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Zanchi’s Aristotle (8): What Man Must Know

It’s been a while, but we now return to Zanchi’s prolegomena to Aristotle’s Physica, in which Zanchi discusses his views of philosophy in general and of natural philosophy in particular.

At the end of the previous installment, we saw Zanchi’s conclusion that the study of philosophy is eminently appropriate for a Christian:

Therefore, that the study of this philosophy–not insofar as it has been corrupted by men, but insofar as it has proceeded pure from God–is divine and the best, and for that reason is certainly most worthy of a Christian man, is clear from God, who is its best author.

He then continues:

Many other reasons make the same thing clear; and indeed the first is taken from the matters with which this knowledge of natural philosophy [scientia physica] concerns itself. For natural philosophy [physica philosophia] is the teaching by which we investigate and come to know the things created by the best God and their causes. But what, after the knowledge [cognitionem] of God, can be discovered that is more excellent than this knowledge of things divine and human [hac divinarum humanarumque rerum scientia]?1 For God has set forth two things that we must come to know [cognoscenda]: first, himself as the highest good and our happiness;2 next, the things created by him, in which, as in a most brilliant mirror, we may contemplate his power, wisdom, and goodness, while we look at and come to know the things themselves and their causes and properties.3 And, indeed, we can obtain the second kind of knowledge easily when helped by the art of this natural philosophy. Augustine likewise writes that man has three kinds of things that he must come to know thoroughly: first, a kind that pertains to what is above himself: this is God, Christ, and the things that pertain to the kingdom of God; a kind that pertains to what is on his level: these are all creatures endowed with reason–the sort of creature that man himself in fact is; third, a kind that pertains to what is below himself: these are all remaining creatures lacking reason.4 Man ought to know all these things, and for that reason he has been given a mind.5

  1. What Zanchi says here is very close to Cicero’s definition of sapientia (“wisdom”) in De officiis 2.5, which he says he borrows from older thinkers (more on this in a future post), from the encompassing of both human and divine matters to the a concern with their causes: Sapientia autem est, ut a veteribus philosophis definitum est, rerum divinarum et humanarum causarumque, quibus eae res continentur, scientia (“Moreover, wisdom, as it has been defined by the ancient philosophers, is the knowledge of things divine and human, and the causes by which these things are held together”).
  2. Zanchi here strikes a note resonant of Boethius, who in the Consolatio Philosophiae also defines the summum bonum as God, the only source of happiness (at which the classical pursuit of philosophy is directed).
  3. Cf. Romans 1.
  4. The latter two parts of Augustine’s threefold division are subsumed in the second part of Zanchi’s twofold division.
  5. The translation is my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.