I have a friend named Megan. A typical conversation with her might go something like this:
Megan: Hi, John.
Me: Hi, Meg.
Megan (pointing to my shirt): Shirt!
Me: Yes, that's my shirt.
Megan (pointing to my pants): Pants!
Me: Right again! Those are my pants. (I sit down.)
Megan (flushed with victory): Pen!
Me (removing my green felt pen from my shirt pocket): By golly, you've hit it square on! But tell me this: What color is it?
Megan: Color. (Not a question, not exactly a statement, just a confirmatory pronunciation.)
Me: Yes, color.
Me: Nope. You're close, though. It's green.
Megan just turned 2. Children, beginning sometime after their first birthdays, enter a stage of life in which they are, spiritually and intellectually, Scholastics. I mean the Scholastics of the Middle Ages, whose great enterprise was initiated by the likes of Boethius and Cassidorus and culminated with that Babe Ruth of metaphysicians, St. Thomas Aquinas.
Remembering and Learning
Granted, the Scholastics were intent upon preserving and recapturing the knowledge of the Classical Age, and children usually start by learning things for the first time. But this distinction can be pressed too far. Remembering and learning have much the same feel. (The Schoolmen did not bother themselves much with questions of epistemology; they were very largely concerned with learning the names of things and setting them in their proper order.)
This approach has its dangers, of course. Sometimes I think I can see in Megan's eye the glint of a peculiar passion that long ago led astray that fascinating Renaissance heretic Giordano Bruno. He developed the medieval preoccupation with names and order into a neo-Platonic doctrine of memory magic.
"If only I could remember all the names," Megan seems to think, thirsty, like Bruno, for knowledge and power, "then I could really take charge of things!" (For all I know, she may be right. She has red hair and is dangerously cute.)
I have long felt that if only children could be caught before the age of 3 and taught the essential philosophy of St. Thomas we could raise a race of metaphysicians that might put the world in order. The problem is that as soon as they develop sufficient skill with syntax to manipulate concepts with relative confidence they are susceptible to the intellectual pollution of the modern world.
The older children with whom I am acquainted have, in comparison with Megan, vast vocabularies. Complete sentences fall from their small lips like ripe fruit from the vine. Yet their metaphysics are those of He-Man and Hulk Hogan. These are the badly drawn, cheaply produced, ineptly animated leaders of as false and facile a bunch of "heroes" as have ever picked a parent's pocket. They are cartoon characters in the most pejorative sense. Yet they are grabbing the minds of a budding generation and turning them to mush. Flip on the TV some Saturday morning, or after school some afternoon.
Children begin as philosophers, lovers of wisdom. But in our age we harness the powers of the earth and channel the forces of nature, bind the products of our greatest minds and the newest and most wonderful machineries of our inventive genius, to ensure that the next generation will grow up at least as foolish as the last.