Dante’s Commedia draws on the tradition of the seven virtues, four “natural” (justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude) and three “theological” (faith, hope, love). This distinction provides the structure of Paradiso, in which Dante ascends through spheres of defective virtue and the four spheres of the natural virtues into the sphere of the fixed stars, where Peter, James, and John catechize him in the theological virtues. Exceptional pagans can achieve natural virtue, but, with very few exceptions, the habits of faith, hope, and love are beyond their capacity. Dante’s use of this scheme can leave the impression that theological virtues and knowledge are supernatural frosting on the cake of nature and reason.
One of the arresting achievements of Stephen R. L. Clark’s 1982 Gifford Lectures, republished earlier this year in From Athens to Jerusalem (Angelico Press), is to show the theological is natural. Clark inverts the common picture to demonstrate how reason, knowledge, and virtue are founded on faith, hope, and love.
Reason, Clark insists, is rooted in faith. He argues as follows: Relativists, skeptics, and pragmatists claim we can’t reach “Truth-in-fact.” We can never know what is actually the case. Some say we don’t need to. Such denials are self-refuting. Is “truth is relative” a relative truth? Can we know that “we cannot know”? Should we accept “truth is what works” only because it works? We cannot avoid the question, “Are these claims truth-in-fact?” Insofar as they dodge that question, relativism, skepticism, and pragmatism don’t solve the problem of knowledge. On the contrary, they abandon the quest for knowledge. They’re epistemologies of despair.
To reason at all, we need assurance that we can know Truth-in-fact, but where does that assurance come from? It isn’t an axiom of logic or an inference from experience. Clark concludes thought can’t get off the ground unless we “believe that if we seek the truth in accordance with certain standing assumptions about probability, about what sort of world this is, we shall be rewarded.” Rational inquiry depends on faith that the world is susceptible to rational inquiry. To be reasonable, reason must be founded on something other than reason.
Concern for the world is a function of love. Clark finds inspiration in Franciscan spirituality, which “is founded . . . on a strong awareness of the inwardness of things.” Franciscans aren’t practical in that they don’t look for ways to bend the world to their own purposes. Their delight in creation is like falling in love. “The love experienced for all created things,” Clark suggests, “even in their weak and fallen state, even when the broken reflections of the glory cannot now be pieced together, is the only sure basis from which to care for the world.”
Like faith, hope is an essential epistemological virtue. In the words of C. S. Peirce, “the only assumption on which (the scientist) can act rationally is the hope of success” in his explorations of the logos of things. Scientists and mathematicians often follow the lure of beauty, motivated by a Keatsian expectation that beauty is truth, and truth beauty. Scientific progress hinges on hope that creation will be found to reflect the convergence of transcendentals found in the Creator.
We need hope to seek the full truth of things. As J. C. Powys said, our world resounds with “the scream of the victim in the hands of the police . . . the starvation-groan of the famished . . . the weeping of the lynched . . . the howl of the executed . . . the inert despair of the jobless.” We flinch and look away. We anesthetize ourselves with 24/7 diversions. We embrace the comforting evasions of Panglossian philosophers like Spinoza or Marcus Aurelius.
We can’t know the truth if we’re deaf to the world’s anguished shrieks, if we avert our gaze from the charnel house. But can we bear so much reality? Not, Clark argues, without hope that evils will be repaired or redeemed. Given our own capacity for evil, moreover, our hope must be directed outside ourselves. We must, Clark says, “devise some story which will make it possible to believe in a God both almighty and well-meaning, because our faith is vain if He does not play fair.” We’re on the road to saintliness when we’re gripped by “hope that the evils of the world can be, will be, remedied.” The force of Clark’s argument is more general: We embark on the road of sanity only when we walk in hope. Hope is the source of natural virtue.
Bereft of hope, we can’t bear to look, and if all our projects end in tragedy or pathos, we can’t bear to act. Hope thus modulates from an epistemological to a moral to a theopolitical virtue. Hope isn’t merely that things will be put right at some distant last day. We act as we pray, confident God’s name will be hallowed, his will done, and his kingdom come on earth as in heaven. In our tumultuous times, this is the virtue we most need: absolute confidence in the One who speaks, in the cross and the empty tomb, “Behold, I make all things new.”
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.