The Effort of Effortless Knowledge

Frequently, to illustrate how human beings are or how they act, Thomas Aquinas juxtaposes the human with the angelic.  Specifically, when talking about why human knowledge is seemingly so complex, he makes this keen point: the more perfect a being is in its nature, the fewer actions it needs to achieve its final perfection; and the less perfect it is, the more actions it needs.  While an angel, proportionally according to its choir, does not have to expend much effort in order to attain its knowledge, the human being—which is an intellectual substance, but the very lowest and least perfect of all intellectual substances, existing naturally in a body—has to expend quite a lot of effort.

This expenditure of effort is not quite the same thing as “work”, but I’ll come back around to that.

Nevertheless, the fact that we have to exert ourselves in order to know does not mean that knowledge is the product of that effort.  The etymology, here, is illuminating.  “Product” is from the Latin preposition pro-, meaning “forth-“, and the verb ducere, meaning “to lead”.[1]  What is “led forth” is what is made-out-of, as the chair is produced from wood by the carpenter, or the burger is made from beef by the chef (and the butcher).  But our efforts to arrive at knowledge are not pro-­ducing anything.  A secondary process produces signs of knowledge (any instructional, educational, informative material, like books or this document); but these signs not the knowledge itself.

That is: we have a bad tendency, instilled by four hundred years of bad philosophy, of thinking about knowledge as something we possess, something which is internal to us.  “He has great knowledge of…” “She possesses a wealth of knowledge about…”  This isn’t entirely false, but it is certainly misleading.  I do not store knowledge in my mind (let alone in my brain), nor in my soul, like some library of truths or facts.  We are not computers storing files.

Notice something in the above examples: “knowledge about”, “knowledge of”.  Knowledge is relational; it is “of” or “about” something (for all prepositions indicate relations).  The Medieval philosophers refer to this property of knowledge as intentionality: which is to say, “it exists as towards something other than itself”.  Consider: when I say, “I have a knowledge of dogs”, what does this mean?  That I know something about what dogs are; which is a truth (“what dogs are”) independent of myself.  When we say someone has knowledge of or about something, we are saying that they have a real connection to a truth greater than what the individual possesses.

Connections or relations of this sort are never produced, but rather established.  That is (bear with the abstract terminology a moment): given an object which is disposed to be known and a knower disposed to know, and each being exposed to the other, the relation comes into existence.  It is not made out of anything but springs into existence from the fittingness of a knower to know and of a known to be known.  Where we expend effort is in making the known knowable, and in making ourselves capable of knowing.

To put this in concrete examples: there are two animals before me.  I know, from prior experience, something of what an animal is, but I am having a hard time telling what these are.  They’re both small, about 10lbs, overgrown with dirty hair, and neither is making much noise.   They could be large cats or small dogs; or something else.  To discover this, I must investigate—expending effort—by cleaning, shearing, or otherwise trying to make identifiable the creatures.  This is effort spent disposing the object to be knowable.  Through such an effort of disposing the object, I discover that one is a dog—very good, I already know what a dog is, so now that relationship of knowledge, already existing in what we call a proximate potentiality, springs into a particularized, actual existence; i.e., I now actually know this is a dog.

The other, even cleaned and shorn, remains a mystery, because although the creature has been disposed to become known, I myself am not capable of knowing what it is; I lack any previous experience which would inform me.  So, I do a bit of research or contact an animal expert and learn that it’s a coypu (which is a large, invasive, rat-like rodent).  This effort disposes myself to know, so that the relationship between myself (the knower) and the coypu (the known) can be established.  Now if I come across another, I’ll know what it is, having established a relation not only to the particular individual object, but to the truth of its nature.

In other words, we have expended effort to connect ourselves to the intelligible meaning of something entirely independent of us.  That meaning—what we know—was already there to be discovered.

The informing of the knower by its relationship to the known is what Josef Pieper intends in his Leisure: the Basis of Culture when he says (1947: p.28) that:

The Greeks—Aristotle no less than Plato, as well as the great medieval thinkers, held that not only physical, sensuous perception, but equally man’s spiritual and intellectual knowledge, included an element of pure, receptive contemplation, or as Heraclitus says, of “listening to the essence of things.

The Middle Ages drew a distinction between the understanding as ratio and the understanding as intellectusRatio is the power of discursive, logical thought, of searching and of examination, of abstraction, of definition and drawing conclusions [i.e., the effort we expend to dispose ourselves and, through bodily actions, objects, for establishing relationships of knowledge].  Intellectus, on the other hand, is the name for the understanding in so far as it is the capacity of simplex intuitus, of that simple vision to which truth offers itself like a landscape to the eye [i.e., the capacity for attaining and subsequently maintaining a relationship between oneself as a knower and a truth as a known].  The faculty of mind, man’s knowledge, is both these things in one, according to antiquity and the Middle Ages, simultaneously ratio and intellectus; and the process of knowing is the action of the two together.  The mode of discursive thought is accompanied and impregnated by an effortless awareness, the contemplative vision of the intellectus, which is not active but passive, or rather receptive, the activity of the soul in which it conceives that which it sees.

Josef Pieper (1904-1997)

In other words: we go through an effort to be able to know.  But the act of knowing itself, the intellectual vision whereby we contemplate the truth of the object, is effortless.  Contemplation is no struggle.  Evading the interruptions of bodily-life—we are, as T.S. Eliot put it, distracted from distraction by distraction—is, however, a real struggle.

What differentiates this struggle from that of “work”, however, is that work is for the sake of the practical and earthly good; we work for money, food, networking, pleasure, or whatever else might belong to the context of useRatio, contrariwise—the discursive reasoning process whereby we dispose ourselves and our objects for intellectus—is itself ultimately for the sake of that effortless knowledge.  A great mistake of late modern philosophy (18th c. & following) was the subordination of discursive reasoning to the practical good rather than to the contemplation of truth, an attitude which is so ubiquitous in our culture and lives that we are seldom even aware of it.

Consider: looking around you, how many things are products?  They are for practical purposes—our kitchen utensils, computers, phones, desks, tables, chairs, televisions, shelves, carpeting, etc., etc.  Our environments are practical-oriented.  The few exceptions: some books, family, pets, religious symbols, and what little of living nature we might glimpse through our windows.

The challenge: choose something terrestrial (e.g., life, trees, animals, babies) of which you have knowledge and attempt to understand it not through a process of ratio but an act of intellectus.  That is, don’t try to “figure it out” or investigate it further, categorize it, analyze it, dissect it, compare it to other things, analogize, but be quiet and try to listen to what that truth is telling you.

[1] Ducere is a prominent root in English: induce, deduce, reduce, seduce, educe, adduce, etc., and, my personal favorite, educate (ex-, ­ducere, to lead from ignorance into knowledge; leading out from the dark of Plato’s cave into the blinding light of the sun.  Good times).


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