A LETTER FROM THE RECTOR TO PROSPECTIVE STUDENTS AND OTHERS INTERESTED IN THE WORK OF THE ADLER-AQUINAS INSTITUTE
Much information is posted on the Adler-Aquinas Institute (AAI) about the nature and development of AAI. I write this letter to simplify for prospective students and others the precise nature and aim of AAI and what it can offer you. Precisely speaking, more than anything else, AAI is chiefly an international, online, renaissance academy, designed, in an age of educational, cultural, and civilizational decadence, to help preserve the best of classical learning and Western culture and pass this on to future generations.
While many people mistakenly identify the “renaissance” with a post-thirteenth-century revival of learning that started in Italy and spread, over several centuries, to other European countries, in actuality, Western culture has witnessed at least a half-dozen or more major educational renaissances, starting with the life and death of Socrates, the founding of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum in ancient Greece (that initiated a renaissance in philosophical learning after attacks made on philosophers by ancient poets and sophists), and the neo-Platonic movement spearheaded by Plotinus after atomism and stoicism had weakened classical philosophical learning.
These renaissances were followed by the work of Marcus Tullius Cicero during the decline of ancient Rome and, during the first Christian renaissances, in the work of the Church Fathers, especially St. Aurelius Augustine; the writings of Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, the work of encyclopedists like Isiodore of Seville and Cassiodorus; and the ninth-century Carolingian renaissance under Charlemagne and Alcuin that culminated in the growth of cathedral and monastic schools and the birth of Western universities inhabited by educational giants like Sts. Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, and Bonaventure.
In each instance, these stages of “rebirth” involved development of transitioning individuals and associations (great intellects with providential vision followed by great educational movements that their work tended to generate) that acted as proximate first principles for the growth of a new order of learning that they did not, and could not, precisely envision.
While most contemporary Westerners have little to no idea of what the term “principle” chiefly meant for an ancient Greek intellectual, or even what it chiefly means today, in classical Western antiquity, for the leading philosophers it mainly referred to the point from which something started or out of which something grew. In this sense a physical point is the principle of a physical line and, as Aristotle recognized, the natural family is the principle of a clan, the clan is a principle of a village or town, the village or town is the principle of a city.
When most of us today think of the main way an institution of higher learning starts and develops, we tend to think of its proximate first principle to be a group of individuals getting together with a precise plan to build a campus, hire faculty and administrators, and develop a curriculum. Such a mode of procedure tends to be followed by individuals who are clueless about the natural order of development of human learning.
Knowledge is the proximate first principle of learning, learning is the proximate first principle of experience; experience is the proximate first principle of art; art is the proximate first principle of science; and science is the proximate first principle of wisdom. We know because we have a natural desire to learn. We have a natural desire to learn because we have a natural desire for experience. We have a natural desire for experience because we have a natural desire to become artistic. We have a natural desire to become artistic because we have a natural desire to become scientific. And we have a natural desire to become scientific because we have a natural desire to become wise.
Crucial to building any organization is to have the right aim and to unite people together who are qualified to grow that aim out of their collective cooperation. The best people to determine how to build an excellent fire department are skilled fire-fighters, no one else. The same is true of future Western, and global, education: the best way to develop it is to assemble together in an association of higher learning the people sharing the same precise aim who are most qualified to build it. This is what AAI chiefly seeks to do.
Most contemporary institutions of elementary, secondary, and higher education are collapsing mainly because they have the wrong chief aim. The chief aim of most of them is vocational and technological training (educating for a job), ideological indoctrination, or a combination of both. Because institutions of higher learning train most business, political, and religious leaders, for a similar reason, most of these organizations are in cultural, if not total, decline, as is the West itself. They have lost their understanding of precisely how what they do contributes to the chief aim of Western culture and civilization: development of a wise civilization. As a result, many serious scholars, intellectuals trained in classical learning, are leaving these institutions and joining or forming their own organizations.
Classically considered, all education’s chief aim is training for human happiness: habituation in moral and intellectual virtue, training in those qualities that enable human beings to participate in self-rule and live together in peace as free agents, and become wise. While essential for prosperity, or wealth, vocational and technological training do not inculcate within a population the qualities that enable people to engage in self-government. They do not liberate from the ignorance that fosters human misery in all its forms, especially in that of developing healthy human relationships that foster wisdom, prudence, justice, and peace in interpersonal dealings. In contrast, people trained in intellectual and moral virtue tend to have the skills needed to get a job, develop wealth, and prosper personally and professionally.
Contemporary education in general and higher education especially have severed pursuit of education, especially science, from the pursuit of wisdom. In so doing, they have destroyed a proper understanding of education and science as a whole and turned both into forms of sophistry, pursuits of power in which being able to build and destroy becomes the sign of human excellence. Such an understanding of higher education and science is disordered. Science divorced from pursuit of wisdom can no more be science than can be experience divorced from pursuit of art or can a group of families (a clan) from the natural pursuit of a more perfect union in a healthy city. Such an unnatural divorce turns science and higher education into forms of foolishness serving the interests of despots, self-centered individuals, and sociopaths. It cannot be right. No form of knowing or education that separates itself from pursuit of wisdom can legitimately claim to be “science” or “educational.”
AAI chiefly exists to counteract such a disordered understanding of education and science and to restore and preserve the best elements of classical education for contemporary students and students of future generations. We seek to do so chiefly through the work of our Fellows and educational affiliations through which we put students in touch with contemporary renaissance institutes and scholars.
Examples of such affiliations are associations we have with the Angelicum Academy Great Books Program, the Ignatius-Angelicum Liberal Studies Program (LSP), the graduate program in Thomistic Studies offered through the University Abat Oliba, in Barcelona, Spain, and, developing in 2014, a catechetical institute “certificate” program centered around (1) four of Fr. Fessio’s college-level theology courses; (2) online classes from the Angelicum Great Books program (including, among others, readings from Old and New Testaments, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, St. Augustine, Boethius, St. Thomas Aquinas, papal encyclicals, more contemporary authors [including some AAI Fellows], and from the Angelicum Great Books Program Study Guides); development of a Catholic Massive Open Online Course (MOOC): CatholicEducationOnline.org.
I hope this letter will be of assistance to you and that you will join us in our work.
Peter A. Redpath
Peter A. Redpath, Ph.D.
Rector, Adler-Aquinas Institute
“Understanding St. Thomas through the Great Books”
“It is necessary to call into council the views of our predecessors, in order that we
may profit by whatever is sound in their thought and avoid their errors.”
—Aristotle, de Anima, Bk. 1, ch. 2, 403b20-23
At the Adler-Aquinas Institute (“AAI”), we heartily agree with Aristotle’s assessment of the importance of consulting the views and opinions of the great thinkers of the past—those whose wisdom and insights, or influence, have withstood the tests of time. The motto of the AAI, “Understanding St. Thomas through the Great Books,” is largely based on that insight.
We are indebted to Dr. Mortimer J. Adler for collecting and organizing a great deal of that wisdom into different, easily accessible sets of books, especially the Great Books of the Western World. That impressive, 60-volume collection verifies Aristotle’s observation, noted in his Metaphysics, “The investigation of the truth is in one way hard, in another easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, we do not collectively fail, but everyone says something true about the nature of things, and while individually we contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, Bk. 2, ch. 1, 993b1-3).
For many years Dr. Adler was the standard bearer of Thomism in America. In the words of AAI Fellow Dr. Curtis L. Hancock, “Dr. Adler was a distinctly American Thomist.” To honor Dr. Adler for the many things he did during his lifetime to promote Thomistic thinking and for helping our Fellows launch various educational initiatives (such as the Great Books Academy and the Angelicum Academy), we have gratefully named this Institute in his honor together with the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas.
We believe we are on solid ground when we associate Dr. Adler with Aquinas. To quote Adler:
To say, as I have said, that I have not learned a single fundamental truth from the writing of modern philosophers is not to say that I have learned nothing at all from them. With the exceptions of Hegel and other post-Kantian German philosophers, I have read their works with both pleasure and profit. The pleasure has come from the perception of errors the serious consequences of which tend to reinforce my hold on the truths I have learned from Aristotle and Aquinas. The profit has come from the perceptions of new but genuine problems, not pseudo-problems, perplexities, and puzzlements invented by therapeutic positivism and by linguistic or analytical philosophy in our own century.
In every case the correction of an error or the repair of a deficiency in the philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas rests on the underlying and controlling principles of Aristotelian and Thomistic thought. In fact, the discovery of such errors or deficiencies almost always springs from close attention and leads to a deeper understanding of those principles” (Mortimer J. Adler, A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992, pp. 241–242).
With one or two exceptions, all the fundamental philosophical truths that I have learned in more than fifty years, to which I am now firmly committed, I have learned from Aristotle, from Aquinas as a student of Aristotle, and from Jacques Maritain as a student of them both. I have searched my mind thoroughly and I cannot find in it a single truth that I have learned from works in modern philosophy written since the beginning of the 17th century. If anyone is outraged by this judgment about almost four hundred years of philosophical thought, let him recover from it by considering the comparable judgment that almost all modern and contemporary philosophers have made about the two thousand years of philosophical thought that preceded the 17th century. (Mortimer J. Adler, “The Bodyguards of Truth,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, 1976, p. 125).
Why a New Institute?
The English rendering of the Greek word “philo-sophia,” translated literally, is “love of wisdom.” As Adler noted, unhappily little love of wisdom exists today in “philosophy” as taught in our universities and colleges, whether they are dominated by the linquistic and analytical “philosophy” that is regnant at Oxford and Cambridge, or by the positivism, existentialism, phenomenology, structuralism, and some older versions of semiotics that are current on the continent of Europe. Anyone familiar with the state of most philosophy departments in America would add: and in America.
In respect to theology a similar situation prevails, including on Catholic campuses, where the very errors in understanding St. Thomas Aquinas, which, more than anyone else, Etienne Gilson identified and warned us about, are almost universally part of the way Thomism is taught. This refers, especially, to “’manual” (or “textbook,” Cartesian) Thomism, which tends to be taught as a mere series of propositions in a closed system of thought or logic, instead of as the act of a habit of soul. If philosophy, and especially theology, is chiefly reduced to a body of knowledge so taught, then two things inevitably result: 1.) Studying philosophy and theology becomes tedious, boring, a mere exercise in rote memorization and shallow debate. (This is precisely what happened to scholasticism when it suffered the same reductionist fate centuries ago and began to be taught and perceived as a “dry and dusty, passé” species of nominalism. 2.) Once the limited teachings of such a Thomism falsely-so-called are memorized and supposedly “fully understood” (as evinced by an “A” or passing grade), this procedure often leads to intellectual pride, and tends to produce students who mistakenly confound wisdom with being disputatious.
Whether as part of metaphysics or revelation concerning supernatural truths, philosophy and theology start in wonder, with the ineffable, mystery. “Mystery” does not mean something about which we can never know anything. It means something about which we can always learn more and yet never fully exhaust our understanding. Mystery so understood is precisely what keeps alive in philosophers (as the term was understood by the best of the ancient Greeks) the sense of wonder (and, hence, humility). This quality in Socrates continues to make him such an attractive figure over two millennia after his death.
As Adler noted, “There are very few self-evident, necessary truths, which are undeniable because it is impossible to think the opposite. These are the only philosophical truths that are in the realm of certitude—beyond the shadow of a doubt. All the rest are in the realm of doubt—either beyond a reasonable doubt or probable by a preponderance of the evidence. None of these probable truths are incorrigible. Their probability is forever subject to change as new evidence or rational arguments correct earlier judgments about their degree of probability.” (Mortimer J. Adler, A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992, p. 244).
In theology the situation is similar: very few revealed truths exist that are not also knowable by unaided natural reason; relatively few certain theological conclusions based on those revealed truths exist that the faithful are similarly bound to accept and believe. Regarding all the rest, as St. Augustine noted, provided they do not contradict the foregoing, room exists for fruitful discussion and inquiry. Otherwise, theology, too, becomes sterile, merely an exercise in memorization, not a continual opening to, and deeper penetration of, the ineffable and mysterious being of God and his works.
A sound philosophical metaphysics (rooted in the self-evident truths, principles, initially rooted in sense wonder about the being of sensible things and faculties and habits of the intellectual soul) and a sound theology (rooted in revelation and the Magisterium consistently interpreting that revelation and the necessary conclusions therefrom) avoid the reductionism of “philosophy” and “theology” falsely-so-called and the resulting intellectual pretentiousness, tendentiousness, sterility, and foolishness that they tend to produce. Such sound modes of inquiry illuminate mysteries about reality, especially about the “highest things,” encourage collective wonder and social cohesion, and foster a deeper penetration of wisdom. In so doing, as Aristotle tells us, while “individually we contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, Bk. 2, ch. 1, 993b1-3).
- AAI Fellows Peter A. Redpath, Ph.D. and Patrick S.J. Carmack, J.D.