Sunday, May 09, 2010

Once I thought that I could sift . . .

Once I was a student of philosophy. Once I was confident of my ability to discover philosophical truth.

Once I thought that I could sift the words of others and find what truth, if any, was in them. This betrayed a boundless conceit, an unchecked belief in my own ability to divide the true from the false. The source of the utterance was irrelevant, I thought. Only the utterance itself was of importance. Ignore the source, attend to the claim. Thus I thought that I could build up in myself a store of truth.

(In retrospect, I wonder why I ever thought that the opinions of others were of any importance. If I had within myself the power to discover truth, what need had I of others? Perhaps only to point out certain avenues of inquiry that I had overlooked. But this is a small matter.)

I now doubt that I have any such ability as this. A man says to me that God does not exist. Can I weigh this statement on my own? Can I prove it? Refute it? Even so much as understand what is meant by "God"? I cannot. As I grow older, I find that I trust myself less and less. Reason in me is a little thing, an impotent thing. It can go wrong so very easily and for reasons that have nothing to do with reason itself. Reason is a capacity of a person; it is not cut off from the rest of personality. Thus a defect of personality can, and often does, infect reason. Reason is made a slave to that defect. It defends it. Protects it. Prop it up. Almost never does it turn on the defect and show it up for what it is.

Now I find that I do not first sift the words of others. Rather I sift them. If the person seems to me good, I give weight to their words. If they seem unkind or disingenuous, I disregard them. Only those who are good can attain wisdom. The wicked always fall into error. Since I have some confidence in my ability to recognize the good, I have some confidence on my ability to recognize those whose words I ought to heed.

I do not mean to say that the wicked are never right. They are quite often right about small matters, inconsequential matters. But about matters of importance - God, the good life, the fate of the soul, etc. - mistakes, deep and consequential mistakes, are inevitable. Plug your ears to the wicked! Heed the words of the virtuous!

Nor do I mean to say that the virtuous can never be wrong about any matter of importance. At times, the virtuous are wrong about the source of their virtue, about its importance and place. But for those who like me stumble about in the dark and must hope for a light to follow, there is nowhere we might look than to those who are good.

Plato told us that the Good is beyond even Being. That which exists, he held, does so because it is good for it to be. I would say too that the Good begets knowledge.  If left to ourselves, deep and consequential error is inevitable. We must look outside ourselves for whatever little bit of wisdom we can attain. But when we look out, the only light on which we can fix is the light of the Good. Only when it shines forth from others will we have a path to follow.