Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Advent Day 17

Come, let us worship the Lord, the fountain of wisdom.

Hagia Sophia -- Holy Wisdom
Today Paddy's history lesson was about the building of the Hagia Sophia (meaning "Holy Wisdom")  in Constantinople. To make it more real to him I googled the topic so we could look at images. Both Kieron and Paddy were very impressed by the sheer spectacular beauty of the interior of the famous ancient place of worship.  Kieron wanted to put something like it in one of his stories.

See, the days are coming – it is the Lord who speaks – when I will raise a virtuous Branch for David, who will reign as true king and be wise, practising honesty and integrity in the land.
Something that I read in Chesterton recently made me think about three levels of human awareness.   There is what Dietrich von Hildebrand calls "primitive" -- what psychologists seem to call "naive"  -- basically unreflective and natural.   Animals are always naive; it is one of the striking things about them.  It's also very charming to see in them, because that is how they are supposed to be.   It seems to me that Achilles might be a good human example of the "primitive" or the naive in full glory.   I can hardly think of anyone I know personally who is truly wholeheartedly naive or primitive.   But I don't live in a primitive society; maybe it would be different if I were a Viking or something.  

 Then there is a middle level, what von Hildebrand called "complex" -- you could also call it "sophisticated", perhaps.    It is that stage where you reflect on your natural reactions and evaluate your own awareness and opinions.   Secular educators work hard to get children to that level where they reflect on what they learn and even on how they themselves learn and act.   And in some ways they are right, that this is part of what education is about.     It seems to me that a lot of people stop here and think it's the best human rationality has to offer.   However, Chesterton said that "second thoughts" are often less reliable than "first thoughts" or "natural intuition"; and von Hildebrand didn't have very good things to say about "complexity".

I am thinking that the "sophisticated" or merely rational or meta-cognitive stage is a way-marker, inherently unstable.  It cannot build on itself; it can only critique or moderate what is already there.   At the same time, I think this is where the vast majority of humans are usually parked, especially in our complex modern societies.  What you see when people are at this middle level is that they can't "just" be in this second level.   They have to draw either from the naive stage or from the next level up, which I will call "wisdom" or "simplicity."

Chesterton said that "third thoughts" are better than first reactions or second-thoughts.   He doesn't go into much detail, but I think it is where the different faculties are integrated into one unified whole.  Thus it is "simple" even if it incorporates many subtle and delicate as well as magnificient and awe-inspiring elements.   Simple, as von Hildebrand says, does not mean primitive; it means something like elegant, except more powerful than that.  It means no excess or deficit in what it's intended for, and no distractions or false trails.  Beauty and truth and goodness are convertible terms and when you see perfection the three come together and are shown to be one. 

While it seems to me that most of the people I know are parked in the middle level of semi-sophistication, and this includes myself, I don't think people can really draw their life resources from this level.    Maybe it's a bit like Pieper said about how scientific thought has to support itself on pre-scientific suppositions.   So (for example) I am thinking that most people who call themselves "rational" or "sophisticated" are in fact drawing from the well of naivety or primitivism, without being aware of it at all.   This would explain some truly astounding things I have read by Dawkins and others.   Chesterton says that the "man who believes in nothing ends up believing in anything" and that "an open mind like an open mouth should close on something solid" (or it will only catch flies, I presume).   I think there is much truth in these epigrams and that he who denies something beyond rationality ends up in irrationality of one sort or another, a sort of living reductio ad absurdum.  

Even the "man in the street", the "plain country folk" or ordinary American that Sean Hannity interviews when he wants to make points about political ignorance, is a sophisticate in many ways, though perhaps drawing most of his or her energy from primitive sources.  You see a lot of permutations depending on level of academic education vs street smarts vs ordinary common sense, or whatever, but I would call all of this some sort of "sophisticated" or complex overlay.    Though I shall have to think more about how it works out in actuality.  

I think the most logically "rational" person is often the least effective; whenever I read TS Eliot I see the nihilism at the end of the truly sophisticated rainbow. (I am not saying Eliot was a nihilist, rather the opposite: that he described the malaise better than almost anyone else has in our century).    However, the vast majority of people are not very logical or consistent, even when they think they are; so most strictly "rational" types actually operate from naive premises, as I said before, even though it makes a hopeless muddle of their science.  

Finally -- some people are able to draw occasionally "upwards" from the fountain of wisdom or true simplicity, and their rationality or sometimes their primitivity is infused with something higher.  You see a variety of these people.  Sometimes they draw occasionally from the fountain; sometimes almost their whole lives seem informed with true wisdom.   And you can't always tell right away.   It's surprising sometimes to go to daily Mass (for instance) and look at the regulars and see how ordinary they are and how diverse, and think that some of them may be, interiorly, wearing splendid garments,

Personally, since I live in a complex society, I don't know many people who basically have gone straight from naivety to true simplicity or wisdom, but I do know a few, and perhaps some of the saints (perhaps Bernadette Soubirous or Maria Goretti or Joseph Labre) are exemplars of this possibility.   In some ways, as the Gospel points out, it may be easier for these "children" who have never gotten tangled up in complexity to behold the face of their Father.

However, for the majority of us, complexity or sophistication comes upon us whether we want it to or not, at least partially.   Formal education, TV-viewing, our social lives, the tasks we have to perform to manage in a complex artificial society all contribute to this.   The duty then becomes not "resting" in this complex mode, but trying to look up for what is poured down abundantly for those who look and ask.

Which is why good education has to look outside of its constituent parts, and why even an inadequate photo of that inner dome of Hagia Sophia makes me want to cry and amend my life.

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