Oops! We Did It Again!
The study of language is full of examples of words misunderstood or misspelled. At some point in time, the listing of the ancestry of people living in south central Pennsylvania got recorded not correctly as “Deutsch” but rather as “Dutch”. One today might think the term “Pennsylvania Dutch” refers to people living in Pennsylvania whose heritage traces back to the Netherlands or Holland, areas commonly referred to as the Cutch culture. In actuality, the Pennsylvanians traced their lineage back to Germany, Deutschland. Someone left out an “e” and an “s” and … Oops!
The first branch of philosophy was called metaphysics. It might appear that since philosophy was the study of rational thinking or reality, then metaphysics must be the study of that which is beyond reality. Indeed, many have defined it as exactly that. Sit Thomas Aquinas once defined metaphysical sciences as “those that we study after having mastered the sciences that deal with the physical world.”
The word metaphysical comes from two Greek words, “meta” and “physika”. The Greek word “physis” meant that science which related to the world beyond nature. “Meta” meant something that was beyond or after. Thus, it was assumed that metaphysical sciences, the first branch of philosophy, had to be about the science of all things immaterial or beyond our natural world. It is important to remember that when we discuss the next branch of philosophy later on this week.
However, in this case, the etymology of the word does not tell the full story. The word “metaphysics” was first used by Aristotle as a title for several of his writings. Aristotle himself called these works “first philosophy” but since they came after chapters on physics, they were given the name metaphysics. Latin scholars misunderstood and translated the word literally; hence, the confusion and misinterpretation. Oops!
Earlier this year a police officer in Huntsville, Alabama was called to investigate a stranger who seemed to be walking along a residential street, looking into open garages. The police officer stopped the man and when the man did not understand the questions posed to him, the police officer threw him down on the concrete sidewalk. The man was a visiting grandfather, in the USA for less than forty-eight hours, who spoke no English. He was hospitalized for paralysis due to his injuries and has a very long recuperative road ahead of him, all because of a misunderstanding and over-zealous law enforcement official. Clearly this is more than just an Oops!
Metaphysics asks two questions: What is there? What is it like? All too often we encounter people that we fail to ask these questions about; we just go ahead and judge them, usually with negative results. Metaphysics is about th4e science of being. Living is also about the science of being. Life is best lived when one approaches it with kindness, communing with others with generosity. Descartes once said “Existence is a perfection”. St Anselm felt that “Existence in reality is greater than existence in the understanding alone.” The philosopher Avicenna stated “Essence precedes existence.”
How we view others depends on our definition of their existence. While none of us has been appointed judge and jury of mankind as a whole, at least as far as I know, but yet we often act as if that is exactly the nature of our existence, the purpose for our being. If the police officer in the Huntsville metropolitan area had observed the man walking, he might have determined that he was just out for a stroll. He would have answered the question “What is there?” He might have seen that the man was simply walking down the street and was going to return to his son’s house. The question “What is it like?” would have been answered in the revealing of the man’s actions. Today that police officer has been fired and faces municipal, state, and federal charges. That is a very big Oops!
The essence of our beliefs is evident in how we live and in our actions, one to another. It is not easy to always live those beliefs. Life is messy and sometimes it takes courage to stand on principles instead of going along with the crowd. Our understanding of our spiritual and/or religious beliefs or perhaps the lack of either will never outweigh how we live them. The reality of our existence will always speak louder than any discussions we might have individually or in a group setting. Our actions will always out-scream our words. Avicenna was correct: “Essence precedes existence.”