Sense and Nonsense: What Belongs to the Wise Man

Book one, chapter one, of Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles, concerning wisdom, begins by citing Proverbs: “My mouth shall meditate truth, and my lips shall hate iniquity” (8:7). Aquinas finds two sides to this statement. The first is “to medi­tate and speak forth of the divine truth which is truth in person”; the second, “to refute the opposing error or im­piety.” Impiety is “falsehood against the divine truth.” The divine truth is the Word.

Meanwhile, in Leo Strauss’s 1964 book, The City and Man, we find a relat­ed passage: “In the words of Thomas Aquinas, reason informed by faith, not natural reason simply, to say nothing of corrupted reason, teaches that God is to be loved and worshiped. Natu­ral reason cannot decide which of the various forms of the divine worship is the true one, although it is able to show the falsity of those which are plainly immoral” (34). Behind Strauss’s comment is the notion that the God of Aristotle had no personal relation with human beings in the world.

But which form of worship is the “true one”? Reason can at least indi­cate what forms are immoral. Reason should “refute the opposing error.” It takes reason informed by faith, how­ever, to tell us how God is to be wor­shiped and loved; reason alone cannot do this. If God has indicated how He is to be worshiped, our reason can tell us that it is not contradictory to par­ticipate in it. In doing so, it becomes more “reason.”

Pope Benedict XVI touched on this point in Deus Caritas Est. For the Christian, God chooses whether and what He creates. He “loves man.” In contrast, “the divine power that Aris­totle…sought to grasp through re­flection is indeed for every being an object of desire and of love—and as the object of love this divinity moves the world—but in itself it lacks noth­ing and does not love: it is solely the object of love.” Thus, man does wor­ship and love God, but God first loves man. Within the Godhead exists an inner Trinitarian life. The world need not exist. If the world does exist, God can explain the world to us, including how we are to worship.


Aquinas begins the Summa Con­tra Gentiles by telling us that the phi­losopher is to “name” things. The wise man is the one who sees “the order of things” and rules accordingly. We know the order from its end. The “ab­solutely wise man” looks to the “end of the universe.” He is concerned with its “highest causes.”

Aquinas next says that “the first author and mover of the universe is intellect.” He adds that “the ultimate end of the universe must, therefore, be the good of the intellect.” And the good of the intellect is “truth.” Thus, “truth must be the ultimate end of the whole universe.” These are remark­able sentences.

Aquinas continues: “Wisdom tes­tifies that He has assumed flesh and came into the world in order to make this truth known.” Aquinas under­stands that Aristotle does not know of this Incarnation. Yet Aquinas says, nonetheless, “the Philosopher [Aristo­tle] himself establishes that first phi­losophy [metaphysics] is the science of truth, not of any truth, but of that truth which is the origin of all truth, namely, which belongs to the first principle whereby all things are.”

Knowledge of truth includes knowledge of what is not true. Aqui­nas uses the example of medicine, which “seeks to effect health and to eliminate illness.” The wise medical man teaches how to effect health in the patient; this is his end. To accom­plish this he must know what sickness is. Consequently, the wise man has to show what is true and refute what is false.

It is the function of the wise man to order things. The ultimate order of things betrays intellect, to the very truth of which we are to order our­selves. Only in this way are we wise.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).

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