I think, therefore I am. So runs the one of the few philosophical quotations almost everyone knows. It does not follow that a person who thinks badly has less “being” than a person who thinks well, but experience shows that most beings that think badly end badly.
“If we think, therefore we are,” and we think, then surely we should think well! Humans have reason, higher passions, and desires and all of these matter. No “part” of the soul can be safely ignored, suppressed, or be left untrained. Instead, each must be taught to function properly. Christians know this truth, because we know that however broken humans may be each part of a person still retains a shattered remnant of the Image of God.
Our ability to reason may be fallen, but there is a common grace (as even John Calvin concedes) that allows any human being to reason better than an animal and contribute to human knowledge. We are not what we were, but we can be better than we are.
Reason is even more than an ability to think scientifically or philosophically, it is the final lens that in a properly functioning human being brings goodness, truth, and beauty into focus so far as a finite man can see them.
The Greek philosopher Plato pictured this truth in works such as Phaedrus, Republic, and Timaeus.
Plato was right to make the intellect the ruling part of the soul, but he has often been misunderstood by those living in our times. He certainly meant by “reason” what most of us mean by reason: logical thinking, but he also meant more. Plato believed the “mind” collected experiences from the outer world, measured the emotions (low and high), and was able to adjudicate between them.
The mind contained spiritual or intellectual passions, like a god, so was more that a reasoning machine. The intellect desires to think, to pray, to order the soul in a harmony. The mind is not passionless, but contains the divine passions. Before the Incarnation of Christ, the human intellect came the closest to experiencing the divine. Of course, it is only like the energies thrown off by the Divine Essence, an Essence unknowable and utterly unlike anything that a human can describe. The ineffable throws off goodness, truth, and beauty as the sun throws off heat and light.
Adam and Eve, our first parents, could have reflected this glory and been warmed by the Divine. They could bring God to the world as much as God could be brought to the material plane, but they traded this glory for folly. Being like God, they desired to be gods.
Of course, we are now far from what we once were: we are fallen and we cannot get up! But still, when a student loves his work, when a child expresses piety toward a parent, and when an idea fires the mind, the force of the soul is brought to a soft focus that can produces amazing works of science and art.
A good education trains the intellectual passions, hones them. A good education teaches logical thinking, but also piety: a right attitude toward holy things. A pious man loves goodness, because it is good, not because it profits him. A pious woman loves truth, because it is true, not merely for use. A pious human loves beauty, because it is beautiful, and does not treat it as unnecessary.
The true intellectual does not ignore his emotions, high or low, but orders them in pursuit of appropriate ends. In one sense this makes the intellect in the soul a king and in another a servant. A good person thinks well to achieve the good, the truth, or beauty. Better still is to ask God to give us the mind of Christ: the only mind since Adam fell to experience as a human the full reality of being in the unbroken Image of God.
And it can our own by grace!
There exists a false intellectual who worships thinking or uses his wits to develop sophistical arguments to defend his passions. This soul tries for justification by rationalization, but is certain to fail. Cleverness is not the same as wisdom anymore than a patriot is the same as a bigot. The things the sophist and the true intellectual have in common (a love for ideas, for example) might fool others for a while, but the outcome will show the difference.
By their fruit you will know them. The person who loves wisdom, the end of all intellectual activity, will suffer in pursuit of knowledge. He will moderate his passion, not indulge it. She will cultivate higher emotions, not wallow in childish desires. The wise soul finds God and loves God more than any other person or “thing,” so will never ask what can be done without punishment, but how to please the Beloved God.
A sophist will try to solve emotional problems with intellect, but this is as foolish as trying to reason one’s way to bodily health. Of course, a well trained intellect might help us discover that we have an emotional problem and help us know what to do with it. A sophist will pretend that if an argument is won, then they must be right: reality will be no check on their mad career.
Colleges in particular must take care to train the intellectual passions as well as the reasoning capacity. The intellect without piety can become the greatest tyrant of all. Revelation, God’s Word, exists in part to prevent the intellect from running into sophistry. Our intellects must stand before the Word of God and allow it to transform us, not transform the Word into a word idol of our vain imaginations.
The good news is that by God’s grace a purified intellect, one born again, taught logic, and full of piety, can do much to aid humanity. In the splendid dedication of the working scientist, we see the moderation of intellectualism into a kind of wisdom. In the piety of a man who will not dishonor his God through short-term gain, we see a kind of wisdom. In the humility of a thinker who bows to divine revelation and who holds all else lightly, especially his particular understandings of that revelation, we see another sort of wisdom.
None of it is pure wisdom, but all of it is an echo of the echo that humanity was created to be of the pure harmony of the Triune God.