Friday, June 10, 2016

Wisdom of the Cave

I have, of course, long thought about this. I am sure every believer who has advanced education, especially in theology, philosophy and history, and an interest in apologetics and education has. Some have perhaps even come face-to-face with the questions - is it possible, is it worthwhile to engage with others so as to spread real love of wisdom? When you seriously entertain these questions it has to bring about a kind of crisis, a vocational or professional one.

Socrates from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (aka So-crates).
Some aspects of the tradition argue against the possibility. Plato did not seek to educate mankind at large. He clearly understood that only certain people were capable of the kind of advanced education he had in mind which would make the state a better place. Aquinas realized this too. It's in the very first question of the Summa Theologica.

Nor, we have to point out, is this merely a question of choosing the smartest - although in fact every one is smart! No, they did not believe that everyone is smart enough. Marxist style criticism has done a disservice here in making us want to view the matter as one of privilege: only the rich could afford education, but if everyone had the opportunity, they could do it too! Plato and Aristotle didn't believe that by a long-shot.

Another democratizing tactic to make everyone feel better is to make a distinction between wisdom and plain-old knowledge. Everyone is capable of what really matters - wisdom. No, again, they would not agree with that. The negative consequence of this thought-pattern is the devaluation of knowledge, the role it has always been considered to have within wisdom.

Take a look in this case at Augustine. Yes, he makes the standard Christian distinction between virtue and knowledge. Virtue is what gets us in to heaven, not knowledge. But if this were true in and of itself with no further qualification required, then it would, in fact, be sinful to devote one's time to learning. Quite the contrary, says the Christian tradition. Augustine said that the best thing we can do is think about God. Think. Why would he say such a thing? Because we are thinking beings by nature and thinking about God makes Him present, and since God made all things, to think about all things makes God better known. When we think about things, those things become clearer to us, they begin to impact us - our minds and bodies, they inspire us, they preoccupy us, they work on our feelings and imagination. Aquinas (in the Summa Contra Gentiles) said that knowledge creates a desire for likeness (not just a desire for likeness, but likeness itself!). If we think about God, we will come to know Him better, and we will be transformed into His likeness. Nor do we need to take Aquinas' word for it: I spent my whole childhood trying to become a Jedi. Why do ladies watch period dramas? What are the effects of watching them? We want to be like what we see.

Knowledge and holiness are correlated. They are not proportional or identical, but correlated.

Now, all of this is just a beginning. On a topic like this, when you attempt to characterize knowledge as a whole, you are attempting to ask what it would be like to swallow a whole whale. Nevertheless, the beginning we have made is sufficient to characterize the attitude we should have when undertaking the task: what are the virtues, attitudes or techniques we should apply in undertaking it?

I think the two most general ones are humility and industry. Humility is an attitude that appreciates the greatness of things, and that recognizes one's small place in the whole. Industry is choosing to do the hard work required to scale that great height. Humility is the attitude required and industry is the energy that makes the action possible. (I recognize that 'industry' does not appear in Augustine or Aquinas. But I think it is a good word to encapsulate things like perseverance, patience, fortitude, etc.)

But let's be honest, these are rare commodities. In their place people stick a lot of things: passion and pride being the most obvious. Pride replaces humility; passion replaces industry. The internet is a showcase of this. The way people insinuate, rush to conclusions in a blind and often herd-like manner, take and give offence, simplify, twist, try to convince (often with gas lighting intensity!), manipulate data, and are often only able to think in terms of stereotypes and memes.

Sure, we can blame Marxists for this, but they did not invent the blocks to wisdom, they only exploited them. They consciously turned dialogue into a device for political gain; everyone before them just did it with shame and often unconsciously. Marxists turned it into a virtue.

One of the conclusions I am compelled to make at this point is that the maxim(s) we tend to take for granted today "everyone's opinion is valid" or "everyone should have a voice" is/are not completely correct. It is as false as it is true; perhaps more false than true. It is itself based upon several philosophical premises that have not been universally endorsed, but are, in fact, of a more recent vintage and still disputed. And it is/they are, moreover, very easily misconstrued. (Misconstruing is what we do best!)

Of course this is existentialism and it is Rousseauian 'naturalism,' for lack of a better word. (It also has vestiges of Gnosticism, when you really think about it.) No classical philosopher has ever wanted to level the playing field like this, as we have seen above. Why? Because they were astute observers of people. We have to ask about the people who contradict these philosophers, then. Why are they doing it? Why do they tell us that everyone's opinion counts? Take the drive to get young people to vote, for example. Do members of the left wing parties really care about their opinions? Of course not. They tell them that they are valuable because they know they will tend to vote left. If they tended to vote right they would not urge them to vote. One should always be skeptical of people who tell them how great they are - they are usually trying to sell them something, or otherwise exploit them. We call this demagoguery in politics. It is sadly quite effective.

If you are still reading, you might be rather hot by now. Why? Because I have told you something that violates the law of niceness to which we have been accustomed since our childhoods. Nor do I mean to be simply dismissive or whimsical. Let's think about it. For most of time hard-and-fast meritocracy ruled intellectual culture, from architecture to poetry, philosophy, etc. No democratic principle of existentialism existed to give everybody a say. Art, they said, was ruled by absolute laws of aesthetics, even if it was hard to articulate what these are. People could be born altogether unsuited to mastering any given art, and there was nothing they could do to change this and no one felt the need to erase this fact from people's consciousnesses. Nor is this self-serving. I would love to be a great poet. If I devoted every (and was free to devote every) spare moment to studying and practicing that art, I would never be able to attain what my heroes, Keats and Tennyson, achieved in their mid-twenties. How I wish I could - what beauty, what power, what unction! Yes, my achievements in theology and philosophy are far beyond the average person's; far beyond what most people would ever be able to achieve. But I have not put into my whole self what Aquinas and Augustine have fit into their little pinkies; it will never be otherwise. I might even be an infant compared to those who typically fill the hallowed halls of the world's great schools today. I don't know. Does it matter? It does if I want gainly employment. And it does matter somewhat if I would seek true union with God.

Let me offer this now: not all intellectuals are holy, but most, perhaps all, holy people have activated intellects.

So what is the conclusion of this elaboration? It would be trite to offer the rather obvious conclusion that not all people are suited to debate, to dialogue, what have you. It is better yet to say, not all debate is good. Some of it is futile and leads rather to blindness rather than to greater sight.

Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will. (2 Tm 2:23-6)

It is better yet to ask about the responsibilities the intellectual has (I mean someone operating in the Catholic intellectual tradition) to his lay-fellow. I have been taking my cue from the great, yes, great, IMHO, Catholic intellectual, Janet Smith, on Facebook. Examine how she conducts herself amid all the pitfalls of dealing with 'non-professionals' I have discussed above. Note how carefully she directs people back to the points at hand, how she steers people away from errors of sloppy thinking. My question for her, though, is why? Clearly, she sees it as a part of her teaching ministry. Clear thinking is always of benefit to the human being. She wishes to teach this to others, to teach the virtues of good thinking, because good thinking is a Christian virtue. It helps us toward God.

Not all of us are good thinkers. Not all of us can become good thinkers. Probably all of us can become better thinking than we are now, and that is of universal benefit.

Most people are unable to reason well. In most cases this is because they do not know what it is and why it is beneficial. It is more beneficial than simply having your presuppositions agreed with. It is more beneficial than the false benefit of not having to be subject to angering contradiction. Winning an argument is like winning a flip of the coin: it signifies nothing about your personal worth. Learning to reason well so as to arrive at more truth is like having learned to fish, but to fish for soul food.

Yes, sometimes I wonder if it is worth it in the end. Such animus for so little gain. I won't talk to certain kinds of people any more about theoretical points. I won't abandon the matter altogether though, but I have been really slow in sloughing off my democratic errors.

What have I been expecting from people? That by means of my efforts at apologetics they would become philosophers? Yes. That I would turn them from worldliness to the pursuit of holiness? Yes. That I would educate them into Catholic orthodoxy? Not really.

Can I be bothered to communicate with others when, or if, I truly recognize that they will never care about 'truth' the way I do? My enthusiasm dies a little bit more every day. I am not a catechist. Spreading knowledge of the creed is not a goal I have ever set for myself. I would not have studied all these years if it were. If it were, I would just try to do the good work so many Sunday school teachers do. Knowing the creed does not interest me. It's about being driven to the truth toward which the creed points. This drive is the thing that obsesses me and it is not something widely embraced.


  1. 2Tim 2 (quoted above) versus 2Tim 4: "I adjure thee in the sight of God, and of Jesus Christ, who is to be the judge of living and dead, in the name of his coming, and of his kingdom, 2 preach the word, dwelling upon it continually, welcome or unwelcome; bring home wrong-doing, comfort the waverer, rebuke the sinner, with all the patience of a teacher. 3 The time will surely come, when men will grow tired of sound doctrine, always itching to hear something fresh; and so they will provide themselves with a continuous succession of new teachers, as the whim takes them, 4 turning a deaf ear to the truth, bestowing their attention on fables instead. 5 It is for thee to be on the watch, to accept every hardship, to employ thyself in preaching the gospel, and perform every duty of thy office, keeping a sober mind." (2 Tim 4:1-5)

  2. Was this the foundation of the Facebook flurry?