“This Pertains Most Of All To Human Nature”

Speaking of the Third Commandment and the relevance that it has to liberal education, we can do no better than to hear the Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman defend the very notion of “knowledge for its own sake.” This is the fundamental truth that is at the heart of liberal education. Or to put it another way, if knowledge is only valuable insofar as it allows us to achieve something beyond it (e.g. wealth, power, pleasure), then the pursuit of liberal education is a fool’s enterprise.

Now, when I say that Knowledge is, not merely a means to something beyond it, or the preliminary of certain arts into which it naturally resolves, but an end sufficient to rest in and to pursue for its own sake, surely I am uttering no paradox, for I am stating what is both intelligible in itself, and has ever been the common judgment of philosophers and the ordinary feeling of mankind…I am but saying what whole volumes have been written to illustrate, by a “selection from the records of Philosophy, Literature, and Art, in all ages and countries, of a body of examples, to show how the most unpropitious circumstances have been unable to conquer an ardent desire for the acquisition of knowledge”. That further advantages accrue to us and redound to others, by its possession, over and above what it is in itself, I am very far indeed from denying; but, independent of these, we are satisfying a direct need of our nature in its very acquisition; and, whereas our nature, unlike that of the inferior creation, does not at once reach its perfection, but depends in order to it on a number of external aids and appliances, knowledge, as one of those principal gifts or accessories, by which it is completed, is valuable for what its very presence in us does for us by a sort of opus operatum, even though it be turned to no further account, nor subserve any direct end. Hence it is that Cicero, in enumerating the various heads of mental excellence, lays down the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, as the first of them. “This pertains most of all to human nature” (Idea of a University Discourse V)

We owe a great debt of gratitude to Cicero and other pagan philosophers who were able to grasp so clearly the truth about human nature. Newman is referring to Cicero’s De Officiis chapter Book 1. 18 where Cicero says

Ex quattuor autem locis, in quos honesti naturam vimque divisimus, primus ille, qui in veri cognitione consistit, maxime naturam attingit humanam.

By which he means something like,

“From the four places (locis), however, in which we have divided the nature and strength of honesty (moral virtue- honestas), that is first, which consists in the knowledge of the truth, it most especially (maxime!) pertains to human nature.” (my translation so quote me at your peril!)

If the pursuit of knowledge most of all pertains to human nature, then it follows that knowledge is what human beings should most of all pursue.

For those of you who only accept assertions which come as the conclusion to a syllogism allow me to restate the argument

  1. Every creature should most of all strive to fulfill its own God-given nature. (I like to think of the gift of our nature as the “talent” that Christ speaks about in the parable of the talents in Matthew and Luke)
  2. The pursuit of knowledge most of all pertains to human nature. (we will accept the authority of the pagan Cicero for this. But you pagan-suspicious Christians out there might have to take Blessed John Henry’s word for this instead)

Therefore Every creature should most of all strive to pursue knowledge.

There. That appears to follow. I like it.

When a creature fulfills its nature we might say that it has achieved a state in which it is now able to rest. It is something like people who finally are able to do the work for which they have been training. When these actually do the work for which they have been training, they achieve the end for which they have been working  – and a feeling of satisfaction comes over them. They say “now I am doing the very thing for which I have been waiting.” They smile and feel peace. They laugh and clap their hands.

Shall we enumerate examples? Do we need to talk about olympic athletes in their hour of glory? Do we need to bring up multiple examples of musicians who finally find themselves on stage in front of a willing audience? Shall we speak of generals on the very eve of their great battle?

No I don’t think we need to bring any of these things up because the point is clear enough. Just as athletes, artists, musicians and generals find some rest and peace in the performance of their specific work, so do all men find rest and satisfaction in the performance of the work that most of all pertains to human nature – the pursuit of knowledge.

And therefore God is especially merciful to us when he says “Remember to Keep Holy the Sabbath,” because in addition to commanding us to find rest in the nature that we have by grace, He also bids us to find rest in fulfilling what we are by nature.

He is inviting us to do the very work in which our rest consists.


About marklangley

Presently, the founding Headmaster of Our Lady of Walsingham Academy in Colorado Springs (see www. OLWclassical.org), former headmaster and Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see theLyceum.org) Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their children.
This entry was posted in classical education, Liberal Arts, Newman, truth for its own sake and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s