Aristotle tells us that, to knowledge, there is its own pleasure. Though we have perhaps experienced the pleasure of knowledge, we seldom reflect on its significance. Indeed, Aristotle tells us that not to experience the pleasure that comes from knowing is itself rather a dangerous thing. Since the pleasure of a thing is indicative of the worthiness of a thing, to miss the delight of intellect is usually to miss the delight of knowing. The one who lacks this latter, Aristotelian thought, will usually go off into rather disordered pleasures, or pleasures separated from the proper activities in which they should exist.

G.K. Chesterton says someplace that we should memorize great poetry before we know what it means so that once we have enough experience of life to understand it, we will already have the exalted words that poets have used to express it. In the age before books or computers, the only way for us to retain something written by someone else was to commit it to memory. We can memorize words that we do not know, especially if they sound good, but still not know that these same words contain profound things that we would love to know.

When I read – and reread – Aristotle, I always find something about which I had not reflected enough before. I know that a given passage in question was worth thinking about, for I had underlined it in my previous readings. This spring, for example, upon rereading Aristotle, I came across the following passage from Book VII of the “Ethics,” on the intellectual virtues, on the truth of things:

“Saying the words that come from knowledge is no sign of having it. For people affected to these ways [i.e., having the words] even recite demonstrations and verses of Empedocles. Further, those who have just learned something do not yet know it, though they string the words together, for it must grow into them, and this needs time” (1147a19-23).

Thus, I can say or recite the words of a poem, or a proof in geometry, or a passage in Aquinas without knowing what it means. The point is not that it is a bad thing to know words without understanding. It may be a very good thing, as Chesterton implied in memorizing a poem before we fully grasp its meaning. It is wonderful to have the “verses of Empedocles” or the lines of Sophocles or Shakespeare in our memory. That is its own art.

But Aristotle goes on to his main point – that when we just learn something, the words or the demonstration, “we do not yet know it.” We do “string the words together.” Still we must “grow into them.” This takes time and experience. Many things exist outside of us that we do not see until we are inside and ready to see them. The inner formation of our souls is itself a requirement for us before we see the depths of the reality that we confront every day. And every day we encounter realities that are worth knowing, only we do not have the time or the wit to see what is there, to see what is.

The penalty for not caring for our souls is not knowing reality, especially the reality of those we would know and love.

I clipped out a “Classic Peanuts” the other day. In one long strip, Charlie Brown, Linus and Lucy are on the floor, each with a coloring book, each with boxes of crayons, many of which are scattered on the floor. With a concerned look, Charlie reads out loud from a newspaper: “It says here that the average child wears down 730 crayons before he or she is 10 years old.” Snoopy sits next to Charlie but looks at Linus, who is lying on his stomach, intently coloring. Charlie continues, with a fine piece of pop sociology, “And that coloring promotes understanding and brings children closer together.”

At this point, testing the theory, Linus asks, “What color should I make the sky?” Meantime, Lucy has her back to both of them. Without looking up from her own coloring, she replies, “Blue, you blockhead!”

Such is the worth of the notion that coloring with crayons promotes understanding and brings children together.

What’s this got to do with memorizing the “verses of Empedocles,” or reciting words before knowing what they mean, or with intellectual pleasure? Just this: It is a pure intellectual pleasure to see precisely why Lucy’s response about the sky being “blue” – which it is – is funny. If you don’t get it, it “ain’t” funny. You don’t laugh because you don’t see the point. Seeing the point and making proper distinctions are what philosophy is all about. Even in comic strips.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. is a professor of government. He can be reached at schalljgeorgetown.edu. As This Jesuit Sees It … appears every other Friday.

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