The Pythagorean Temptation


In his Degrees of Knowledge, Jacques Maritain argues that one central fault of the modern mind has been its propensity to think of mathematics rather than metaphysics as first philosophy. If we take number for the foundation of all things, then we deprive ourselves of the capacity to think of being; we truncate reality, and fail to see the elegant assent the human mind can make from the immediacy of sense experience, by way of abstraction, to the conception of being and, at last, – by the grace of God — to the immediate experience of Being. Too assiduous a delight in the quantitative may conceal our intellectual natures from us, and disfigure our lives. And yet, from Galileo through the contemporary Physicist, number has seemed to be something like the language of God (a phrase sometimes used to describe DNA, but that utterly misunderstands what DNA actually tells us about reality, as if God only spoke living things into being). As someone concerned with the way in which art, and poetry in particular, reveals being to us, the way in which it clarifies the vision and initiates us into a richer way of dwelling in the Real, I have always appreciated the admonitions of Maritain and others who would draw us, with St. Thomas Aquinas, to think being first, last, and always.

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