Appeared in Spring/Summer 1996, Vol. XXII, Nos. 1, 2 Download PDF here
Notice how aptly contemplating is compared with playing, and because of two characteristics. First, play is delightful, and the contemplation of wisdom brings the greatest joy; my spirit is above honey. Second, sports are not means to ends but are sought for their own sake, so also are the delights of wisdom .. .. Divine wisdom compares its joy with play; I was delighted every day, playing before him at all times; and suggests many gazings on a variety of truths.1
As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, play by nature belongs to a category of goods that are pursued for their own sake, as ends in themselves rather than as means to an end. Inherently meaningful and delightful activities such as play or contemplation are free or “liberal” in the sense that they serve no other immediate purpose or utilitarian goal beyond the natural enjoyment that accompanies these pursuits. They occur during leisure or “free” time when one is relieved of the necessity of servile tasks-the work required to keep the body healthy and alive by providing basic needs such as food, fuel, shelter, and clothing. In other words, we work in order to play; the end of the active life is the contemplative life; the servile arts care for the physical health and well-being of humans so that their spirits, minds, and hearts are free to delight in liberal activities such as play and wisdom, friendship and love, beauty and sports.
In a certain sense, then, play and wisdom-like friendship, love, and beauty-appear to be useless. There are no tangible, practical, material results that can be measured in terms of the “fruits” associated with the Baconian philosophy of power and progress. However, as Cardinal Newman explains in The Idea of a University, good things or liberal ideals pursued for their own sake are always ultimately useful though there is no conscious, deliberate aim at utilitarian practicality:
… though the useful is not always good, the good is always useful. Good is not only good, but reproductive of good; this is one of its attributes; nothing is excellent, beautiful, perfect, desirable for its own sake, but it overflows, and spreads the likeness of itself all around it. Good is prolific; … it not only attracts us, but it communicates itself ….A great good will impart great good.2
Children play for the sheer joy and fun of it-not because it is advised by doctors, teachers, or parents to benefit their physical health and improve their social behavior. Yet play as an inherent good valued for its own sake overflows with untold blessings: a healthy body, a lively spirit, a creative imagination, deep friendship, and a love for life all flow from the “reproductive,” diffusive aspect of the good that follows from play.
Like play and wisdom, a liberal arts education is a natural, intrinsic good to be cherished for its own sake. “All men by nature have a desire for knowledge,” Aristotle said in his famous statement from The Metaphysics, indicating that the contemplation of truth is the “noblest” of activities and the philosopher the “happiest” of mortals-the pleasure of knowing its own raison d’etre. Philosophy, which means love of wisdom, conveys the idea that knowledge is attractive and beautiful and desirable for its own sake. Hence, as in the Book of Proverbs, wisdom is personified as a lovely woman who is to be courted and won as a prize more precious than rubies: “and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it.” And in Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, Lady Philosophy-wisdom personified-is described as eternally young and radiant: “a woman of majestic countenance whose flashing eyes seemed wise beyond the ordinary wisdom of men.”3 Will Durant, in The Mansions of Philosophy, underscores the relationship between play, love, and wisdom when he remarks that the older person’s love of wisdom can be as magical and adventuresome as a child’s sense of play and as romantic and rapturous as a young man’s attraction for a woman.
A child’s sense of play, then, is introductory and preparatory to other higher liberal activities: playing for the sheer love of the sport is like doing good for the purest of reasons, virtue as its own reward; playing for fun is like appreciating beauty as something wonderful and glorious in itself; playing for the joy of it is like loving the truth for the happiness it brings. The sublime, eternal realities of the good, the beautiful, and the true – the highest objects of human thought, known as the transcendentals in Thomistic philosophy—comprise the essential subject matter of a liberal arts education, a knowledge of first principles, final causes, universal truths, and eternal realities that play in its various forms initiates. In Dante’s Divine Comedy something as great as the beatific vision grows out of something as basic as the “play” of loving good things for their own sake and pursuing liberal activities as ends in themselves. With a child’s fresh wonder at the miraculous goodness at the world around him as he receives love from all the blessed souls in heaven, with a lover’s sensitivity to the beauty of Beatrice’s eyes and the music of the spheres, and with a philosopher’s desire to know first principles and final causes, Dante’s journey to the Paradiso provides him a liberal arts education that leads him to contemplate the mind and art of God in the order and unity of creation: “the love which turns the sun and the other stars.”