art he called “dialectics”. In our days, we possess not only the fruits of Plato’s and Aristotle’s efforts towards discovery and organization of philosophical truths.

We have, in addition, the results of centuries of collective effort on the part of scholastic philosophers, ending in a body of logically related sciences, full of precise notions, clear definitions, and well established truths. This philosophic tradition was accomplished through gradual steps, beginning with sense experience and common-sense knowledge.

We must remember that the individual also must grow to philosophic understanding through the same way. Philosophy is a science, but philosophizing is an art. If we realize this truth sufficiently, we would not depend so exclusively in our teaching on the presentation of philosophic truths as finally and definitely formulated.

The dialect method of Plato can still teach us a great deal as to how to teach philosophy effectively, and how to train the student to raise philosophic problems, to attain a realization of a philosophic truth, and to formulate and defend this truth. We can make philosophy much more of a living tradition by reviving the Platonic method, if not the Platonic science of philosophy.

4. The fourth and last epoch, requiring fifteen years of life and terminating at the age of fifty, is a period dedicated to real experience in the world. It is significant that Plato did not try to carry the world into the school; the only way to know what life is, is to go through it. No man is truly wise enough to be entrusted with the destiny of a state until he has seen the real world in the light of universal truth.

Philosophic ideas alone may be sufficient for the purpose of philosophic contemplation, but the philosopher-king, must make practical decisions for the common good, who must have more than ideas, namely, experience. Nor would experience without the philosophic discipline and knowledge of the Good suffice, because experience can move on a plane of insignificant facts unless illuminated by the idea of the Good.

It is twenty-three centuries since Plato opened his academy and invited the youths of Athens to seek the knowledge of the Good. Since that time, something has happened on our planet; the Eternal Truth, the very Person of Good, has broken the bounds of eternity, plunged into our world, and lived as one of us. If Plato were to come to life today, how would he respond to our tidings of great joy? What would he think of our response?

Brother Francis Maluf was born in Lebanon in 1913 and held a PhD in philosophy. Along with Father Leonard Feeney, he was a founding, in 1949, of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a religious Order. Brother Francis went to his heavenly reward in 2009. This article appears courtesy of

The image shows, “To Kryfo Scholio” (“The Hidden School”), by Nikolaos Gyzis, painted ca. 1885-1886.

The Quadriga: How To Understand The Bible

I was asked by a friend to write something explaining the four meanings of Holy Scripture as taught by St. Thomas: namely, the historical (or literal), the allegorical, the tropological (or moral), and the anagogical. I am glad to comply with this request, because I am convinced that the crisis in the Church today is due in large part to the failure to interpret Holy Scripture as God intended and as the Church has consistently understood it.

St. Thomas considers this matter of such importance that he deals with it in the very first question of his great masterpiece, the Summa Theologica. The teaching of the Angelic Doctor in this matter is confirmed abundantly by the way the Church uses Holy Scripture in her liturgy, as we shall show. It can also be shown to agree with the universal tradition of the Fathers. To give one typical example, St. Gregory the Great says, “Holy Scripture transcends all other sciences by its very style of expression, in that one and the same discourse, while narrating an event, transmits a mystery as well.”

We must always keep in mind that the principal author of Holy Scripture is God Himself. Next to the Incarnation, Holy Scripture is God’s greatest favor given to men. Only God could have taught us that He created the world, and how He did it and why. The first article of the Creed – I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth – is a truth transcending all natural science and all rational philosophy. Why? Because all rational disciplines must reason from, and must presuppose the nature of, things. They cannot explain how these natures came to be in the first place, nor why.

One of the first truths we teach our children is: “Why did God make you? God made me to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him in this life, and to be happy with Him in eternity.” No human science or philosophy can teach us this wisdom, and this is why all godless education is marked by purposelessness.

God did not reveal the truths of Scripture to the proud, the suspicious, or the skeptic, but to the simple of heart. And it is part of His Providence not merely to inspire, but to be understood. And as part of His Providence, He gave us an infallible teacher to teach its truths without danger of error. And to keep His Church one, He made the principle of infallibility unique. Therefore, to interpret Holy Scripture correctly, one must understand it with the mind of the Church and under the guidance of the infallible magisterium.

St. Thomas, learning from the Fathers of the Church, teaches us that the inspired books – having God for their principal author – are infinitely richer in meaning than books emanating from a human source. A human author can teach from the meaning of words, but God conveys a message through the things He created. One could ask what is the meaning of the French word soleil and be told that it means “sun.” But no one can give the meaning of the sun itself, except the mind that put it in existence and gave it a purpose within the whole creation. Only God can answer the question “why?”

St. Thomas teaches that in Holy Scripture, besides the literal sense, God intends to convey three mystical meanings: One, the allegorical sense by which things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law, and certain lesser realities in the New Law signify certain greater ones; two, the tropological or moral sense, by which the things done by Christ and by those who prefigured Him are signs of what we (His Mystical Body) should carry out; and three, the anagogical sense, which signifies things that lie ahead in eternal glory.

A few examples from the practice of the Church are sufficient to explain this method of understanding and explaining Holy Scripture. Take the story of Abraham and Isaac as reported in Genesis 22:1-18. The literal sense is a historical event that took place exactly as told in the Bible. But in the mystical or allegorical sense, the Church sees in Isaac a prophetic figure of Our Lord Jesus Christ, walking up the hill of Golgotha, carrying His cross, to offer up the great sacrifice by which He redeemed the world. In the prophetic figure, God the Father did not allow Isaac to be sacrificed but provided a ram to substitute for him. But in the prophesied reality, no ram was provided on Golgotha. God the Father, who spared Abraham that sacrifice, reserved that privilege for Himself.

In the same text, the Church understands a tropological sense. “Tropological” means “turned about,” to apply to the moral life of the Church or an individual member of it. All the faithful must imitate the faith and obedience of Father Abraham, who deserved to hear from God the Father: “And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because thou hast obeyed my voice” (Gen. 22:18).

The tropological sense is often used by preachers when they apply a text to an occasion which need not have been intended by the inspired author but could have been in the mind of God Who was inspiring. When Don John of Austria won a great victory for the Catholic cause at Lepanto, a preacher could apply to him the text: “There was a man sent from God whose name was John.” The same text could have been applied to John Hunyadi after the battle of Belgrade or to King John Sobieski after the victory of Vienna of 1683.

The episode of the ten lepers, related in Luke chapter seventeen, can be interpreted in the three senses we have presented thus far. Literally, it really happened. Ten lepers did cry out “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” So did the rest of the event truly happen as related by St. Luke. Without jeopardizing the historicity of the account there is also rich allegory in the story. The nine Jews who were cured but were ungrateful represent their nation, so graced by God, yet so ungrateful as to miss the time of their visitation. The Samaritan represents the gentile world, who were formerly forgetful of God, but who, with the grace of the New Testament, are grateful. They are the “strangers” who return to “give glory to God.” Tropologically, or morally, it teaches us, as a Church and as individuals, to show gratitude to God for the manifest graces He has given us, cleansing our filthiness and healing our diseases.

Finally, God wants us to raise our thoughts and interests towards the last things: heaven, hell, the last judgment, the state of glory, etc. But since our ordinary language is inadequate to express such transcendental truths, the Bible uses persons or things of time as symbols of eternal realities. This is the anagogical sense, of which there are many examples in the liturgical prayers of the Church.

For example, take the Introit of Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent. It is meant to bring joy and enhance hope in the midst of the penitential season. It says: “Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and come together all you that love her; rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult and be filled from the breasts of your consolation. [Is. 66:10-11] I rejoiced at the things that were said to me: We shall go into the house of the Lord [Ps. 121:1].” The Prophet Isaias and the Psalmist are talking directly about a real city, Jerusalem, in some definite historical circumstances: the exile of her children to Babylon and the prospect of their return. This is the literal or historic sense. We can also understand in this prayer allegorical and tropological meanings applied to the Church. But the principal purpose of this Introit is to lift our minds and hearts to the heavenly Jerusalem. This is the anagogical sense.

One very profitable exercise is to read the Bible with this foursome in mind. It is a good tool to use in meditation and can actually be fun. The Gospels can take on new vividness: The parable of the talents… the curse of the fig tree… the call of Levi… the miraculous draught of fishes… Our Lord’s resurrection miracles…. They all teach us more when we meditate on them in light of the four senses. Not only the Gospels, but also all the rest of Scripture can be piously read in this way.

In our time, a great part of the crisis in religion is due to the way the Bible has been undermined. Any one who accepts the false theory of evolution cannot know the true literal sense of Scripture, on which, according to St. Thomas, the other three meanings depend. Here are the exact words of St. Thomas: “The first meaning, whereby the words signify things, belongs to the sense first mentioned, namely the historical or literal. That meaning, however, whereby the things signified by the words in their turn also signify other things is called the spiritual sense; it is based on and presupposes the literal sense.” (1a Q1 art.10) Further, the saint adds that “nothing necessary for faith is contained under the spiritual sense that is not openly conveyed through the literal sense elsewhere.”

St. Thomas gives us an excellent illustration of this important doctrine in the sequence he wrote for the feast of Corpus Christi, namely the Lauda Sion. In this familiar hymn in honor of the Holy Eucharist, the saint refers to the many, many places in the Old Testament where the Eucharist is contained in the spiritual sense, as in the Paschal lamb and the manna. But the doctrine of the Eucharist is found plainly in chapter six of John, and there in the literal sense. We also notice in the very title of the Lauda Sion , an illustration of the spiritual or mystical sense, for Sion here mystically represents the Church which was manifested to the world on Mount Sion on Pentecost Sunday and where the Eucharist was instituted on Holy Thursday.

Brother Francis Maluf was born in Lebanon in 1913 and held a PhD in philosophy. Along with Father Leonard Feeney, he was a founding, in 1949, of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a religious Order. Brother Francis went to his heavenly reward in 2009. This article appears courtesy of

The image shows, “Saint Dominic,” a detail from the “Mocking of Christ,” a fresco in the Conventio of San Marco, painted by Fra Angelico in 1441.