Introduction: The Social Value of Knowledge






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The term "Christian Humanism" can have a very wide scope. This website concentrates on a specific view of the topic: the social value of knowledge and the professions, consisting on reflections taken from the works of key Western thinkers through the centuries, and presented in a historical sequence. We take our definitional inspiration from two statements from the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes) of the Second Vatican Council. The first of these statements deals directly with knowledge and the professions: “...when a man applies himself to the various disciplines of philosophy, of history, and of mathematical and natural science, and when he cultivates the arts, he can do very much to elevate the human family to a more sublime understanding of truth, goodness, and beauty, and to the formation of judgments which embody universal values.” The second statement deals with solidarity: “Thus we are witnesses of the birth of a new humanism, one in which man is defined first of all by his responsibility toward his brothers and toward history.”[1]

The Social Value of Knowledge

One of the universal characteristics of the human mind is curiosity. There is always a desire to know more about the world that we live in, to find explanations to things that happen. In particular, we try to find ways to avoid bad things from happening to us and to our loved ones: "Men had always realized, of course, that they lived in a world of hazards. Crops fail if there is too much or too little rain. Tigers prowl about the compound at nightfall. The raft capsizes in midstream… [But] there is a real possibility of selecting the most promising alternative, promoting its actualization, and learning from an observation of the consequences."[2]

This quest has a strong social context. As members of a human community improve on their knowledge and their crafts, they share these experiences with other members of the community so that the combined learning can benefit all members. In the most primitive communities crafts are learned by imitation and apprenticeship, while in more advanced communities information is stored in more reliable and durable forms such as written documents and  now computer-related storage. The stored learning of the community can be transmitted to new generations who in turn continue to add to this knowledge. Occasionally some of this knowledge is lost, but in general, human knowledge has been additive and we benefit today from discoveries made thousands of years ago. This additive characteristic of knowledge is particularly effective in science and technology. The objective value of technical inventions insures their preservation until better techniques are found to replace them. Through accumulated technology humanity has been able to control or alleviate many diseases and natural disasters.

But the social value of knowledge is not limited to the solution of practical problems. We also value and endeavor to preserve and share the studies that serve to enrich the human spirit. Quoting medieval author  John of Salisbury:

Although pleasurable in many ways, the pursuit of letters is especially fruitful because it excludes all annoyances stemming from differences of time and place, it draws friends into each other's presence, and it abolishes the situation in which things worth knowing are not experienced. Arts would have perished, laws would have disappeared, faith and all religious duties whatsoever would have shattered, and even the correct use of eloquence would have declined, save that divine compassion granted to mortals the use of letters as a remedy for human infirmity.[3]

The Classical Heritage

The ancient world provides rich traditions of professionalism. The first professional known by name may have been Imhotep, the minister of pharaoh Djoser in Egypt, from around 2600 BC. Imhotep designed the first building of crafted stone, the stepped pyramid of pharaoh Djoser in Memphis. He may also have been a physician. He was greatly honored by the Egyptians.

A major contribution to the knowledge heritage of Western civilization came from the Greeks. Until around 600 BCE, the Greeks were content with mythological explanations about nature and the universe, as in other cultures. Then, several thinkers in the city of Miletus began to take a different approach, one that involved observation, analysis and reasoning about reality. The first of these was Thales (~636 - ~546 BCE). Some of this analysis was prompted by practical needs. Miletus was a major Greek trading center on the coast of Asia Minor. Thales traveled through Egypt and Mesopotamia seeking knowledge, and he was interested in facilitating navigation. He took an interest in what we would now call the sciences of astronomy and meteorology, and he attempted to develop his understanding of nature into a generalized cosmology, a system of knowledge. A number of other Greek thinkers developed their own cosmologies.

Hippocrates (460 – 377 BCE) made foundational contributions to medicine and medical ethics. Included in his famous oath is a service-oriented view of medical knowledge: "I will use my power to help the sick to the best of my ability and judgment.” Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) compiled and elaborated much of the earlier thought, and with a more methodical approach, he is considered to have established the foundations of what we consider science.

The Romans assimilated Greek culture and spread it further through their conquests. They also made some original contributions in medicine, law and engineering. The Roman Vitruvius, who compiled a major work on architecture, discusses the architectural profession, emphasizing both its experiential and scientific aspects:


The architect‘s expertise is enhanced by many disciplines and various sorts of specialized knowledge… This expertise is born of both practice and reasoning. Practice is the constant, repeated exercise of the hands by which the work is brought to completion in whatever medium is required for the proposed design. Reasoning, however, is what can demonstrate and explain the proportions of completed works skillfully and systematically. Thus architects who strove to obtain practical manual skills but lacked an education have never been able to achieve an influence equal to the quality of their exertions; on the other hand, those who placed their trust entirely on theory and in writings seems to have chased after a shadow, not something real.[4]

The Greek and Roman thinkers were aware of the value of the arts in developing the human spirit. The Roman senator Cicero was the one who best developed this theme.  In Pro Archia, which was a defense of the social utility of poetry, Cicero wrote of 'the humanities and letters', which he saw as the subjects that should be studied in order to achieve man’s full potential.[5]

The Pantheon Photo © Maecenas

The early Greek philosophers (seekers of wisdom) dealt mostly with issues of cosmology and science. A different focus was provided by Socrates (469-399 BCE), who concentrated on reasoning about human life. Socrates left no writings, but his thought was captured in the work of his disciple Plato (427-346 BCE). Aristotle, who was a disciple of Plato, was also a major ethical thinker. His Nichomachean Ethics, has been one of the most widely used books in Western social traditions.[6]

The Macedonian Greek rulers of the Ptolomeic dynasty built a large library at Alexandria during the third century (BCE) that attempted to accumulate the known knowledge of its time. The library dwindled during the third century AD due to lack of funding and support and eventually disappeared.

Christianity and Community

Classical thought assumed that the basic principles of social ethics were available to all human beings through the use of reason.  But putting these principles into practice is another matter. In spite of the lofty thoughts discussed above, Greece and Rome ended up as military tyrannies, and the Roman empire was responsible for the savagery of the gladiator games and circus executions. In the actual context of Western civilization, Christian moral teachings have provided a more effective motivator for social responsibility. The love of neighbor is a stronger force than reasoned philosophy. Jesus clearly identified the primary characteristic of the communities of his followers: "This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Gospel according to John, 13:34-35)

The Greek term used to denote the relationship among the members of a Christian community is koinonia (communion, fellowship). In the practice of the Christian communities this term means the total concern for all the needs of all the members of the community. In the letters written to his communities, Paul the apostle uses this term to refer to spiritual union (1 Cor 1:9) as well as well as compassion for material needs (Rom 15:26). These communities took care of the poor (2 Cor 8:14), provided hospitality to travelers (Rom 16:2), and generally comforted one another (1 Thes 5:11).

[1] Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” in The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Walter M. Abbott, S.J. (New York: America Press, 1966), 261-263.

[2] John Donohue, S.J., Work and Education, (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1959), 73.

[3] John of Salisbury, Policraticus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 3.

[4] Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge U. Press, 1999), 21.

[5] Charles G. Nauert, Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 12.

[6] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, tr. F.H. Peters  (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., 1886).