The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 20, 2018

Last Things: Intellectual Resources
James V. Schall, S.J. - 04/07/10
The intellectual resources you [Brutus] needed were not available at home. So you went to seek them out at Athens, which has always been hailed as the center of scholarship, and you furnished your mind very simply with what they had to offer.
—Cicero, The Brutus
The most wonderful thing is that the best of our convictions cannot be expressed in words. Language is not adequate for everything, and often we are not quite sure whether, in the end, we are seeing, looking, thinking, remembering, fantasizing, or believing.
—Goethe, The Silence of Goethe, #63

We are familiar with the expression “natural resources.” Generally, this refers to the myriads of things in the universe that are simply there without any added human intervention. The Epistle to the Hebrews uses the memorable expression “things not made by human hands.” The expression would include both finite and infinite things. When we come to think of it, however, man himself is a “natural resource.” He is evidently in the world by the same title as anything else. What-it-is-to-be man is just there, requiring no prior human input or intervention. Whenever and wherever he appears, he is already completely what he is, though, unlike the rest of material creation, not as he ought to be, which latter also depends on his own freedom.

Yet we are now a race that seeks to interfere with ourselves, ostensibly on the grounds that we can do a better job than what caused us to be in the universe in the first place. Our “second” human creation will depend on no one other than ourselves. Man himself is also a “given” in the cosmos. But this “givenness” complicates things. Human beings, who are evidently themselves “by nature,” can in turn “use” what is there for their own purposes. They can also think about why they are there, something nothing else in the physical cosmos can do.

Generally, this combination of given material things and man’s ability to use them has meant to most people that some relation exists between the two. Some animals depend on others for food. Other animals depend on grasses and vegetation. Vegetation depends on water and what is in the soil. Without these dependencies, nothing living would exist. Indeed, the universe was not simply for itself, but for man. It makes no sense if there is no one within it to appreciate it.

The nonhuman, physical universe does not think about what it is. It does not declare to itself: “Look, we are dependent on nothing but ourselves!” Probably, we can find no more obvious division of existing things than between those beings who think about things and those which are thought about, granted that the things that think are also thought about. And because we can think about things, evidently, we can use them or relate to them for our own purposes. Most people most of the time have thought that this connection of mind and things simply made sense.

Recent ecological theory has sought to reverse this “primacy of man” relationship. The world, it is claimed, is superior to man. He does not transcend it. Instead of the cosmos being “for man,” we now want to instruct ourselves that man is for the cosmos. He is subordinate to it, a mere minuscule part of it. It is greater than he. The “health” of the cosmos subsumes man into itself, not vice versa. Or even more graphically, man is a threat to the cosmos. Evil does not come into the world through man’s free will, as was the case in Genesis. It comes because of his very existence in the world and its exigencies.

This “higher” status of the world to man, of course, is itself an idea that resides not in the cosmos but in some human minds. Ecology and environmentalism as they are explained become a new faith, a new system. It is by no means obvious that the cosmos is more important than the intelligent beings within it. Even more, theories that subordinate man to the cosmos become a new politics of control. Such theories in fact are more political than they are scientific. What the world or universe can “support” is itself subject to theories that purport to know what the capacity of the world is. If man is the real threat to the world, then obviously those who control politics in its name will control man. This is why classical totalitarian theory is connected to modern ecological theory.

Since man and his desires are said to be the cause of disorder, they can be reduced to order and enforced by coercion to what our theory allows. Man, in this view, is in the universe. He is to make as little dent on it as possible. He has no transcendent purpose other than keeping the world in steady existence down the ages.

The individual human beings who, at one time or another, inhabit the world have no significance in themselves. Each merely keeps the species alive down the ages. The cosmos is a “success” to the extent that it looks like it did before man appeared, however he appeared. Since, it is said, resources are finite, every generation is responsible for distributing them to every other generation on the basis of what it estimates these resources are. No generation is allowed to use more than its share. Just how this “share” is to be calculated becomes itself a basis of political power.

The mission of this cosmological “overlordship” of mankind is, supposedly, to keep the earth as it is for those who come later on. It is concerned down the eons, however long that is. Some higher inner-worldly entity, the cosmos itself, becomes what is superior to man. This force is the new “god” or sometimes “goddess” who rules the ecological world. Now eternity comes to mean not the personal destiny of finite rational persons with God but the unending cycles of keeping the earth as it was in the beginning. The only trouble with this position is, of course, that the earth, sun, and even cosmos itself seems to have had a beginning and a given time range. Suns and their planets do burn themselves out.

In any case, man must be restricted so that he does not “deprive” future generations for as long as the earth supports life. Thus future generations become more important than present generations. By this logic, we are all now deprived of what we need by the actions of the billions who went before us on this earth, by what they took and did on this earth while they were here. All of this, no doubt, assumes that there have been or will be no discoveries or developments that render the worries of the parsimonious earth out of date. The ecological world is a world without the human mind except as a tool to guarantee no changes in the world.


Cicero used the term “intellectual resources.” Obviously, we cannot have such resources before we have intellect and before it acts. Cicero tells us that Brutus went to study in Athens to acquire these resources. Cicero had sent his own son to study in Athens for the same reason, as he tells us in his treatise On Duties. What, we might wonder, is the relation of “intellectual” and “natural” resources? In the time of Cicero, the far north of Europe seems to have been in a primitive state. Why did not Cicero send his son north instead of to Athens? No doubt explorers who went north, and later even to the North Pole, learned something. But that was because they took with them that power by which it is possible to know anything. All the earth was at one point a wasteland—that is, a place on which no human enterprise had taken place.

One of the purposes of the intellect, no doubt, is to articulate what things are. We need to identify them. But we cannot do this identification if we cannot in some sense stand apart from them. We regard them as not being ourselves who are looking at them. They are not us, yet, in knowledge, they “become” us. To know something is to become what that thing is, without our changing it. The world of material things is one thing. The world as known and articulated by intelligent beings is another. Together they remain one world, no doubt, but knowledge by itself, as Aristotle said, changes nothing.

Yet knowledge, once articulated and subject to human will and enterprise, can change things if it knows what they are. Actually, it can change things even if it does not know what they are, but that change will be accidental, not a product of knowing what the change is. The Greeks of Athens distinguished between the theoretical and the practical intellect. By this distinction, they did not mean that we have, as it were, two intellects. Rather, they meant that we have one intellect that can be activated to two different purposes. The first they called “theoretical” intellect. This distinction meant that we could use our minds simply to know what something is. We did not want to do anything with it. We discover a certain delight in simply knowing what things are. In many ways, this desire to know is the deepest drive in us. Man is, by nature, a rational animal. This is his simplest and most profound definition.

The perfection of our mind is really to know what is not ourselves. Socrates talked about “knowing ourselves.” But we ourselves are not direct objects of our own knowing powers. What we know and want to know are things not ourselves, all that is. Each human mind has this potential capacity to know all that is not itself, including, evidently, the causes of things. And even there, we want to know the cause of things as it is in itself. This seeking to know is what, in its own way, defines us in the highest sense. We are the beings who seek to know all that is not ourselves. We do think that we will not really know ourselves unless we come at ourselves through what is not ourselves. This is why the best definition of truth is simply the conformity of mind and reality.

Practical intellect, on the other hand, art and prudence, brings up another side of our mind. By knowing what things are that are not ourselves, we can order them, use them for some purpose of our own. We have the impression that things that are, while beautiful, can be made more beautiful. We can find examples of this in buildings, in gardens, in paintings, in music.

We do not think that it is somehow contrary to what things are to make them more beautiful. We can say, no doubt, that a cathedral does not know that it is beautiful. Maybe the stones protest being in place? We hear complaints that the soil under the freeways and roads of this world protests its subjection to man. But again we ask, just who is doing this protesting? The only answer is not the stone or the soil but human beings imbued with a certain theory that wants to leave the stones in the ground and the roads unpaved.


“The most wonderful thing,” Goethe wrote, “is that the best of our convictions cannot be expressed in words.” This sentence reflects Plato’s famous statement in his Seventh Letter that he has never expressed in his written words what he really holds. Our “intellectual resources,” however, include what men have written and spoken, yes, have sung and prophesied. Part of our “intellectual resources” is contained in the fact that nothing we encounter or know is such that we can exhaust it. This inexhaustibility in things comes from the fact that nothing explains itself yet it exists. On one side of its being, it thus goes back to its own origin, which is not itself. No finite being caused itself to come to be. Its explanation depends on the origin of being, in which it participates but does not invent.

If we think about this fact that the objects of our very knowing are themselves revelatory of what is more than themselves, we begin to realize the scope of our “intellectual resources.” We are in principle not confined to ourselves. Nor do we want to be. We are beings who want to be related to all that is not ourselves. If we look at this fact about ourselves, we come to realize that we are related not only to all things that are but also to those beings which are likewise related to all that is.

In other words, our “intellectual resources” include not only real and existing things but also reflections and thoughts about these things which others of our kind have pondered and sought to make something of in words and song. These two things about us—that we know existing things and that we know others of our kind open to the same reality—enable us to be joined together through our speech in a common community of what is.

Are we, to use Goethe’s words, “seeing, looking, thinking, remembering, fantasizing, or believing”? We can, on reflection, distinguish what we are doing. We can see, look, think, remember, fantasize, or believe. But in each case we have to see something, look at something, think about something, remember something, fantasize about something, or believe about something. These acts are properly ours only if we first know what they are and what they tell us about knowing some existing thing. Our “intellectual resources” are enormous, so enormous that the amount of lifetime we are given is never sufficient so that we might fully know even what we have encountered in our short years in this cosmos.

“Language,” as Goethe said, “is not adequate for everything.” This inadequacy results because language is the instrument we have as part of our being that enables us to talk about the things that are. We do not have language for the sake of language. We have language to take us to the things that are. Once we arrive there, we will know that they are themselves inexhaustible, yet also meant for us that we should know them, speak about them to those of our kind whom we know.

For a thing is not complete until someone knows it. This knowing is true even within the Godhead. I suspect this is why the Logos is the Logos or Word of the Father, and the Father and the Logos lead in turn to the Spirit out of whose mission all things come to us. They are gifts that reflect not themselves but that uncreated source in which they were first seen. What is not God is not God. This is its dignity. God remains God while what is not God remains what it is.

The “intellectual resources” of the beings that are not God include this understanding of themselves that they are finite. They are indeed not God. This conclusion, I think, is what Goethe meant when he said, “Often we are not quite sure whether, in the end, we are seeing, looking, thinking, remembering, fantasizing, or believing.” What we are sure of is that we are doing one or the other of these things in our effort to know what is. Here is the final source of both “natural” and “intellectual resources.”

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