Listers, the distinction between knowledge and wisdom is a simple one, but one that can have a profound effect upon those who practice it. It is the principle that should govern Catholic education, and the foundation upon which the Liberal Arts were composed. Whether it is the ancient tomes of the great St. Thomas Aquinas or in how we live our daily lives, the subtle distinction makes all the difference.
1. What is the Difference Between Knowledge & Wisdom?
The answer is simple: order. According to St. Augustine, “order is the appropriate disposition of things equal and unequal, by giving each its proper place.”1 Wisdom is knowledge that has been properly ordered.
2. What Does it Mean to Have “Ordered Knowledge”?
Imagine the construction of a house. There is a plumber to handle the plumbing and a carpenter for the carpentry. And though these two arts are distinct, the two artisans must work together. Even if both workers excel within their own field, the overall order of the home will suffer if they are not in harmony.2
However, neither plumbing nor carpentry can speak to how the home must be built as a whole. What is needed is a higher principle that can order both plumbing and carpentry to the proper goal of building a home. The principle is architecture; therefore, while the plumber and the carpenter may be wise concerning the principles of their respective arts, it is the architect who is wise concerning the order of the house. He is the wisest concerning the house, because his wisdom orders the lower principles according to the higher. In his own words, St. Thomas Aquinas states, “For since it is the part of a wise man to arrange and to judge, and since lesser matters should be judged in the light of some higher principle, he is said to be wise in any one order who considers the highest principle in that order.”3
3. How Do the Wise Order Knowledge?
The knowledge of the wise man is assimilated and ordered according to highest principles or rather to the highest causes. The wise man focuses on the whole, and does not over-inflate or isolate any one subject or principle. True, no man can grasp the “whole of knowledge;” thus, the wise man begins to understand the whole by its parts. Like a mechanic on an engine who studies the individual components to gain knowledge of the whole, and in grasping the whole concept of the engine, understands the higher principle that governs all the individual parts.
The office seeks to understand how the lower things are related to the highest things. Understanding the highest principle of a subject does not automatically import knowledge of the lower principles; thus, the wise man studies the lower and higher causes, and orders them accordingly. The ability to order knowledge correctly is the work of the ability of “right reason,” i.e., the virtue of prudence.
4. What is Wisdom within Education?
Let us consider the common ground of architecture and music. Their commonality is found in mathematical principles. Yet, how should we articulate this relationship? St. Thomas teaches “there are some [sciences (ordered bodies of knowledge)] which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of the intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry, and the like.” However, other sciences are not known in this manner, but “proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science.” Mathematics would then be the higher science from which both architecture and music draw their principles. Simply speaking, arithmetic is the study of number. Geometry would be the study of number in place. Music would then be the study of number in time, while the science of astronomy would be the study of number in place and time. In this hierarchal understanding, a natural order of education takes a definitive shape.4
The wise do not place order upon knowledge, they discern the order that is naturally within knowledge. Knowledge contains a natural hierarchy. To train and raise children in wisdom, education cannot be a system of isolated subjects; rather, education should be the installation of wisdom within the student by having them move through an ordered collection of sciences that correspond in principle. As stated, the student would first study basic arithmetic and then takes those principles into geometry, and so forth. Similar principled movements of education – Latin, Music, Philosophy, Theology, etc. – compose what was originally entitled the “Liberal Arts.”
In our current modern and post-Baconian world, we generally see the value of something in its function. Why? Modernity has trained individuals to place value on what is most useful or practical, and to devalue that which is not immediately practical. Education has ceased to be a movement of individuals through a sapiential liberal arts, and has become an industry aimed at training individuals for practical and economic purposes. Modern man values a thing very little past its immediate functionality. In this, the true highest principles within the sapiential order – theology then philosophy – have been replaced by economic training. The character and wisdom of individuals is left unformed; thus, we produce students to function in an economy who have only segmented and broken theories on how to live and live well. It becomes even more dire when considering these students – who have no virtue training (ordered actions) – are asked to be citizens, to vote, and to sit on juries.
5. What is Wisdom within Theology?
Theology – more properly the Sacred Doctrine of the Catholic Church – is not a power-based system valuing function over all else. Sacred Doctrine is the Queen of the Sciences, she is the highest principled science that governs all others.
The highest cause, the Uncaused Cause, the cause the universe and its order, is God. Theology is the architectonic study that is most properly wisdom, because the “knowledge of divine things” sheds light on the appropriate order of all other things. Now, let us be clear. God is not only known through his self-revelation in Jesus Christ and in Scripture, but also in the imprint of the Creator upon Creation. Hence, the Catholic Church finds herself guarding and elucidating both Sacred Scripture and Nature. Certain truths, like the Trinity or the Incarnation of Jesus Christ had to be revealed to us, because they are above human wisdom. Other truths, such as the natural virtues, were discernable by human reason. These revealed and discerned truths are guaranteed by Christ and His Church and compose the Sacred Doctrine that orders all things and is rightly called the Queen of the Sciences.5