In the search for wisdom what comes first?
Philosophy is the love or pursuit of wisdom, but where do you start? Aristotle’s Metaphysics deals with what he calls first philosophy, protē philosophia. (The word metaphysics simply means that which comes after the Physics: Aristotle’s book on first philosophy was placed after his book on Physics by Andronicus of Rhodes, one of Aristotle’s first editors.) This book deals with the question “what is substance?” What is the most fundamental type of being or existence, and what is the fundamental character of being in general? But why is this first philosophy; why would one start here?
In our daily lives, questions of this type are surely not the first we encounter, or even the first we start to reflect about. The first things we come upon are merely the events and objects and actions of the every day world (to pragmata in Greek, or what happens.) As we are swept into the whirlpool of events in our encounters with the flux of happenings, our fundamental impulse as human beings, as rational agents, is to make some sort of sense of it all, to get some type of control. As you wake up, as you walk out the door, as you start a semester, as you start the rest of your life; you need to know not only where you are, where you are starting, but the end of your journey, its goal, your purpose. Eschatology is the study of last things, of ultimate goals, of endings, of death and what lies beyond. To act wisely, to live intelligently, to make our passage through time a thing of order and beauty, we need to start by reflecting upon not what comes to us first, but upon last things, where we are going, our purpose.
Apart from the order in which we come upon things and are capable of understanding them, the order of knowing, there is also an order of being, the order in which the things came to be, or in which they are actually intelligibly structured. As you look at a complex machine, the order in which you come upon things as you take them apart does not make as much sense as the assembly instructions for putting it together, or, better yet, a schematic diagram of the different parts of the machine and their basic functions. For intelligible beings, the way they were put together reflects their end or purpose.
The love of wisdom is inspired by desire of the beauty of making our lives intelligible in just this way, of knowing what we are doing and why, of knowing where we are going and what lies at the end of each journey. To live our lives in this pursuit we must start not with the practical matters we encounter first, but with the ends and ultimate destinies of our actions. First philosophy investigates the intelligible being of the lives we live and the world in which we live them: what makes them what they are in the order of being and the ends to which they are ordered. Aristotle began at just the right place. To live today wisely, well, and beautifully, we must start at the end, as revealed in the ultimate beginnings of things.