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Gateways to Philosophy and the Search for Truth

As the school year opens here at St. John’s, all of our new freshman and many of our new graduate students are reading two books in particular: Euclid’s Elements and Homer’s Iliad, two of my favorite books on the Program.

Euclid’s Elements serves as an exemplar of guidance in an activity we try to undertake in all of our classes at St. John’s. He opens his study of geometrical objects at the beginning, with all of the elements and building blocks needed for the reader to construct the geometrical figures and prove the propositions contained throughout the rest of the book. These elements include a handful of definitions, some rules of construction or postulates for the imagination, and a few axioms of logic.

When we go to the board in our mathematics tutorials and repeat the steps in Euclid’s propositions, we are engaged in a journey of the imagination to reflect on the origin, nature, and elements of a line, a circle, a construction, a proof. The truth of the proposition is revealed to us through the application of reason to our imagination. We cannot help but ask how and why these elements are useful or necessary to our understanding of all that follows in the book.

This activity, trying to understand origins and elements, lies at the heart of much of what we do in our study together at St. John’s. Of course, we cannot always start at the beginning as Euclid did, with first principles and elements, building up our understanding from there. Nonetheless, because we have had this experience with Euclid, we imagine that we can work our way back from the appearances, from the phenomena, from the opinions of mankind, to the origins, principles, and elements that underlie what we are hearing, reading, and seeing with our senses, to uncover their origins, foundations, and elements. If we cannot start at the beginning, we must instead work to recover that beginning and uncover the elements of the object of our study.

This is why we sometimes call a St. John’s education “elemental” or “elementary,” not because what we seek to learn is simple or easy to grasp, but because we are always looking to uncover what lies beneath or behind what we think we are seeing. We are seeking to find a truth about the object of our study, just as we see the truth of a Euclidian proposition through the application of both the intellect and the imagination to the original, elementary building blocks.

Those reading Euclid get to start at the elemental level and proceed to an understanding of a world that can be constructed with those elements. Those starting with Homer have a different task: uncovering the elemental forces at work in the story Homer unfolds.

Achilles rages. Why is he angry? What lies behind his rage? Is it natural or not? Good or bad? Is it justified? Can it be controlled or not? If in the end his anger is resolved and some sense of humanity restored, how did this happen and why?

Homer’s short invocation of the Muses ends with this short conclusion: “The will of Zeus was moving toward its end.” What has Zeus’s will got to do with Achilles’s wrath? Does Zeus’s will control the fate of the warriors? Who are these gods? Do they determine the outcomes of battle or are they poetic metaphors for deathless forces we cannot control or comprehend?

Homer excites our wish to understand what it means to be human, what it means to want to know about the world we inhabit. What are our origins? What was in the beginning? The questions are endless, and each answer is likely only to uncover the next deeper, more elemental question.

If, as Plato and Aristotle said, philosophy begins in wonder, then the gateway to philosophy opens when we read the books that make us wonder most, that take us quickly into the search for truth. Beginning with Homer’s Iliad and Euclid’s Elements is a perfect way to swing the gates wide and start a lifelong journey of inspiration, imagination, and wonder.

P.S. I gave fuller treatment of these ideas in my Convocation Address for the opening of the 2015 academic year. You can find it here.