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From “Credo” to “intelligam” or “dubito” to “cogito”

Two of the most important things ever said about education were expressed in two little latin phrases:

Credo ut intelligam

and

Cogito, ergo sum

The first was said by St. Augustine and it means “I believe in order that I might understand.” The second was said by Descartes and it means, “I think, therefore I am.”

These two statements offer us the two alternatives on which we can ground our thought and our teaching. To make that clearer, let me add that Descartes’ statement was the end of an intellectual experiment that began with the declaration, “I resolved to begin with doubt.” Augustine began with “credo” (I believe), Descartes with “dubito” (I doubt).

St. Augustine and Rene Descartes were both looking for a practical, workable ground on which to build a rationally satisfying view of reality. After years of reflection and questioning, St. Augustine recognized the obvious and admitted: before I can understand anything, I have to believe something. I am not sufficient to the task on my own.

Reason guides every humble thinker to this obvious beginning.

On the other hand, Descartes was full of intellectual fear and anxiety. While St. Augustine wrote when western Europe was transitioning from Pagan to Christian foundations for thought, Descartes was writing when western Europe was looking for an alternative to Scholastic Christian thought. He didn’t think the “old” ideas worked in the “new” world.

Each wrote at what might be called inflection points in intellectual history. Augustine at the disintegration of western Rome. Descartes at the disintegration of western Roman Catholicism.

Augustine recognized that the foundation of rational is faith. Descartes wanted to challenge everything, so he tried to lay a new foundation for thought in doubt. He wanted to move from “dubito” to “cogito” so he could be more certain.

When Augustine went through a similar process of questioning everything he came to a subtly but staggeringly different conclusion. Descartes concluded, “I think, therefore I am.” Augustine concluded, “No matter what else I might doubt, I cannot deny that truth is.”

For Augustine, truth was the foundation. For Descartes, his being was the foundation.

(I am not sure I am ultimately satisfied with either approach. Both have too much confidence in the workings of the conscious mind and its ability to process information. But at least St. Augustine’s is practicable.)

Descartes’ turn to doubt is a turn to the authority of his own mind based on the perception that because he thinks he is. Noticing that he thinks, he makes his thought ultimate. So doing, he eliminates the possibility of a community rooted in truth and informed by the wise. He exalts the questioner and analyst (practically speaking, this means he exalts himself) over the perceiver and lover.

When the blessed Augustine acknowledged the need for those who wish to understand to begin with faith, he was not enumerating a great new discovery for thought. He was acknowledging the obvious: that all of us are limited and exist within communities, that we can’t get anywhere without faith.

Believing, then, is not the end point of thought, but the necessary starting point. The empiricist becomes an empiricist not because he concludes from experience that empiricism is the best way to go, but because he learned the tools and practices of empiricism during his formative years. He trusted those who taught him. The same is true for every school of thought.

It astounds me, for example, how much nihilists and existentialists live by faith in the writings of Nietzsche and Camus.

We all want to understand, so we all believe. We approach reality with beliefs that enable us to see it. We are not bound by that belief set. If we find it doesn’t correspond to what we experience of reality, we can change it. But we can only change it for a new set of beliefs.

Conscious beliefs are models that our minds create or adopt to figure out the world. Some models correspond well and some don’t. Models that correspond really, really well help us to think wisely.

Teaching presents models to students so they can see through the models to the reality behind them. We have to be sure that we remember that there is a Truth that is greater than our models.

Descartes wanted to destroy every model and start from scratch. It was an interesting thought experiment. Regretably, many people followed his critical theory uncritically and believed him blindly.

You can choose your foundation for thought: recognize that you can’t understand without first believing or insist that you can know based entirely on your own powers. Choose which tradition you want to follow.

In one case you recognize your limits and dependence. In the other, you declare your own infinitude and lead yourself into cynicism, error, and meaninglessness.

You are and must be part of a tradition. You cannot think without faith so confess with Augustine: “Credo ut intelligam”: I believe so that I might understand. You’ll be impressed by how it affects your teaching and your ability to learn.

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