In Summa Theologica 2-2.1.4, Aquinas argues that every action can be understood in two ways: according to its order of intention–the goal one has in mind when one acts, and aims to bring about by acting–as well as its order of execution, or the means by which that goal is accomplished. Every real action requires both an ultimate and and a first means, since lacking these “no one would begin to work at anything,” having either nothing to do or no way to do it. The end is the object of love, since we seek only what we believe to be good, whereas means are the object of prudence, since the man of practical wisdom seeks his ends well. Good human action thus requires the full complement of our faculties: reason (in the form of prudence), understanding (in our framing of the end), will (in our choice of ends), and appetite (in our attraction towards the end). Let’s think about what this implies for education.

Means Without Ends

Many writers have lamented that the modern university teaches means but not ends. For instance, in an address on “The Aim of Liberal Education” given the University of Chicago in 2003, Andrew Chrucky argues that modern education aims at teaching ‘facts and theories’ and ‘techniques of persuasion,’ but deliberately avoids discussions of ‘what purposes that knowledge will be used for.’ He points out that this is like teaching someone how to make a bomb without ever discussing what it is appropriate to blow up. Modern education focuses on ‘amoral cognitive skills’ while neglecting the moral and emotional education we require for human flourishing.

The reasons for this systematic neglect are legion, their roots reaching back to the European Enlightenment. The Enlightenment changed our notion of reason, and hence our understanding of the aim of education. For the ancients and medievals, whom I’ll simply call the ‘ancients,’ the wise man is a man of vision, e.g., the poet who sees beautiful similes among diverse things, or the philosopher who seeks ever higher truths to contemplate. In contrast, the wise man of the Enlightenment is the scientist and technician, the man of method. Here is how René Descartes explained the motivation for the change in the opening chapter of his Discourse on Method:

The diversity of our opinions, consequently, does not arise from some being endowed with a larger share of reason than others, but solely from this, that we conduct our thoughts along different ways, and do not fix our attention on the same objects. For to be possessed of a vigorous mind is not enough; the prime requisite is rightly to apply it. The greatest minds, as they are capable of the highest excellences, are open likewise to the greatest aberrations; and those who travel very slowly may yet make far greater progress, provided they keep always to the straight road, than those who, while they run, forsake it.

Having a “method” makes reason egalitarian, the dunce the equal of the genius; it democratizes reason. One need only follow the steps of his method, Descartes argued, and truth–objective, verifiable, unarguable truth–will be discovered without (or often despite) much intellectual talent. With the Enlightenment’s great propagandist, Francis Bacon, Descartes argued that aims of the scientific method include technological mastery, the relief of suffering, and political peace. For modernity, the cosmos is not a poem to be unfolded and contemplated–an interpretive enterprise whose subjectivity inevitably invites disagreement, war, and distraction from the more important business of relieving man’s mean estate–but raw material we can use for the satisfaction of human desire. To know something is to be able to put it to use. Unlike art, which seeks out the meaningful heart of things, the method only seeks how they work: “hypotheses non fingo,” as Newton put it.

Consequences of the Technocratic View of Reason

The adoption of this technocratic view of reason altered an established, richer view of reason in several ways.

First, it led the modern world to divorce truth and goodness. The ancients understood the world to be teleologically ordered to ends both naturally (through internal principles) and divinely (by Providence). As a result, they did not carve the world into what we moderns call ‘facts’ and ‘values.’ Indeed, the teleologist would regard the concept of an ‘objective’ world, one containing no values, as inadequate and incomplete a description of the world as the concept of a private realm of ‘subjective’ values whose validation needs pay no attention to truth. The arborist, for example, a good teleologist, considers it both natural and good for trees to reach their branches towards the sun because doing to facilitates their flourishing as living things. (How else do plants grow?) Marriage is good for the same reason: because it creates persons and communicates culture in a way that facilitates our flourishing as naturally social beings called to complementary, interpersonal, agapic love. (How else does one love a child?) In a world of inherent ends, goodness is coextensive with being: to exist is to be good. Thus, cleaving the world into facts and values fails to cut at the joints. If the world is also created for the glory of God, its goodness limns giftedness. To know the world is to be grateful for it. Thus the wise man worships.

Modern thinkers have rejected teleology, however; the scientific method requires patterns, powers and predictions, but neither ends nor explanations. Hence it cannot distinguish between what is natural (a normative, metaphysical concept) and what is normal (a statistical concept). If something happens frequently enough, even if what happens is contrary to the nature of the thing in question–say, a statistically significant disposition in human beings to drink Draino–the modern thinker will find himself compelled to call that aberration natural (it happens, after all, in ‘nature’). Since the statistics are ambiguous–some people like Draino, some don’t–the modern thinker will rightly deny that we can read morality off the statistics, and accuses the ancients of doing precisely this, of the so-called ‘naturalistic fallacy.’ The ancients did no such thing, of course, since teleology is a metaphysical concept, not a statistical one. Every schoolboy can explain why, on the one hand, being popular doesn’t make something good–try that for jumping off bridges–and why drinking Draino isn’t good for a biological being even if one finds it enjoyable. Because they grasp the inbuilt order of things, in other words, the ancients can distinguish between something’s appearing good to you and something’s being good for you. Modernity is blind to that difference, and can only understand claims about what’s ‘good’ as the arbitrary and unjust projection of one’s capricious desires onto the canvas of an objectively ‘neutral’ world. The link between truth and goodness has been broken.

The second traditional characteristic of reason lost by modernity is the ability to see the world as symbolically meaningful; it divorces truth from beauty. Consider the older view. As a made thing, God’s creation reveals something of its Maker, as a pot bears the marks of the potter. Thus Aquinas would remark that God can “signify his meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves” (ST 1.1.10c). Nature is God’s first revelation. Though each thing speaks sotto voce, its own word, the combined polyphony of beings makes a chorus to God. (Tolkien would borrow that idea in his Silmarillion.) Whereas the conceptual link between a conventional sign and what it signifies is arbitrary–as when we use the symbol “$” to signify dollars–a created universe also contains natural symbols, things whose natures represent something greater than themselves. For instance, Dante scholar Dorothy Sayers reflects:

The arch, maintaining itself as it does by the mutual thrust and pressure of all its parts, is at once an instance and a natural symbol of that great dynamic principle of stability in tension by which the physical universe is sustained. Beatrice, a real and beloved woman, is, in the eyes of Dante, an instance and a symbol of all creation glorified by love. The Incarnate life of God on earth, because it is a historic fact, is at once the supreme instance and the unique natural symbol of the whole history of man, and the whole nature of God, and the relations between them. … If it is not historic, then it is either not symbolical at all, or else ‘merely’ a conventional symbol. If, on the contrary, it is a historic fact, then it is a natural symbol and by contemplating it we can really learn something about God and Man. … [A natural symbol] is itself an instance of what it symbolizes: and therefore, by simply being what it is, it tells us something about the true nature of that thing for which it stands. (Introductory Papers on Dante, p. 8)

Augustine said the same thing of the mountains, that they cried–“We are not He, look higher!”–and both Plato (Rep. 500c) and Aristotle (Met. 12.7, 1072b4) saw the sublunar world move out of love for a greater Beauty.

In contrast, the Empiricist psychology of modernity considers the mind to be, at its best, a passive recorder of data, one that goes bad when it distorts or biases that data by reorganizing it. Thus the moderns considered imagination a threat to the usefulness of the mind. The method, it was thought, would eliminate such distortions by reducing observation to measurement and inference to calculation. In other words, the method would eliminate subjectivity by reducing the world ‘information,’ the incoherent idea that truth comes in context-less, un-theory-laden, narrative-free chunks. For the traditionalist, in contrast, imagination was the first stage of understanding, the iris of the eye of the soul. Speaking a great truth required poetry, or at least a passable metaphor. The reason for this was not the post-modern one that truths are only meaningful within an (arbitrary) web of belief, but the ancient one that because the world is naturally symbolic, only the bright containers of poetic truths can frame the fullness of being precisely by acknowledging its essential limitlessness. Speaking truly means speaking “up”; the highest expression of language is liturgical. Thus the wise man worships.

Finally, consider the fact that modernity’s egalitarian method conceives of truth, and our grasp of it, in radically new ways–that is, the divorce of truth from Truth. Gone is the idea that some objects require being one’s being appropriately disposed, morally and intellectually, to know them properly. Yet how else does one come to appreciate great works of art–or a woman, asks Roethke–without first being moved by them? (If seeing beauty only required having eyes, the dog-faced baboon would have as much aesthetic taste as Socrates!) How else does one come to see the goodness of the moral life, if one is not aware of its fineness? (Aquinas says the virtuous person radiates honestum, suggesting that the immoral life is both superficial and ugly [ST 2-2.168.1c].) How does one come to believe the truths of faith unless one seeks salvation in humility? Only the penitent man hears the voice of God, who is as if silent to the hard-hearted.

Here we fathom the deep antipathy between the method and faith. Scientism, the view that everything real is knowable by the method (cf. Descartes, Discourse on Method 2.11), assumes the mundanity of the cosmos. If the world is polyphonic in the way suggested above by Dante and Aquinas, then scientism must stop its ears and treat faith as a siren’s song. For faith is the virtuous response of the intellect to a reality that exceeds the mind’s capacity to comprehend, just as love is the virtuous response to a reality whose goodness transcends the use of human concupiscence. Scientism and its method are therefore systematically deaf to the voice of divinity, and the technocratic ideology of modern education is atheological when it is not explicitly atheistic. Put otherwise, insofar as our dispositions do no work in modernity’s method–the whole point of the method is to eliminate them–then art, faith, and morality, and the Beauty, Truth, and Goodness they aim at, are reduced to an unreality beyond reason’s ken. Thus does modernity pit the sciences against the liberal arts and the Faith (they contain no knowledge, it is said).

Yet is is precisely as beautiful, true and good that we are attracted to things as ends. The modern predicament is thus, in a sense, the opposite of the ancients: possessed of awesome power, we have little that is genuinely worthwhile to accomplish. If truly fulfilling action requires a worthy final end, as Aristotle and St. Thomas and countless others have argued, then a university that cleanly and totally separates the study of ends and means does a moral, spiritual, and intellectual disservice to its students. It makes monsters of them, turning them into spiritually deformed beings who will use their Promethean abilities to service small and childish desires. Whatever our technical abilities, Aquinas would say, without a wholesome vision of the end, the life of modern man is an aborted one, having never truly begun. Thus worships the modern man.

Implications for Pedagogy

The above observations are neither new nor complex, and the practical conclusions to be drawn from them will not be original or sophisticated either. Nevertheless, here they are.

The first thing to be learned from the above analysis is that teaching students technique without awakening their love for a subject is less effective pedagogy than engendering love and skimping on technique. A passionate professor who can rouse his students to wonder will develop students who are independently motivated to seek the truth. Like Romeo, having grasped the value of an end, the lover searches for means. Sharing the beauty of one’s subject, therefore, will always be more important than accomplishing measurable ‘learning objectives.’

Yet beauty cannot be grasped by a mundane mind. Such minds must be prepared by a course of study that encourages one’s imagination to grasp the great analogy of being. One should study poetry, history, languages and literature along with the sciences, not only insofar as they prepare one for advanced coursework, but because they introduce the soul to its proper objects. Obviously, such a course of study should be undertaken prior to one’s training in a profession or academic discipline.

The second thing to be learned is that students who have methods and means but no definite ends will either require extrinsic motivations to practice their discipline (money, power, or pleasure), or else will give it up. I think the first option most likely. A restless man with means but no ends will search for ends he can apply himself to, ends which will often be contrary to the ends of his craft, as Socrates once told Thrasymachus. Business will aim at personal profit rather than the material reproduction of society; art will titillate rather than edify; medicine will enhance rather than cure. Universities would do well to note that there are no natural limits to such desires, that unless they teach students to ask about the food that truly satisfies, the fare provided will fail to satisfy the human soul. “Be not thine own worm,” George Herbert reminds us: to satisfy such desires, the soul must eat itself.

Joshua Schulz teaches historical and moral philosophy at DeSales University, PA. More of his work is available at


  1. Awesome article, and so glad to discover your blog! Descartes (and Ramus) introduced a narrow notion of reason and also of method. To follow wonder at the mountains toward the beckoning Infinite is to travel a road restored to an openness adequate for the human heart.

  2. Given the news today out of North Carolina of another “conservative” governor attacking the liberal arts it is imperative that those who care about preserving the good, the beautiful and the true redouble our efforts to defend sound education.

  3. …”Be not thine own worm”…….”Means without Ends” Ho ho Ho, the leitmotif of the age….

    Descartes, seductive as he is…or perhaps was, often makes about as much sense as a fart in a hailstorm. The lust for perfection can make a man forget that the principle beauty of the human is in the smorgasbord of his imperfections . These imperfections obligate us toward civil collective action for the greater good but modernism sees pleasure in quantity and is thoroughly in the camp of means without ends, as long as it is profitable…quarter by quarter or trade by trade.
    Wormily yorn

  4. Not only has the modern world’s divorcing of means and ends affected schools and students, it has affected teachers. Teaching is treated like a job rather than a vocation; a science rather than an art. We have Education Majors where people go to college to learn the latest scientific theory and tactic for how to teach concepts to students. We are introducing more gadgets and technology into the classroom, but are losing attention spans. Unless we fix the broken relationship between means and ends, between art and science, between truth and Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, not only will our souls eat themselves, they will make us sick and eventually cause us to die.

  5. Ends are a cultural construct. It’s pretty easy for Aquinas to extol the virtues of beauty because from his perspective, that’s largely a solved question. He spent half his written intellectual output wrestling with questions about angels dancing on the heads of pins, attempting to fit reality into his theological worldview, rather than engaged in meaningful philosophy or science. I’m sure his contemporaries were delighted, but there’s a reason why Aristotelian physics – incomplete, contradictory – lasted for a thousand years, and a large part of that has to do with assuming that it was virtuous and good and therefore the effort ought to be channeled into explaining away heterodox conclusions rather than expanding the discussion… which again runs parallel to trying to cram a whole universe through a rather rigid theological framework.

    Here, not only is the ongoing clash of cultures and values bypassed simply to point out that they really ought to be incorporated, the how-to-do-that question remains totally unmolested in the face of difficulties associated with such an effort. Such is the purview of philosophers, but I doubt many folk would find every flavor of teleology to their liking. Marxist views of economics, for just one example.

    Then we go from there to choosing the RIGHT teleological framework, perhaps for each subject. And from there, for each student. Good luck with that.

    It’s nice to have meaning, but it’s also nice to be right. I would argue having an ethical framework for one’s actions is a vital part of being a fully-realized human, but expecting that framework to be developed as part of math class is, shall we say, hopeful.

  6. To S. Peter Cordner: You say that Acquinas “spent half his written intellectual output wrestling with questions about angels dancing on the heads of pins.” Where’s that in his Summa? And “half his written intellectual output”– really?

  7. Really. For every delightful discussion of philosophy, there’s an accompanying discussion that’s utterly theological, dependent on not only the Bible, but a 13th century understanding of that work. The teleology necessarily forces a reconciliation between the philosophical and the theological, especially in such cases where cognitive dissonance rears its inevitable head and demands resolution.

    From the perspective of anyone other than a medieval scholar, it becomes just so much marginalia. It’s a contextualization that illustrates how even astounding intellects can be captured by suitably clever bouts of omphaloskepsis.

    I mean, you want to know where Aquinas gets obsessed with teleology in a work entitled Summa THEOLOGICA? A foundational piece of Western philosophy… of which the majority of Part 1 is an attempt to fill in theological gaps and implications arising out of the Christian cosmology of the day, questions which his teleology necessarily demands address before moving on to questions of the human condition in Part 2? That’s… a bizarre question.

    There is much good hay to be made of the question, “what is good?” When that question becomes “what is good, based on the following extensive list of a priori assumptions most of which is alien to a substantial portion of humanity?”, there is bound to be some lost traction.

  8. The simple fact is that it is impossible to read Aquinas from a contemporary perspective and take a word he wrote seriously.

  9. “Modern Thinkers” — faux.
    Lewis Carroll described it elegantly when he said that no one may speak to the man at the helm and the man at the helm may speak to no one… meanwhile, the rudder…

Comments are closed.