Cantus Firmus: Wisdom, Reason and Love’s Congruence

Paul D Janz,
King’s College London

1. In the concluding section of A Long Rumour of Wisdom, [1] David Ford offers an imaginatively rich and highly compressed vision for the place of wisdom as a centre of academic integrity, and as a possible locus of academic congruence in the face of the continuing encroachment of fragmentation. The vision is committed deeply to the particularities and polyphonies within which human life is experienced and expressed. Yet despite this emphasis, it is concerned likewise to present wisdom as offering the prospect of what might be called a kind of ?normative? centre of integrity, indeed even of a certain kind of ?principledness?, and accordingly as offering the hope of a locus of genuine academic meeting and shared responsibility.

Broadly speaking, it presents wisdom in the academy as intrinsically responsive to two basic kinds of demands, or to demands on two basic fronts. It recognizes on the one hand the inexorable heterogeneity of the real world, and the failure of many homogenizing “enlightenment” accounts to do justice to that heterogeneity and indeed their frequent violation of it. Yet at the same time it wants to uphold equally the indispensable requirement of a genuine commonality within the academy, by which it is drawn together in mutually recognized responsibilities. Or again, it acknowledges on the one hand the “deep particularity” and non-universalizability even (or especially) of wisdom and responsibility themselves. Yet on the other, it deplores the broadscale abandonment today of any “energetic academic pursuit of the big questions”. [2] It resists the idea therefore that the only choices must be between the “presumption” and “violence” of many of the totalizing and universalizing enlightenment options, and the ?despair? and superficiality of many more recent views which, on the basis of past failures, withdraw from the “big questions” altogether. It is wisdom which is then presented as offering the promise of holding together both heterogeneity and commonality, both deep particularity and genuinely principled responsibility, both “the fierce vigil of contingency” and the hope of “congruence”. Ford then offers a particularly helpful analogical image around which he sees this promise of wisdom as coming to expression. This is his appeal to the image of a cantus firmus for providing a kind of normativity for wisdom both in theology and then also in the academy more broadly.

In his magisterial new book, Christian Wisdom , [3] Ford makes clear that he is not attempting to address exactly what he calls the “epistemological” or “systematic” questions which will at some point need to be broached in the fuller articulation of such a vision. His own concern in this later work is rather with more substantive questions relating to the dynamics of transformation in Christian wisdom, as well as with pedagogical issues. Nevertheless, the book indirectly achieves a great deal with regard to epistemological questioning as well, by laying out substantively vital features and parameters of wisdom to which any such questioning will have to be attentive. Two of the most prominent among these orientational features are (a) an engagement with scripture, and (b) a fundamentally this-worldly attentiveness, even when asking about the wisdom of God. Or as Ford as expresses this directly, in a statement which is many ways is pivotal for the whole book: “Christian theology requires an engagement with scripture whose primary desire is for the wisdom of God in life now.”  [4]

What I wish to do in this essay, under the piloting guidance of the desire “for the wisdom of God in life now,” is to explore how it might be possible for wisdom to come to expression as a cantus firmus at all under the “fierce vigil of contingency”. In other words, how exactly can wisdom operate with the kind of ?principledness? that Ford envisages, without violating the fierceness of that contingency? In a certain way therefore, I hesitate to call what follows an ?epistemological? investigation per se. For epistemology is concerned intrinsically with questions of rational authority, with rational classification and thematization, with questions of significance or “meaning”, and thereby ultimately also with “definitions”. And the wisdom which Ford envision, as we shall see, will prove to be quite resistant to assimilation within any such epistemological demands.

The better place by far to begin is with Aristotle’s important dictum that “regarding wisdom we shall get to the truth by considering who are the persons we credit with it.”  [5] Or as Ford concurs, wisdom “is more appropriately associated with people than with texts.”  [6] We will be returning to this injunction repeatedly throughout the essay as a crucial source of orientation. But to begin with, I want to try to gain a foothold into the epistemological question itself by asking it in a certain way. In the simplest of terms, I want to ask how wisdom is to be distinguished from reason , or from the right use of reason. Or more precisely, I want to ask what, if anything, there might be about the exercise of wisdom ? within the basic parameters of Ford’s project, and as we look to the persons to whom we credit it ? that cannot be captured or fully accounted for by either epistemology or ethics.

2. Now as wary as we should rightly be of placing wisdom within the constraints of any exact definition, there are nevertheless a few things we can say without hesitation about wisdom ?definitionally?, the most basic among which is the following. It will be freely acknowledged as analytically true (i.e., true by virtue of the basic meaning or definition we attribute to the word itself in using it) that when we speak of human wisdom we mean it as a manifestation or an exercise of discernment. Of course such a statement, while incontrovertibly true (because analytically true), does not yet really say anything illuminating or ampliative. Indeed, as it stands, it expresses a mere truism which, far from helping to answer the question before us, does little more than to repeat it in different terms. However, even as a truism it already allows us to move one step further as we ask about wisdom?s relation to reason. For human reason also has a single and most basic definition under which it comes intrinsically to expression in any of its uses. Our whole intellectual history, from the pre-Socratics onwards, and as expressed most directly first in Plato but with especial explicitness in Aristotle, has held as “self-evident” that human reason just is the human power of judgment, or the “judging faculty” in humans. [7] Much of what follows therefore will be an investigation into what it is about wisdom?s ?discernment? that can be found to distinguish itself from reason?s “judgment”. In order to pursue this, let us first look somewhat more closely at what is meant in identifying reason as the “judging faculty” in human beings.

Throughout most of our intellectual heritage, reason, understood as the human ?judging faculty?, has been seen as exercising itself in two essentially different ways, pertaining specifically to two fundamentally different human faculties or powers on which reason can bring its ordering judgment to bear. The first is the faculty of cognition or cognitive apprehension ( cognitiva in Aquinas), which in Aristotle, Aquinas and Kant, for example, includes both sensible percepts and concepts generated in thought. Now to be sure, cognitions as such are indeed always already mental entities, but they are not by that measure alone yet necessarily rational , since thoughts or thinking procedures themselves can of course also be irrational or incoherent. In order to qualify as rational, the faculty of cognition must itself be brought under the higher judging and ordering scrutiny of reason in order to ensure the correct exercise of this faculty. And the use of reason in this ?cognitive? direction is in all three thinkers called the speculative use of reason ? or what is also otherwise variously called the ?discursive? or ?theoretical? or use of reason. (?Speculative? here is not meant in the sense of the imagination running away with itself, but rather in the sense of an activity of reason which operates or judges solely as what Aristotle calls ?a spectator of truth?. In other words, it takes the theoretical demands of truth as its sole point of orientation as it seeks to order thought ?rightly?, or to bring about right thinking.) The second faculty or power on which the judgment or ordering of reason can be brought to bear is the faculty of appetition or desire ( appetitiva in Aquinas). Desires, in other words, are not, at their origin, concepts or percepts but appetites. And because it is desires or appetites (and not cognitions) which are always also the basic motivations for bodily movement in space, that is, for action or praxis , therefore the rational ordering or judging that is brought to bear on the faculty of appetition or desire is called the practical use of reason.

3. All of this of course requires much greater clarification which present space limitations do not permit. But the important point for present purposes is that both Aristotle and Aquinas now also bring ?wisdom? to bear on exactly these two faculties: as (a) ?speculative wisdom? ( sophia and sapientia, respectively, which is to say wisdom for the cognizing or thinking power); and (b) as ?practical wisdom? ( phronesis and prudentia, respectively, which is to say wisdom for the appetitive and motive power). We can explain the significance of this briefly by saying that what ?wisdom? essentially designates in respect of each use of reason is quite simply something like a ?perfection? or the ?excellence? of that use of reason. Sophia or sapientia denote the right use, or excellence, of the speculative intellect with regard to its ?first principles? (chief among which, at least operationally are the law of non-contradiction and the law of identity); and phronesis or prudentia denote the right use or perfection of the practical intellect with regard to its ?first principles?. It may already be evident therefore that even though it is common in current discussions to use sophia and sapientia roughly as synonyms for what we understand by wisdom today, in their archaic uses they had a quite different meaning. In their designation as an excellence of speculative reason, it is disciplines like geometry, pure mathematics and formal logic which, in their speculative purity ? i.e., in their abstraction from the concerns of sensible life ? begin to approximate the demands of sophia and sapientia intended here. Our own current understanding of wisdom has therefore in fact much more in common with what Aristotle and Aquinas describe under phronesis and prudentia. For these, in their practical focus, are indeed concerned essentially with matters of human life, with matters bearing directly on decisions, actions, motivations and behaviors etc. which pertain to this life.

However, there are several vital reasons why even the prudentia (?practical wisdom?) of Aquinas and Aristotle will not suffice for the kind of discernment required of a wisdom ?in life now?, especially as Ford lays this out. And these insufficiencies will invariably find their root in one single fundamental source, a single defining characteristic which resides intrinsically at the very heart of the operative structure and orientation of reason as the human ?judging faculty?. Let me explain this.

It is a logical corollary of reason as the human power of ordered judgment that it is a demonstrative faculty. ?Reason is demonstration?, as Aristotle says. And this means simply that no human judgment can be manifested and warranted as rational unless it is able to provide a rationally demonstrable justification of its procedures in arriving at that judgment. What this means more precisely is that there will always in a rational judgment be the expectation of a unified traceability of reasons in the arrival at any judgment, by which that judgment is deemed to gain its legitimacy as a ? rightly ordered? judgment. If a judgment is not able to support itself or account for itself on the basis of rationally visible connections, such a judgment will be deemed by reason itself to be merely ?arbitrary? or specious, and hence not a demonstrably right judgment by rational standards. But this now brings us to the really decisive and central feature of what reason is. What reason most essentially reveals itself to be ? as a demonstrative power which demands the traceability of its connections ? is, as Kant puts it succinctly, a ?faculty of unity ?. [8] On the one side, in its speculative or cognitive (theoretical) exercise, the unity for which reason intrinsically strives is expressed as ?coherence?, which is to say the right relation of mental images (percepts or concepts) in thinking to their ?referents? or objects, with a view to the truth of these referential relations. (To ?refer rightly? means to ?cohere?, and this is why even any ?correspondence theory of truth?, as recent thinkers like Hilary Putnam recognize, already depends on a ?coherence theory of truth?.) Likewise, in its practical exercise, reason is also a faculty of unity, in that it functions to bring means together with ends , or more exactly, to bring means into a right relation with desired ends for action, and conversely ends also with means.

This does not mean of course that reason in its right exercise always achieves the resolution or unity it seeks, as it claims to do in idealism. Indeed, in its properly critical exercise, reason will invariably have to acknowledge that at certain points it finds itself confronted with limits and resistances that are not resolvable into reason. (Material reality, especially in the form of the reasoner?s own body, constitutes such a limit, since human reason does not produce the body but recognizes its own causal origin and ground in it.) Nevertheless the fact remains that in order to count as genuinely rational limits, even these limits ? which reason fully knows it does not engender and therefore which it encounters as a kind of resistance to rational resolution ? must be limits that reason itself is able to recognize in some way as limits to its own rightful jurisdiction. Otherwise they will not be able to be authoritative limits for reason at all. In every case therefore ? even when oriented to limits, as in Kant or Aristotle ? reason will demand a rational traceability of its reasons in its intrinsic orientation to unity.

4. It is at this point that certain fundamental distinctions between the unifying requirements of reason and the discerning requirements of wisdom, as Ford envisions this, begin to emerge. For when we come to the discernment required by wisdom under the vigil of contingency (or also the discernment we witness under this vigil in the persons to whom we credit wisdom) we find that such a traceability of reasons within a rationally justifiable unity, whether epistemological or ethical, is precisely what is lacking . Consider, for example, an array of radically ?contingent? questions cited by Ford, which he calls some of ?the leading questions of our time?, questions which have been faced with especial severity of particularity and difficulty by Jean Vanier and the L?Arche communities, which are built around people with disabilities. These are questions relating, for instance, to the articulation of a unified ?international federal polity? for L?Arche ?that allows each region to have a full say and guards against the distortions and abuses of power?; questions about the handling of money in such a global federation, ?where there are great inequalities of wealth among the communities?; questions pertaining to the regulation and bureaucracy of developed countries, a bureaucracy which finds it difficult to accommodate such communities and which does not easily conform to their standards; questions as to the amount of energy which should be given to gaining political support for the disabled; questions pertaining to the handling of sexual relations in a residential community of unmarried people; questions of work and overwork, leisure and so on. [9] Now what is clearly evident here is that virtually none of these problems can be adequately addressed by what the practical and theoretical judgments of reason alone are capable of providing, nor do they avail themselves of the rational assurances which moral or cognitive justifications are able to deliver. They remain precisely questions which often require precarious and sometimes even risky decision-making, decisions which cannot take comfort in the securities provided by a neat traceability of reasons within a unified justificatory structure. And it precisely in their nature as such that they have required what we have come to recognize in the L?Arche communities over years and decades, as the wisdom of a kind of discernment that is not contained within what can be accounted for through purely rational criteria.

But here we must also immediately insert an important caveat. For although we are compelled to admit as such that the wisdom which we witness in the decision-making and actions of the L?Arche communities over years and decades is not a discernment which can be accounted for or secured entirely through the justificatory mechanisms of reason (whether practical or theoretical), we will nevertheless want to resist strongly any suggestion that such decisions have been made in an entirely unprincipled way, that is, in an entirely arbitrary, ad hoc or capricious way. For if it were entirely unprincipled, that would mean that the wisdom we credit to them is not something rooted in a genuine discern ment or in sight at all, and therefore that it is not genuinely a wisdom at all, but rather that the exemplariness which we find so honorable and desirable is really only the product of a string of good fortune or luck. And the question which now confronts us in a sharpened way therefore is the one with which we began. How can wisdom be principled and thus somehow normative commonly across all its expressions, if the discernment we witness in it is not fully explainable or held secure by the right judgment afforded by reason as a faculty of unity? In order to address this question, I want to return to an important aspect of Aquinas on wisdom, building on this in some ways and departing from it in others.

5. It is no accident that Thomas?s main discussions of wisdom come in his treatise on the ?virtues?. We have already distinguished above between, on the one hand, the naturally endowed powers of reason as the human faculty of judgment and, on the other, the excellences to which this natural power of faculty orients itself in its right operation, whether speculatively or practically. Now the ?virtues? as Thomas addresses them just are these ?excellences?. In their English translations, ?virtue? and ?excellence? are used interchangeably in both Aristotle and Aquinas, and it is in recognizing the essential equivalence of the terms that we can understand better how the speculative intellect can for both thinkers also be considered as ?virtuous?, that is, as it orients itself to the ?excellences? expressed in its ?first principles?. But our main concern here continues to be with the moral virtues or excellences and not with the speculative.

Now in order to understand the character and function of the virtues properly here, we must remember the twofold finding above that, (a) the speculative intellect is concerned with the right operation of the human cognitive capacities or powers ? i.e., the thinking and perceiving powers which thereby operate intrinsically in the relation of ? intention and reference ?; whereas (b) the practical intellect is concerned with the right operations of the human appetitive capacities or powers ? i.e., the desiring and motive powers which operate intrinsically in the relation of ? means and ends ?. The moral virtues, then, just are the excellences which perfect the intellect in its appetitive and motive exercise as such, just as what Aristotle and Aquinas call the speculative ?virtues? are the excellences which perfect the intellect in its cognitive exercise.

Moreover, just as the cognitive faculty for both thinkers has both an intellective and sensible (or empirical) component, [10] so also the appetitive faculty has both an intellective and a sensible component. The intellective component of the appetitive faculty or power is the will (the will just is the ?intellectual appetite? in Thomas?s words); and the sensible component of the appetitive faculty is found in the bodily passions . Now for Thomas, as we have seen, a virtue or an excellence is that which ?perfects? any power which human beings have. [11] And while there are a great many individual virtues, Aquinas, following Ambrose and Aristotle as well as scriptural sources, identifies four among these that are the ?cardinal virtues? ? two each for the intellective and sensible-passional components of the appetitive faculty. The two cardinal virtues perfecting the intellective component of the appetitive nature are prudence ( prudentia , i.e., ?practical wisdom?) and justice; and the two cardinal virtues perfecting the sensible-passional component are temperance and courage (or fortitude). All other virtues are seen as in one way or another sub-ordinate to these.

Firstly then, prudentia (?practical wisdom?) is deemed an ?intellectual? virtue for the appetitive faculty (and indeed the ?principal? virtue for this faculty as such) because it designates the very ?form? in which practical reasoning occurs ? i.e., it is the ?form? of reasoning concerned with the right ordering of means to rightly desired ends. Or better, it denotes simply the perfection of the practical exercise of reason as it operates ?rightly? according to its first principles, principles which are themselves defined by prudentia . (It will be noted that there is an evident and somewhat disconcerting circularity which begins to emerge here, and we will address this further below.) Secondly, justice, for Aquinas, is likewise found to be an intellectual virtue for the appetitive faculty inasmuch as its defining concern for ?due action between equals? can also be determined solely through the operations of the practical intellect without the aid of sensibility ? i.e., as something basic in the right relation of means to ends in the purely intellective consideration of an ?other?, apart from any sensible encounter with a real embodied human other in space and time.

When we come to the sensibly passional appetites however ? which by their origin in sensibility are deemed to be ?non-rational? ? a further distinction must be made, for these sensible appetites are seen as dividing further into two kinds. The one is what Thomas calls the ?concupiscible? appetites which, as the name suggests, designate passions whose basic character is that of a natural attraction , such as those experienced in the physical pleasures. The other is the ?irascible? appetite, by which is meant those passions whose basic character is that of a natural avoidance , such as pain or fear. And the virtues of temperance and courage are seen as the two cardinal excellences in the right ordering of all the sensibly passional appetites, whether irascible or concupiscible, with all other sensible virtues falling under the guidance of these.

6. But now we come to what will prove to be something pivotal for our own question of finding a ?principledness? for wisdom as discernment. For normally when we think of an excellence or a perfection of anything, we consider it in the sense of a destination of maximal magnification, or as the extreme or the ultimate point of any endeavor. But the excellence of the virtues, as anyone familiar with Aristotle will know, is of an importantly different character. The perfection sought in a virtue is not, for Aristotle, an excellence in the sense of an ?extreme?, but an excellence in the sense of a ?mean? or of an ?intermediate?. Courage, for example, is the mean or excellence between cowardice and rashness; temperance the mean or excellence between self-indulgence and insensibility, and so on with all the virtues. In all cases, the virtues or excellences are ?destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean?. [12]

Now if we look carefully at this particular characteristic of any virtue as the excellence of a ?mean?, we will find that in it we encounter an important opportunity for distinguishing between the ?discernment? exemplified in wisdom and the ?right judgment? which defines reason. The crucial point here, put simply, is this. The virtues or excellences do not serve as points of coherence or unity at all, as reason intrinsically demands this, but rather fundamentally as measures of discrimination or division , which is precisely to say as measures of ?discernment?. And before explaining this further, let me take the opportunity in this light to correct, in a certain way, what was actually an insufficiently precise differentiation made initially above between reason as the faculty of ?judgment? and wisdom as an exercise in ?discernment?. What can be said now more correctly is that both reason and wisdom can be seen as exercises in judgment, but with the crucial difference that the former is always a ?unifying judgment?, whereas the latter is a ?discerning judgment? or a dividing judgment. Again, this difference itself will still need to be made clearer, and as a preparation for that let me first bring Aristotle and Aquinas under a more critical scrutiny. For under such scrutiny it will emerge that although both writers in their treatment of the virtues do indeed provide the opportunity for locating a ?principledness? for wisdom in life now, neither of them follows through on it. And in fact in the end they go back to collapse the dividing mean back into the unity of reason after all.

We have already witnessed this explicitly above in the account of prudentia . For in the one direction, the excellence (i.e., prudentia ) to which the practical intellect strives is first simply defined in terms of the right operation of this use of reason with regard to its ?first principles?; and then in the other direction, the right operation of the practical intellect is conversely also simply defined by the excellence ( prudentia ) to which it must strive. And we can see a similar kind of rationally unifying circularity in the justifying account which is given for the sensible-passional virtues. It is true that both Aristotle and Aquinas acknowledge that the sensible virtues do not originate in reason but in sensible life. But the seeds of the subsumption of this back into the universalizing guarantees of rational self-justification are sown in the further identification of the sensible virtues (courage, temperance, fidelity, friendship and so on) essentially as empirical ?habits?. Let me explain this. The obvious question here would be to continue to ask more exactly about what is the actual source of these virtues in the sensible-passional life. What is it about the sensible-passional life that serves as something like an ?ontic? source which grounds these habits and authenticates them as sensible habits? But no such question is asked by either writer. And the reason that the sensible and contingent source remains essentially unproblematized is at least in part because there is still a sufficient residue of Platonism in both Aristotle and Aquinas to cause them to suppose that the authority even of the sensible-passional virtues cannot be held secure as ?genuine? virtues, except as they are brought back after all under the jurisdictions and self-guaranteeing protection of rational calculation, or under the unity of reason. And they do this again through what shows itself to be a fully circular and rationally self-guaranteeing form of reasoning.

In the one direction, the ?origin? of the virtue of courage or temperance? having been defined as a ?habit? ? is found solely in the cultivation of this habit through the practice of it. That is, the origin of the virtue is found only in the ?acquisition? of it through the ?practice? of the habit which the virtue is . But now likewise in the other direction, the ?practice? of the habit is itself made possible only through the acquisition and cultivation of it. [13] In every case therefore ? in prudence, justice, courage and temperance ? the integrity and authority of the cardinal virtues are held secure through forms of reasoning which justify themselves through a perfect and self-guaranteeing circle, and therefore a theoretical circle. In the case of prudence and justice it is a fully ?tautological circle? in that the explanation and justification of these as virtues is contained in their definition vis-?-vis practical reason analytically. In the case of the sensibly passional virtues it is a ?vicious circle? in that the exercise of the habits of courage and temperance requires their prior cultivation or acquisition, and the acquisition or cultivation of these habits or virtues requires their prior exercise.

7. But we should not be too severe in the critique of the Aristotelian-Thomistic models here, for they can be seen to have indeed provided something crucially important even for wisdom in Ford?s sense, in their emphasis on virtues as a mean, and an excellence as such a mean. And I want to suggest in that accommodating light that their reversion back into the unifying securities of reason rests on what we would recognize today, especially from Christian perspectives, as a kind of oversight in Aristotle, which Aquinas follows. The point is that both Aristotle and Aquinas effectively miss what Augustine, Luther, Kierkegaard, Barth and Bonhoeffer and others have understood to be a further ?power? or faculty with which human beings find themselves naturally endowed. This faculty is moral consciousness or ought-consciousness. And the root of the problem here for both Aristotle and Aquinas is that in their reasoning ?downward?, from the purity of the intellectual virtues of prudence and justice, they commit themselves to the strange position that moral consciousness itself effectively derives in some way from practical reason, as this use of reason orients itself ultimately to the rational ideal of ?the good?. Or at least there is the supposition that moral consciousness acquires its integrity and validity as ought-consciousness, only as this consciousness is secured in and by reason. But such a supposition in no way accords with the reality of human moral awareness. For I am aware of the consciousness of good and evil within myself no less immediately, constitutively and non-derivatively than I am immediately aware of the power to think in mental images, or the power to move in space, as originary or constitutive faculties or powers. Now the place we encounter the immediacy of ought-consciousness as moral consciousness most directly, of course, is in conscience . We do not encounter conscience within ourselves originally as something which emerges through careful deliberation on the first principles of pure practical reason ( prudentia ). We know conscience rather as that which condemns and commends immediately, on its own terms, and often precisely in a way that persists uncomfortably even in the face of the most elegant rationalizations.

We have no choice therefore but to say that moral consciousness confronts us with the immediacy of something like a law within us. It is a law, moreover, which speaks from within us, never as something unifying, but intrinsically and always as something dividing, that is, as something which always discriminates as it immediately either commends or condemns. Moral consciousness is therefore a third human faculty or power beyond Aristotle?s two, inasmuch as it does not itself derive from a rational ?the right ordering of desires?, but in fact already stands in immediate judgment of many desires without the aid of rational reflection, condemning some as vices and commending others as virtuous. Nevertheless, just as we have seen above that the faculty of thinking is not yet rightly principled or rational merely by virtue of its being ?mental?, but that it requires the judgment of reason to come to its principledness: so also the faculty of moral consciousness, which we encounter as something like a dividing law within us, needs a principledness which can guide it. We can see this clearly again in conscience. For although we experience conscience as one of the most immediate signs of moral consciousness, we recognize just as well that it by no means yet carries within it the kind of principled guidance or discernment which is able to address difficult decision-making in the complexities of life.

But the essential point here is that it is above all our moral consciousness? and not most fundamentally our appetitive or cognitive consciousness ? which in its search for guidance cries out for the discernment of wisdom, a discernment which no amount of speculative reason (for cognitive consciousness) or practical reason (for appetitive consciousness), for all the importance and necessity of these, can provide. But where then do we look for such discerning guidance if not fundamentally to practical reason? In answering this question, one could really do no better than to point directly back to Ford?s Christian Wisdom and repeat a great deal of what is said there. For the discernment that moral consciousness or the human heart cries out for is answered there precisely with a wisdom which ?is inextricably involved with the discernment of [such] cries?. [14] Nevertheless, for the ?systematic? or ?critical? task at hand, I want in conclusion to risk something else briefly, something which moves in an entirely different direction, and which may initially appear to be somewhat dissonant with what Ford is doing, but which will show itself in the end to conform to it.

I want to suggest that something important can be gained for a ?critical? or ?constructive? questioning of wisdom through a certain kind of attentiveness to law .

8. We have above spoken of moral consciousness as confronting us with the immediacy of something like a law within us; a law more, moreover, which most fundamentally divides as it condemns and commends, and therefore of the inability of reason as a faculty of unity to engage adequately with its demands.

Now the scriptures themselves reveal something vital about this ?dividing? moral consciousness, something that no epistemology or ethics could ever do. Indeed the scriptures single out this consciousness especially, by giving it a particular name. In order to amplify this properly, let me approach it briefly through the narrative in Genesis 2 and 3. It will be fully clear to begin with that moral consciousness just is the consciousness of good and evil or knowledge of good and evil. And as we know from the Genesis narrative, it is this consciousness of good and evil (i.e., moral consciousness) which is precisely the ?mark? within us of the fall away from God into sin. In other words, the fall away from God into sin ? that is, the fall into the knowledge of good and evil ? is nothing less than a fall into moral consciousness, which is to say a fall into a state within which human beings have become a law unto themselves. It is for this reason that the scriptures call or name this moral law within us ?the law of sin and death? (Rom. 8.2). The ?law of sin and death? in other words is not of course, as it is sometimes treated, the Mosaic law ? which is itself ?holy, righteous and good? (Rom. 7.12) ? but rather the moral law within us, by which we have become a law unto ourselves. But a further vital point must now also be recognized. For although the consciousness of good and evil, into which human beings have fallen, is through that falling away indeed a reality at the very heart of human existence and self-awareness: nevertheless, as Romans 5 makes clear, it is impossible for human beings by themselves to be conscious of this reality. Or as Romans puts it directly, although sin really, ?ontically?, reigned from Adam to Moses, nevertheless it was not recognized as such, or it was ?not taken into account? (Rom. 5.12-14). And as Romans also states, it is only in the revelation of the divine law in Moses that the reality of being in sin ? i.e., of being a law unto themselves ? first becomes consciously ?visible? to human beings. For it is ?through the law [that] we become conscious of sin? (Rom 3.20).

It is in this light then that I want to suggest that not only Jewish but also Christian attentiveness to the discernment desired in wisdom must at some point ? when placed under the scrutiny of critical reflection ? come to be focused through the divine law, through the command. For even ?the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus? is not the annulment of the Mosaic law but its fulfillment, and indeed as this fulfillment, a kind of radicalization of the law, as Matthew 5-7 makes clear. But let me quickly add here that I am of course not going to be suggesting that we should turn to anything liken ethical ?divine command theory? for the principled guidance we seek in wisdom. Far from this, it is the divine law itself which stands in an ultimate discerning judgment of the pretensions of any such theories to be able to provide the wisdom for which the human heart in its moral consciousness cries out.

Now there is one command which for both Christians and Jews stands at the head of all other commands, a command apart from which none of the other commands are apprehended genuinely as divine law, and apart from which they will become only a human legalism. This is the command expressed in the Jewish Shema , and which Jesus also identifies as the command on which ?all the law and the prophets hang?: ?You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might? (Deut. 6.4). Now it is precisely this command which Ford also makes entirely indispensable for any ?principledness? in Christian wisdom, i.e., in the fundamental centrality he gives to the command that ? God is to be loved for God?s sake ?. [15] And it is this command as such which is also at the heart of what he envisions in the earlier work as the normativity of ?love?s congruence? for wisdom.

But now what exactly does wisdom?s declaration in the form of law achieve in the way of such a congruence? Let me address this indirectly by returning again to something similar, yet also different, which takes place in Aquinas. Aquinas also gives full primacy to love in these matters, making it the highest possible aspiration of the human ?appetitive? faculty in the will, or in the practical intellect. Indeed, love for Aquinas stands as the greatest even among the trio of what he calls the ?theological virtues? ? faith, hope, and love ? which are all divinely ?infused virtues?. Thus, in the theological virtue of faith , ?man receives [in his ?intellect?] certain supernatural principles, which are held by means of a Divine light?; and in hope ?the will is directed to this end [i.e., to the Divine light] as something attainable? by faith; and in love ?the will is?transformed into that end? (into the Divine light) in ?a certain spiritual union?, by which it attains to a ?supernatural happiness?. [16] But now it is crucial to recognize that throughout this discourse, what even these theological virtues most essentially still ?correct? and ?perfect?, in the wisdom or excellence they convey, is reason , whether practical or speculative. And the perfection and excellence aspired to here therefore, despite the great beauty of its formulation in Aquinas, remains something which critical reflection must always in the end approach as a kind of ideal, which as an ideal remains remote and distant to real life.

But the love expressed by way of the command does not declare itself in this way. It does not declare itself in the remoteness of a presently unreachable supernatural ideal of happiness in the regions of a pure sublimity and perfection. It declares itself in the command rather directly into the deepest depths of that which every particular human being knows herself or himself to be in the knowledge of good and evil. That is, it addresses itself by the command not to the excellence of an ideal perfection, but precisely to the depths of the imperfection into which humans have fallen away from God and have become a law unto themselves. This, for Christian wisdom, is the beginning of discernment. For it is through the law ? in which the command to love God for God?s sake stands at the head ? that we become conscious of sin. That is, we become conscious that the law which we are unto ourselves stands under the discerning judgment of another law ? the law of grace. And this is in turn also the heart of both the universality and the deep particularity of its wisdom, or of both the ?normativity? and the ?fierce contingency? of its discernment. For again, the command to ?love God for God?s sake? declares itself not in the ?likeness of a supernatural perfection?, which must always be in the remoteness of a distant ideal, but rather in the nearness that is immediate to every human heart ? i.e., ?in the likeness of sinful flesh? (Rom 8.3). Or as Deuteronomy also echoes this likeness and nearness exactly, in speaking expressly also of the same ?great commandment?: ?this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say ?who will go up into heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say ?Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear and observe it?? No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe? (Deut. 30. 11-24).


[1] A Long Rumour of Wisdom: Redescribing Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), hereafter LRW.

[2] LRW, pp. 11, 24.

[3] David F. Ford, Christian Wisdom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), hereafter CW.

[4] CW, p. 52.

[5] Nichomachean Ethics , Book VI.5.24-25, hereafter NE.

[6] LRW, p. 21.

[7] See e.g., Aristotle, On the Soul, Book III.3 and III.9.

[8] See e.g., Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason , A680/B708.

[9] CW, p. 352.

[10] ? and most of our cognitive or thinking activity will indeed be concerned with things we encounter in sense perception, although some thinking can also be the speculative intellect reflecting purely on itself and its principles, through which we come to speculative ?wisdom? in Aristotle and Aquinas.

[11] Summa Theologica , I-II, Q 56, A 1.

[12] NE, Book II.2.20-25; II.7.9-10

[13] See NE, Book II.5.33-38.

[14] CW, p. 14.

[15] CW, p. 225 and 225-272 passim , original emphasis.

[16] ST, I-II, Q.62, A.3.