Marcus Aurelius on Epistemology

You can’t build a bridge across a river without anchoring huge pillars of steel into the bedrock. You also can’t be sure about much, intellectually, unless you have a solid epistemology. “Epistemology” comes from two Greek words: episteme (knowledge) and logos (word or study of). The latter is easy and lets you know this is a discipline of study (like all other -ologies: biology, genealogy, phraseology, etc.). The former denotes what type of study this is: it’s the study of knowledge. It’s the knowledge we have about how we can have knowledge. Our epistemological position determines our confidence in our ability to know truth, and by truth, I mean absolutes. This is the battle ground for absolutes. The relativism of our postmodern world is due to a weak foundation, a weak epistemology.

Epistemology is one of my favorite disciplines because it deals with those unshakable, foundational realities. Before you can do theology you must do epistemology, and the same goes for every other discipline of study. To say you don’t have an epistemology is to have an epistemology (though it needs serious help).

We all inherit our epistemological positions from our parents, our communities, our intellectual influences, and our religious commitments, but we inherit a full-formed model which may or may not be correct. It is the first step of any student, whether religious or not, to form his own epistemological position and then, in that newfound rigor and confidence, apply it in every study. Marcus Aurelius said this perfectly almost 2,000 years ago (~AD 170):

Make for yourself a definition or description of the thing which is presented to you, so as to see distinctly what kind of a thing it is in its substance, in its nudity, in its complete entirety, and tell yourself its proper name, and the names of the things of which it has been compounded, and into which it will be resolved. For nothing is so productive of elevation of mind as to be able to examine methodically and truly every object that is presented to you in life, and always to look at things so as to see at the same time what kind of universe this is, and what kind of use everything performs in it, and what value everything has with reference to the whole.[1]

Aurelius is refreshing in this: he believes in naming. A strong epistemology is one that believes the world is really here, it is really functioning, and it is really consistent. You can name a pretty red flower a rose, and it will always be a rose. That’s an absolute. So is this big, sprawling oak tree called a Live Oak. It’s a real thing in time and space and deserves to have a name. This same confidence is what drives the Christian worldview, even beyond the physical world. We believe thoughts, ideas, and values are objectively real, existing things; they’re not just a product of our imaginations.

One way to apply this is to create for yourself a common language for learning. Concepts are nuanced and complicated, but sometimes we use several words for one main idea. This has profound impact on the way you get meaning from books. Since your goal in reading (and learning in general) is to make connections, you need a common name for all the various ideas each author presents. That way you can make connections between ideas and the way many authors think about them.

A strong epistemology generates a confidence in capital-T Truth. No matter where you look, you will see concepts in positive or negative forms, and if you have furnished your mind with your personal idea-language, you will be able to distill a variety of language and syntax and writing style and be equipped to notice connections across any discipline, any worldview, and any culture.

And as you go to study, take this bit of advice from John Todd with you. He was a pastor in the 19th century, and he wrote the greatest Student’s Manual I’ve read. He said:

You must never be satisfied with the surface of things; probe them to the bottom, and let nothing go till you understand it as thoroughly as your powers will enable you. Seize the moment of excited curiosity on any subject, to solve your doubts; for, if you let it pass, the desire may never return, and you may remain in ignorance. The habits which I have been recommending are not merely for college, but for life.[2]

  1. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, iii. 11  ↩

  2. John Todd, The Student’s Manual, pg. 121.  ↩