Hello, struggler, wisher, thirster-
I meet you at the well to wonder,
to ponder, and possibly to fight for
what it is to be alive.
Both of us are drinking from the same cistern.
We created it; the cracks refused to seal
and the water refused to heal our parched souls.
Goodness knows we have looked in all those cracks
for answers and heard enough echoes
to reassure us we are alone.
But what of the music that we didn’t make?
We hear it shake the ground sometimes
and we analyze the sounds that aren’t our own.
O great unknown, you sing to us
and call to us in open roads
and feather-leafed mesquite groves
and in places that are kind or bleak to us-
you are deeper than our well goes.
O Otherness beyond our echoes,
you have a voice that fills us
in the emptiness of subway halls
and other people’s flawless love.
Mend our cisterns! we cry,
and you reply,
Leave them dry. I will supply parched lips
with my munificence and drench
you in my providence.
O holy Christ, your voice is stronger
than the torrents tempting us to take
the earthy waters; human potters mold more vessels
but you call us-
like a wave: one but recurring.
Beyond words, beyond our singing
you are matchless:
to have tasted of your depth
is to know Already and Not Yet
and greater love and greater debt.
A week and a half ago I finished Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and I’m currently halfway through Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. I can hardly imagine two more dissimilar books. Notes is a literary personification of The Enlightenment carried to its logical extreme. Constantly second-guessing himself and wrestling with both pride and insecurity, its anonymous narrator begins by soliloquizing on the state of man and the world. His statements are often contradictory, i.e. “Man, after all, is stupid, phenomenally stupid. That is to say, although he is not in the least stupid, he is so ungrateful that it is useless to expect anything else from him.” Through this narrator, Dostoevsky exposes modern man’s addiction to progress detached from achievement, and good reputation detached from hard work and morality. Boredom and embarrassment are hailed among the chiefest of evils.
Reading Notes is a bit like looking into a mirror at the worst parts of myself. I suspect these are problems common to all men and all times (many times while reading, I was reminded of the human diagnosis in Pascal’s Pensées), but with the advent of modernity, the problems began to solicit praise. They cannot stand scrutiny, however! As Pascal notes in his thoughts about diversion, boredom is unbearable because it forces a man to think about his inadequacy: “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.” The fictional narrator of Notes from Underground thinks a great deal too much for contentment. He cannot decide whether to applaud himself as clever or denounce himself as an idiot. “Can a thinking man have any self-respect whatsoever?” he asks.
Notes is divided into two parts. In the second, the narrator tells a story from his past which centers around his encounter with a girl whom he first belittles and patronizes. Speaking from his position of occasionally optimistic cynicism, he tries to instruct her about life. But although initially captivated by his words, his supposed student soon reveals the petty contradictions of his nature. Because of this, the narrator realizes that he cannot truly love. He can only tyrannize. But even in his anguish and self-loathing, he cannot escape the calculating introspection that leads him to poeticize his every thought. He reminds me of Scarlett O’Hara, who realizes too late that she loved and lost Rhett, but still relies on her own arrogant charm. “Tomorrow is another day,” she says, but when you’re that level of selfish, tomorrow won’t be better than today unless you make the decision to change your core self. Actually I don’t know what happens. I haven’t read the sequel because Gone With the Wind irritated me so much!
The narrator from Notes both hates and adores the nature that causes him pain. But he knows he is not alone. At the end of the book, he addresses his readership, saying that we have lost touch with reality. And when he imagines readers protesting at being generalized so, he rebukes them, “After all, I have only carried to a logical conclusion what you yourselves didn’t dare to take more than half-way.” He is modernity, honest and personified.
Contrast all of this with Marcus Aurelius! What a stark difference. A Roman emperor stoic, Aurelius believed that everything happens in accordance with nature, and thus there is no true evil. A “ruling mind” can internally reorient experience and dissatisfaction in order to be perfectly at peace. His Meditations are like a journal of notes to himself: reminders and tips for living his own life. “This you must bear in mind:” he writes in 2:9, “what is the nature of the whole, and what is my nature, and how this is related to that, and what kind of part it is of what kind of whole; and there is no one who can hinder you from always doing and saying the things which are in accord with the nature of which you are a part.” The Meditations are full of wisdom. But in denying the reality of evil, Aurelius underestimated its power. He relied on the Soul to preserve virtue, but the aggregate soul of humanity wasn’t up to the challenge.
Still, the Meditations are inspiring. Aurelius had such hope for mankind. He lived a life of measured wisdom and perspective, knowing that his mind was his citadel, and that he could defend it from any external frustration- even using suffering and inconvenience for his own advantage. One of my favorite meditations is 4:1: “When the ruling mind acts according to nature, it so takes the events which happen as to always easily adapt itself to whatever is presented to it and whatever is possible. For it requires no special materials, but moves toward its purpose, imposing only certain conditions. It makes material for itself out of what opposes it, as fire lays hold of what falls into it. A small light might have been extinguished; but when the fire is strong, it soon appropriates to itself the stuff which is heaped on it, consumes it, and rises higher by means of this very material.” Reading Aurelius, he doesn’t strike me as a carefree optimist, but as a man who thoroughly analyzed the world and determined to live rightly regardless of circumstance. He took refuge inside himself: the very place that Dostoevsky’s narrator could not abide.
Why was Marcus Aurelius able to find peace where the Underground Man could not? I’d love to just say the answer is Jesus, but Aurelius wasn’t a Christian. He did, however, believe in “the gods” or a consciousness that controlled the world. Even though he had doubts about eternal purpose and immortality, he believed in the prescribed order of the universe. And I think that sustained him, along with many other thinkers of the time and throughout Western philosophy. When you believe that everything happens for a reason, even if you don’t know the reason or the arbiter, it’s easier to rest. But with the dawning of the Enlightenment and Nietzsche’s proclamation that “God is dead”, uncertainty in the existence of meaning turned into certainty that meaning was a child’s dream. Faith in an impersonal controlling force could no longer silence enough questions. In the infancy of Western thought, Marcus Aurelius could retreat into the order of his own mind. But as philosophy matured, it cut its bonds to God and therefore to order. And now the human thought process has nowhere to go, for Truth has become one hypothesis among many: all equally valid or invalid. We are left asking, “Can a thinking man have any self-respect whatsoever?”
Postmodernity is a peculiar place. We pursue sacred experience apart from its source. We want the numinous but cannot bring ourselves to believe in it. Essentially, we long to be Marcus Aurelius but we are stuck as the Underground Man. Posting quotes from the Meditations on Tumblr cannot align our identities to its author. “For we have sinned and grown old,” wrote G.K. Chesterton, “and our Father is younger than we.” Once mankind believed in a ruling force. But a force is not a father. I admire Marcus Aurelius more than Dostoevsky’s anonymous narrator, but neither of them knew the Way, the Truth, and the Life. At the end of C.S. Lewis’ book, Till We Have Faces, when Orual finally finds rest in encountering the person of Truth she says, “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?” The wisdom of Marcus Aurelius was real but partial, and obviously it has broken in the confrontation with Modernity’s questions. In order to sustain us, a force must have a face.
Modernity exposed humanism for the dead end that it is and made us realize that the answer cannot come from inside any of us, for our very hearts are fickle. Isn’t that the point of all this post-apocalyptic youth literature we’re currently enduring? The Hunger Games is a good example of the frailty of human goodness. But Christians trust not in human virtue, but in a force that became flesh: a father, a face before whom all questions fade away. In Christ we have “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf,” as Hebrews 6 promises. HE guarantees our life and salvation, not we ourselves. And in him, we really can burn through every obstacle like Marcus Aurelius, but with greater certainty because we can put a name to the hand that controls our fate. Christ takes the disillusioned, tired soul of mankind and gives us back our innocence by reuniting us with our Father. In him, I become a child again and enter the kingdom of God.
How do you know?
How do you know that you know?
How do you know that you know that you know?
The bemusing yet essential questions of epistemology have been around for thousands of years. In her book, A Little Manual for Knowing, Esther Lightcap Meek addresses those questions gently and accessibly. Meant to be a guidebook for those embarking on “knowing ventures”, each short chapter culminates in a series of introspective questions to assist thought and application.
What does it mean to gain knowledge? For most of us in this age of information, knowledge is simply an accumulation of facts, but Meek spends the 100 pages of A Little Manual debunking this assumption. Although she agrees that knowledge often involves amassing information, she goes deeper into the reality of human knowing with the intention of convincing us that there is more to knowledge than data. Ultimately, she claims that knowing requires love, commitment, and creaturely gratitude in order to come full circle and bear fruit. While information-driven knowledge is about control, love-driven knowledge invites and receives reality as it is. “We must be willing to have it change us,” she urges. Unless there is an element of trust and commitment to the yet-to-be-known, we’ll miss the reality of the thing– gaining a mere cursory idea of it or projecting our own expectations onto it. We’ll be the proper hearers of T.S. Eliot’s question: “Where is the life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
Meek borrows heavily from the philosophy of 20th century polymath Michael Polanyi, especially his theory of tacit knowing. Like Polanyi, she claims that much of our focal concentration is rooted in subsidiary awareness. Subsidiary-focal integration, or SFI, encompasses the core of a knowing endeavor. Skills like playing the piano exemplify SFI: you can’t play well if you focus entirely on your finger movements, for instance. Your fingers are part of your subsidiary awareness. When you begin to learn piano, your fingers are at the forefront of your concentration, but as you learn to control them, they take on the habit of correct posture and movement and allow you to shift your focus to the music. Similarly, as we learn in other ways, we integrate the focal and the subsidiary in a way that drives us closer to the heart of a subject. What begins as focal knowledge passes to subsidiary, where we can “indwell” it like our own bodies. Once-foreign concepts become presuppositions. “Coming to know proves to be a process of moving from looking at to looking from, in order to look beyond,” writes Meek.
She’s currently a successful writer, professor of philosophy in Pennsylvania, and Visiting Professor of Apologetics at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, but Meek remembers being in middle school and wondering how we can know when we’ve achieved knowledge. It’s a question that has plagued epistemologists for centuries, and maybe those epistemologists all started out as confused middle-schoolers. Meek’s explanation of how we know when we’re in contact with reality involves a complex term: Independent Future Manifestations; which just means a sense of unfolding possibility. “When you learn to ride a bike,” she told Ken Myers in an interview for the Mars Hill Audio Journal, “the world opens up to you in bikish ways.” When reality points you to more reality, that’s how you know it’s real. That moment of epiphany is empowering. Meek goes beyond that first connection, though. She encourages knowers to retain the wonder of epiphany throughout life as we continue to pursue understanding.
The necessity of retaining wonder requires us to see knowing as an exercise of love and invitation of the yet-to-be-known instead of a harvest of empirical facts. The first method is a pursuit of peace and living along-side; the latter is about power. And when we’re seekers of power, we are unwilling to allow our contact with reality to transform us. We take but do not give. Meek compares healthy learning to a dance: a give-and-take relationship between knower and known. We cannot strive for dominance or we’ll never achieve virtuosity. As creatures, we live inside a reality that has much to teach us, and often our most useful tool is acknowledgement of our own ignorance. 1 Corinthians 8:2-3 points this out: “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.” The proper focus is always on being known, rather than knowing; on approach rather than arrival. Meek speaks of reality in these terms when she says, “Rather than fitting into our sense of what makes sense, it fits us into its sense of what makes sense.”
A Little Manual for Knowing delves deep without drowning the reader. Only a centimeter thick, it’s essentially the layman’s version of Meek’s opus, Loving to Know. In that substantial work, the concepts of A Little Manual are detailed more thoroughly. But for those who don’t have time or fortitude for over 500 pages of epistemic philosophy, this thin manual delivers the core ideas. It is passionate and enthusiastic: highly unusual qualities in this field! Sometimes Meek waxes too eloquent and becomes gushy, and there are too few citations even for laymen, but I enjoyed Meek’s crash course in loving epistemology and I recommend it or Loving to Know for anyone interested in expanding his understanding of understanding.
For further reading on wisdom, tacit knowledge, and Michael Polanyi, try this post.
Secure me in the harrowed stateliness of cliffs
slung in the path of shouting seas.
Lash my rope to the indignities of love
won slowly, carved from void and vice.
Compass me around with golden leaves
falling at sunset, sunset falling.
Harbour me in earth-deep beauty-
four seasons for four loves.
Reassure me with patterns of life;
and in the comforts and vistas of flourishing,
watch the river of existence erode me.
I am a fire-forged ship and my sides crack
like bones against the force of alteration.
My decks shake until they turn to salt.
It cannot hold me, the glowing world.
Dip my anchor into the earth’s throbbing core,
fling it to the edges of the widened universe-
there is no depth or width can fasten me.
The tide and the years fray my rope, untie my Gordian securities.
But cast my anchor up, out of sight,
and my pitching sides go still, my shaking decks
straighten like balanced scales; I fasten myself to the only constant:
Only the anchor caught in heaven can hold me.
//”For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.” Malachi 3:6