352 Peter Kreeft: A “Modern Socrates”

Upon retirement, some distinguished professors are given a Festschrift—a collection of essays written by former students to celebrate their scholarship.  Unlike these scholars, Peter Kreeft—for decades a professor of philosophy at Boston College—is acclaimed more for his witness to the Christian Faith than his scholarly accomplishment.  So the essays in Wisdom and Wonder:  How Peter Kreeft Shaped the Next Generation of Catholics, ed. Brandon Vogt (San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, c. 2021; Kindle Edition) celebrate Kreeft’s worth as a Christian apologist.  The books’s editor has written nine books and established ClaritasU to enable Catholics to “talk about their faith.”  He hosts Bishop Barron’s “Word on Fire Show” podcast and is active in Chesterton societies.  Introducing the volume, Vogt remembers coming upon one of Kreeft’s books (Handbook of Catholic Apologetics) while he was troubled by serious theological questions during his college years.  As a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) student, Vogt had taken no philosophy courses and was unprepared to deal with the ultimate issues he was pondering.  In Kreeft he found a guide who led him, ultimately, to enter the Catholic Church, for he concluded:  “‘My goodness, this is all true—all of it. Christianity is rational and logical’” (p. 8). Vogt learned not only to embrace the rich intellectual traditions of the Faith but learned how to think!  And he’s not alone.  “I don’t have hard data on this,” he says, “but from the perspective of someone connected to hundreds of Catholic converts, I think it’s hard to find another figure in American Catholicism who has influenced more conversions to the Church over the last three decades than Peter Kreeft” (p. 11).

  This is because:  “First, philosophy begins in wonder.  This was Socrates’ motto, and Kreeft embodies it better than anyone I know—which is, unsurprisingly, why many people also dub Kreeft a ‘modern Socrates’” (p. 13). Engaging readers in the process of reasoning, rather than spoon-feeding them cliches, is fundamental to his approach.  “Second, the intellectual life and the spiritual life are one” (p. 14).  Kreeft never tires of showing how one can be both an intellectually curious and competent philosopher while simultaneously loving and serving God.  “Third, there are many strong reasons to believe in God.”  In laymen’s terms, Kraft persuasively sets forth a multitude of reasons to be a theist.  Indeed, his “most famous piece of writing” is “probably his ‘20 Arguments for the Existence of God’, which appears as chapter 3 in his Handbook of Catholic Apologetics” (p. 15).  “Fourth, beauty is a signpost to faith” (p. 16).  The sheer beauty of St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City played an important role in Kreeft’s becoming Catholic, and he routinely celebrates both the beauty of creation (he’s an avid surfer) and artistic works.  “Fifth, the world hangs on the prayers of ordinary people” (p. 17).  Anything but an elitist, Kreeft writes for and trusts the capabilities of the common man.  Thus he excels in providing figures of speech and memorable phrases.

In his entry to the collection, “The Sentence That Changed My Life,” John DeRosa tells of growing up playing video games rather than reading books.  But things changed dramatically when, as a college freshman, he read these words in Kreeft’s Handbook of Catholic Apologetics:  “We believe Christ’s Resurrection can be proved with at least as much certainty as any universally believed and well-documented event in ancient history.”  That sentence set him on a course of intellectual discovery and enlightenment, for while he’d attended church all his life he’d never heard that what was taught (e.g. Jesus’s Resurrection) could be proven.  Delving into Kreeft’s apologetics, DeRosa was “reintroduced” to the Faith and was motivated to “pursue truth as I aimed to fall more in love with the One who is the way, the truth, and the life” (p 23).  Thankfully he also fell I love with reading and discovered other masters of apologetics such as C.S. Lewis, “whose book Miracles swept me off my feet” (p. 27).  

Logan Paul Gage chairs the Philosophy Department at Franciscan University of Steubenville.  With advanced degrees from Baylor University, he’s devoted himself to higher education and gratefully remembers Peter Kreeft’s role in helping him discern the importance of the Socratic, Platonic, and Aristotelian ways of thinking.  In his books “one senses a [Socratic] soul searching for understanding, and it is infectious.  This is seen both explicitly, in works such as The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, and also implicitly, in many of Kreeft’s dialogues” (p. 41).  Then Plato’s appreciation for beauty in the life of the mind—evident in his Symposium—resounds throughout the works of Peter Kreeft, showing how we can move from a delight in beautiful things to an ultimate joy in the Ultimate Realm providing their forms.  Finally, there is an Aristotelian Lesson, extolling virtue and the Summum Bonum.  We most deeply desire happiness, the Summum Bonum, and living virtuously provides it.  “It is difficult” Gage says, “to think of any contemporary writer who has done more to communicate the central insights of the Western intellectual tradition to the hearts and minds of the next generation in so accessible a manner.  More than this, his corpus reveals how Christianity fulfills the highest aspirations of the best and brightest in antiquity, how Christ himself is the answer to the perennial longings of the human heart” (p. 50).

Though most of the contributors to Wisdom and Wonder discuss Peter Kreeft’s books, Matthew Becklo celebrates “his work as a digital-age speaker and teacher” (p. 51).  There’s a wonderful web site—PeterKreeft.com—that makes available many of his lectures.  As a collegian alienated from God, Becklo inadvertently found a book in his father’s library by Walker Percy:  Lost in the Cosmos.  Reading it intrigued him, and he soon found  Kreeft’s lecture dealing with it on the internet.  “It would be difficult to overstate,” he says, “just how much this lecture, and the others that followed, molded my thinking about myself, the world, and God over the course of the next few years.”  Having failed to make sense of things on his own, he found in Kreeft a “teacher who conveyed the love of wisdom and its culmination in the Logos” (p. 53).   

Yet another aspect of Kreeft’s influence is marked by Father Blake Britton, who discusses Jesus-Shock: Rediscovering the Uniqueness of Christ, wherein Kreeft stressed the differences between Jesus and other religious teachers such as Buddha and Muhammad.  In brief, the difference is this:  all the others explained how to think and live whereas Jesus said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”  It’s His Person, not His message, that truly matters.  He didn’t point to truths—He claimed to Be the Truth.  The word  for truth used in St John’s gospel—alitheia—“means ‘unveilment’ or ‘unconcealedness’.  . . . .   Alitheia is an activity; it is dynamic. The truth Christ gives us is not inert data or a collection of intuitions.  The truth he gives is his very self.  It is a truth that is ‘living and effective,’ a truth that ‘bubbles up’ and spills out from within” (p. 62).  This means, Kreeft insists, we ultimately know Truth by knowing the Living Lord Jesus.  “The possibility of a personal encounter with Christ, what Kreeft calls the Real Presence of Jesus, is the main cause of ‘Jesus-shock.’”  Thereby we may actually, actively share “in Christ’s very life.  To become a Christian is not to become acquainted with Jesus’ ideas or teachings; it is to become acquainted with the presence of Jesus himself” (p. 66).  

I’ve focused on only a few of the short essays in this book simply to illustrate how Peter Kreeft helped scores of young folks discover the goodness of God’s ways.  Over the years I often assigned some of his books in my philosophy classes, simply hoping my students would find in him (and in the thinkers he cited, such as Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, and Lewis) a guide for life.  

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One of Peter Kreeft’s best recent books is Wisdom of the Heart:  The Good, the True, and the Beautiful at the Center of Us All (Gastonia, NC:  TAN Books, c. 2020; Kindle Edition).  As a philosophy professor he has always known how “desperately” we “need good philosophy, for philosophy is the love of wisdom.  But wisdom is about life, and life is about love, and love is the work of the heart.  Therefore, philosophy is (or should be) about the heart.  We need brains, but we also need hearts.  Hearts need brains to direct them, but brains need hearts to pump lifeblood into them.  We need light, but we also need heat.  We need truth, but we also need love.  Both are absolutes.  Here is my attempt to combine the two, to throw some light on that fire and to put some fire into that light” (p. 6).  We are all sojourners, traversing life’s highways, and we make choices regarding them, and of the “three kinds of highways—those of the body, the heart, and the mind—the most momentous are those of the heart, because that is where love comes from and love is the force that decides everything for us.  As Augustine says, ‘Amor meus, pondus meum,’ ‘My love is my weight,’ my gravity, my density and my destiny” (p. 8).

Unfortunately, we’re tempted to ignore our hearts.  As Wordsworth so memorably lamented:   “The world is too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.  / Little we see in nature that is ours.”  This is evident in those universities which have abandoned the liberal arts tradition, focusing largely on utilitarian, job-focused, instruction—largely ignoring ultimate issues such as God and one’s soul.  Consequently, “students emerge from four years of college far less, not more, in love with religion, morality, wisdom, virtue, tradition, and common sense than when they entered” (p. 176).  There’s little concern in for either saving or losing our souls, little heed for Jesus’s warning:  “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mk 8:36, KJV).  This is tragic, for one’s soul, or one’s heart, Kreeft explains, “is what makes a person a unique individual,” (p. 30), and is essentially the power to love.  In the heart “diverse powers (intellect, will, human emotions, and animal emotion) can combine in a single love is what leads us to posit that mysterious ‘I’ or self or subject or person or ‘who’ is their unifying cause” (p. 32).  

It’s the heart that truly loves.  Only an immaterial soul can love, whereas material entities lack such potential.  Rocks cannot “love sunlight.  They do not move toward it, and it does not cause any perfection or joy in them” (p. 57).  But we can.  And we do love.  After detailing some 14 kinds of love—including the well-known Greek storge, philia, eros, agape—Kreeft considers “bad loves:  today’s seven deadly sins.”  These sins are in fact “deadly loves” or “deadly heart diseases.”  His “candidates for the seven deadliest sins, the seven most popular idols, the seven most broken and deformed kinds of love in our world today are:  1) Autonomy, disguised as freedom; 2) Self-esteem, disguised as respect;  3) Technologism, disguised as power; 4) Lust, disguised as pleasure; 5) Sloth, boredom, and passivity, disguised as entertainment; 6) Equality, disguised as justice; 7) Irreverence, disguised as creativity or originality” (p. 69).  

Having thoroughly defined and discussed good and bad loves, Kreeft treats “the soul’s circulatory system:  Christianity as nothing but love.”  “Love is the whole point of our being, and of our lives, and of our religion” (p. 96).   Importantly:  “Christianity is not merely a religion that is about Christ, it is the religion that is from Christ, the Christ who is love incarnate.  Christ is God, and God is love, therefore Christ is love.  Christ is also perfect man, and perfect man is also love.  Thus Christ shows us the two things it is the most absolutely necessary for us to know: what God is and what we must be.  And the answer to both questions is love” (p. 97).  God, as Aristotle taught and Kreeft affirms, “is not the ‘material cause’ (or content) of all things—that is pantheism—but he is the ‘formal cause,’ the ‘efficient cause,’ and the ‘final cause’ of all things.  He is the transcendent formal cause—that is, the meaning, the standard, the paradigm, the prototype, the archetype, and the touchstone of all things.  Things are real only insofar as they are in some way like his reality.  He is also the efficient cause—that is, the origin and maker of all things.  And he is the final cause—that is, the end and purpose and point and good and goal and consummation and perfection and fulfillment and flourishing and blessedness and fullness of joy of all things.  And in all three of those causes, he is love” (p. 101).  

A loving heart has its reasons, which are “seeings” rather than reasonings, utilizing “the third eye,” the “eye of the heart, which simply ‘sees’ or ‘knows’ or intuits, usually without being able to clearly comprehend and define (the first act of the mind) or to formulate a propositional judgment (the second act of the mind) or to prove what it sees (the third act of the mind)” (p. 116).   With the “third eye” we discern the reality of what Rudolph Otto called the “numinous.”  Loving it “makes you wise.”  Rightly attuned to the divine, Jesus’ disciples rightly saw God as revealed in “him when he came” (p. 120).  Consequently:  “Your love is your destiny because it is your density, your weight, your spiritual gravity.  You go where your heart goes.  Since this is the very beginning of everything in one’s life, it is also the very end.  We will all get what we want.  Those who want God’s will, will get it; those who want their own, will get that.  That is the difference between Heaven and Hell.  As C. S. Lewis says in The Great Divorce, “There are only two kinds of people: those who say to God, in the end, ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”  Thankfully, God as revealed in Jesus “wills only one thing:  our good, our perfection, our joy.  To the extent that we conform our will to God’s will, we attain this purity and unity of heart and thus peace and joy” (p. 125).  

Seeing God rightly enables us to wisely discern moral standards (with our conscience), true propositions (with our intuition), and beautiful realms of reality (with our aesthetic sense).  Thus the ancient transcendentals—Truth, Goodness, Beauty—may enter our hearts and enable us to walk well the pathway to Heaven.  This was all known clearly by St Thomas Aquinas, who “defined truth as ‘the adequation (equation, equalizing, conformity) of the mind to being’ (adaequatio intellectus et rei), love as ‘willing the good of the other (volens bonum aliud), and beauty as ‘that which, being seen, pleases” (id quod videtur placet)” (p. 174).  “Truth humbly knocks at your door with credentials—arguments—in its hand.  Goodness makes demands but waits outside your door for you to freely open to it.  But beauty seeps under all your doors and walls like water.  Unlike truth and goodness, beauty is irresistible” (p. 177).  From which the three “supernatural virtues” emerge, for:  “The object of faith is truth and the wisdom it brings.  The object of charity is goodness and the virtue and holiness it brings.  The object of hope is beauty and the joy it brings” (p. 180).  And this gives us the truly good life.  

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Given his vocation as a teacher and writer, Peter Kreeft has long excelled in opening up the philosophical riches of the Christian tradition to his readers.  In I Burned for Your Peace:  Augustine’s Confessions Unpacked (San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, c. 2016;    Kindle Edition), he prints and ponders significant passages of one of the true classics of the Christian tradition, probably “the single most read, reread, and quoted post-Biblical Christian book ever written.  On its very first page is the single most quoted post-Biblical Christian sentence ever written, and that sentence is its central theme and the main thing Augustine is ‘confessing’:  that ‘Thou hast made us for Thyself and [therefore] our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.’  The Confessions is simply the Gospel; it is the Gospel of the restless heart” (#98).  And “What he confesses is, most fundamentally, God and His goodness, not just himself and his badness.  This book is not first of all the story of what Augustine did about God but the story of what God did about Augustine” (#106).

Kreeft doesn’t pretend to offer “a complete scholarly commentary on the Confessions,” for his treatise “is not scholarly, and it is not even a ‘commentary’ in the usual sense of the word.  It is an unpacking of some of the riches in Augustine’s massive treasure chest.  It is a string of pearls obtained by diving expeditions into the oyster beds in the deep sea of the Confessions.  . . . .  My words are only the unpacking, the stringing, the festooning, the framing.  They set off and call attention to Augustine’s words . . . as his words do the same thing to the Word, Christ.  The reader must practice sign reading:  look not at signs, but along them, at what they point to:  look along my words to Augustine’s and along his to Christ” (#43).

He endorses his invitation by saying:  “The experience of reading the Confessions feels like listening to a symphony or like tasting the world’s best wine.  It sings.  It cries.  It shouts.  It whispers.  It weeps.  It bleeds.  So does your soul if you dare to step into its words, as you would step into the sea when it is alive with waves.  It should be read as poetry is read:  aloud, slowly, thoughtfully, and repeatedly.  It is not a pill to be swallowed but a cud to be chewed.  For it is literally inexhaustible.  It is like an enormous cow that gives you fresh milk every day.  No one ever wrote words that sing like his. They fly off the page like birds.  They shoot through the air like arrows of fire and shatter your heart and stun your mind.  He is the greatest master of Latin who ever lived, and Latin is probably the most beautiful language that ever lived” (#124).

When Medieval artists sought to portray Augustine they always employed “the same two symbols:  a burning heart in one hand and an open book (the Bible) in the other.  For Augustine combined fire and light, a passionately fiery heart and a dazzlingly brilliant head, as no mere man in history has ever done.”  All of us are indebted to him, for he is very much alive in our thoughts inasmuch as we are nurtured by Western Christian Culture.  “Almost single-handedly he forged the medieval mind.  Yet he is also quintessentially modern:  introspective, emotional, self-doubting, complex” (#57).  He thought about and lived out the everlasting drama of “God’s providential design and man’s free choices, or predestination and free will, or destiny and responsibility, both of which Augustine strongly defended.  For he saw them, not as contradictory, but as complementary dimensions of the drama—like the two dimensions of every smaller story ever told by anyone in this Great Story:  the predestination and providence of its Author and the real choices of His characters” (#38).   In truth, as Scripture declares, without Him we can do nothing, but we are simultaneously to ask, seek, and knock, doing our part.  

Pausing to muse over the famous words, “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in thee,” Kreeft says:  “Here it is:  one of the greatest sentences ever written, the basic theme of this book and of life itself.”  Augustine cites both objective and subjective truths—God made us and we need Him.  “We feel like homing pigeons because we are” (#152).  Like Job, Augustine writes less a philosophy than a prayer—praises, petitions, contrition, celebration.  This moves him to a wonderful philosophical realization:  “‘since nothing that is could exist without You, You must in some way be in all that is [therefore also in me, since I am].  And if You are already in me, since otherwise I should not be, why do I cry to You to enter into me? . . . O God, I should be nothing, utterly nothing, unless You were in me—or rather unless I were in You, of whom and by whom and in whom are all things’” (#235).  He sees that God is neither outside nor inside us—we are in Him; He is the One within whom we subsist.  And he personally encountered this One in a garden near Milan—a dramatic conversion that “would change the history of Western civilization” (#2043).  Overwhelmed by his sinful burdens, weeping as he wondered if he could ever satisfy his inner longings, “suddenly I heard a voice from some nearby house, a boy’s voice or a girl’s voice, I do not know: but it was a sort of sing-song, repeated again and again, “Take and read, take and read.”  “Tolle, lege, tolle lege.”  Knowing God was speaking him, he took a Bible and beheld Paul’s words in Romans:  “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences.”  The lost was found, and he thereafter devoted himself to preaching the saving Truth he’d found.

Augustine found that “God is truth and God is love” (#2288).  And he finally confessed:  “Late have I loved Thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new; late have I loved Thee!  For behold Thou wert within me, and I outside; and I sought Thee outside and in my unloveliness fell upon those lovely things that Thou hast made.  Thou wert with me and I was not with Thee. I was kept from Thee by those things, yet had they not been in Thee, they would not have been at all.”  With Augustine and Kreeft as guides, we have an illuminated pathway to eternal life, the ultimate peace we most deeply desire.