A Devotional Commentary

From St. John of Damascus’ Fountain of Knowledge, works on philosophy, first paragraph of Chapter 67:

Philosophy is knowledge of things which are in so far as they are; that is to say, a knowledge of their nature. Philosophy is a knowledge of divine and human things. Philosophy is a study of death, both that which is deliberate and that which is natural. Philosophy is a becoming like God, in so far as this is possible for man. Now, it is in justice, sanctity, and goodness that we become like God. And justice is that which is distributive of equity; it is not wrongdoing and not being wrong, not prejudicing a person, but rendering to each his due in according with his works. Sanctity, on the other hand, is that which is over and above justice; that is to say, it is the good, the patience of the one wronged, the forgiving of them that do wrong, and, more than that, the doing of good to them. Philosophy is the art of arts and the science of sciences, for, since through philosophy every art is discovered, it is the principle underlying every art. Philosophy is love of wisdom. But, the true wisdom is God. Therefore, the love of God – this is the true philosophy.

John covers quite a bit in this passage, but he indicates that part of theosis (what he says is “Becoming like God,” or what Protestants say, “More like Christ”) is the study of philosophy. How does philosophy aid in us becoming like God? Philosophy teaches us the reality of the world. It tells us where we came from and how we know what we know. From there, we deduce how we should act. Philosophy teaches us that we should be just in our actions and go even further and be sanctified in how we act toward others, to go beyond justice.

This is how God acts towards us. God is a just God, but He acts over His justice. Justice is to give to everyone what they are due. Since all humans sin against God, what they are due is punishment. God, however, shows grace and instead of giving us what is due, He takes the penalty Himself and offers us salvation. In the Hellenistic views of the gods, they would give men their due and would only offer grace when the human could do something for the god. The true God, however, had injustice dealt to Him and instead of acting justly, He instead chose to take the penalty Himself. He would be justified in rightly punishing all men, but instead He, “…is [Him who] is over and above justice; that is to say, [He] is the good, the patience of the one wronged, the forgiving of them that do wrong, and, more than that, the doing of good to them.”

Another reason for the Christian to learn philosophy is that philosophy is the beginning of all learning. We need philosophy to better understand ethics, natural sciences, mathematics, or anything else in life. We need philosophy to better understand how marriage works, how governments work, or even how we work. Philosophy is the beginning of all knowledge and all things flow from philosophy, thus to ignore the learning of philosophy is to ignore the foundations of all subjects. How can one be properly educated when one lacks a proper foundation?

But does philosophy point us towards abstract virtues as the Stoics would say? John answers with a resounding “NO!” Philosophy does not points us to some abstract truth, but rather true philosophy (what Francis Schaeffer would call “true truth”) points us to a Person, that Person being God.

John even puts his belief into a syllogistic format:

Philosophy is the love of wisdom

God is wisdom

Therefore, philosophy is the love of God

To pursue wisdom, one must pursue philosophy. Even if a man doesn’t read all the philosophical texts, by learning to think better he becomes a better Christian. When we say “God created the world and all within,” we have made a philosophical statement, one dealing with metaphysics. To better know God, we must explore that statement and take it as far as we can.

This is why Paul warned us in Colossians to avoid the philosophies of the world. Such philosophies are not “real philosophies.” Any philosophy or philosophical truth that does not point to God is false, because it does not point to wisdom, and therefore it cannot properly be called philosophy (the love of wisdom). When Christians call philosophy an intellectual pursuit, inferior to theology, we quickly point out that philosophy is above theology in terms of study. We must first know God exists and that we can know God exists before we begin studying the acts of God. When Christians begin to adopt worldly philosophies, they have an affair with the gods of this world. To love wisdom (philosophy) is to love God; to buy into a philosophical doctrine that denies that truth exists or denies that God exists is to hate wisdom and therefore to hate God.

Thus, one of the ways to love God is with philosophy. By studying philosophy we learn how to act. If we follow through on such actions, then we become holy as God is holy. We become like God (in our justice, our sanctity, and in goodness). For a Christian to grow, he must study philosophy in some form and then act upon what he has learned.