Friday, February 19, 2010

For the Love of Sophia

For the Love of Sophia

Where shall wisdom be found? Literary critic and intellectual extraordinaire Harold Bloom asked this very question in a book by the same title. His answer was simply that literature is where we find the bulk of human knowledge. Beginning with Job and Ecclesiastes, and ranging from Plato, Homer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Johnson and Goethe to Emerson, Nietzsche, Freud and Proust, St. Augustine, the Gospel of Thomas, and so on, Bloom writes gracefully about each as he evaluates by comparison and teases out indicators of their subtle interrelationships. If you want to be wise, it's not just a matter of getting smarter, or obtaining a college level degree (although this helps), but it's about pulling a "Good Will Hunting" and being so well read that your mind is prepared to answer almost any challenge. Or as Voltaire espouse, books are that which lights our hearths, as if to say enlightens our minds so that we may become, as in the spirit of Walt Whitman, vast and containing multitudes.

What is wisdom? For Plato wisdom: He is wise who like Socrates does not presume to have knowledge. However, the way I see it, religion claims just that, to have God's knowledge. That's the most common claim among the Patriarchs of faith anyway. But such a claim should be testable, since if it were true then God's people would verifiable be smarter and wiser than anyone else. This doesn't seem to be the case. It seems that in most cases the claims of religious believers reveal themselves for what Plato and Socrates would deem the unwise, the foolish, the person who claims to be all knowing but, in actuality, does not have a clue.

I think that wisdom comes from experience. From the standpoint of a humanist though, I agree wisdom is enhanced by life experience, but what is life experience? It's the accrual of knowledge about the everyday world around us. Therefore, it's related to the other form of knowledge, the kind Plato spoke about, the knowledge of the sages.

David Hume reminds us that:

In our reasoning concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.

But Hume also cautions us that:

Though experience be our only guide in reasoning concerning matters of fact; it must be acknowledged, that this guide is not altogether infallible, but in some cases is apt to lead us into errors.

And this is why I entitled this piece 'For the Love of Sophia.' It's simply not enough to have the experience, one has to make sense of the experience, and this is where philosophy comes in. It helps us make sense of these accumulated experiences, and through understanding find meaning, while at the same time it helps us become aware that experiences too can sometimes be misleading. Therefore, I agree with Hume that a wise man bases his beliefs proportionately with the available evidence. Socrates wisdom is more of a form of refined etiquette for those who become wise, because only then do you realize there is more to know and that you know so little it wouldn't be worth bragging about--this is wisdom tempered by experience.

Does wisdom come from religion? I think the better question would be can it? I would say yes, but only to a small degree. Religion contains no more wisdom than a T.S. Eliot poem, a  or a Shakespeare sonnet, the wisdom comes in the form of knowledge and information written, compiled, and preserved, but only if it's the best one has to offer. I always make it a habit to point out that the Bible is not a book containing the best insights humanity has ever had, but rather, it's a tome of various books from various genres all varying in the quality of their content. The main problem is, and one that goes overlooked by religious people of faith time and time again, is that their religious texts and holy books are derivative. That means they repeat stories from other cultures, or that are commonly known, and rarely do they enhance or add to them in a way that is beneficial. In fact, the Christian holy Bible is an oversized compendium of derivative works of literature, none of it very good by literary values of quality and consistency.

Sure there are some good stories and prose, some wisdom to be gleamed from its pages, but none of it is the absolute best humanity has to offer.  The best knowledge, wisdom, and insights commonly come from outside of religious sources. It's only after the fact, do reasonable people take this new found knowledge and kindle it, make it grow, and reverse engineer it back into the religious manifold to claim that religions is where it came from in the first place. Not true. Being enamored with the power of ideas is no proof that they originated by divine inspiration of from some divine source. They may have an air of the transcendent about them, but then I would suggest, this  is simply the nature of wisdom.

Real wisdom comes from looking not at one source, but from hundreds if not thousands, a variety so superfluous it overwhelms the human imagination. Wisdom is an accumulation of the finest knowledge, not just one sort of knowledge dedicated to one cultural practice or belief, but from philosophy to science and from history to poetry of every kind. Quite precisely, it is an unbiased survey of the bulwark of human knowledge spanning the whole collection of human accomplishments and the whole consciousness of the human experience. Without language, mind you, religion couldn't exist, but neither would wisdom, which exists because of the observable spread of information, knowledge, and ideas through cultural transmission via language, and has the capacity to permeate our intellects, be met with rational inquiry, critical thinking, and skepticism, and when it passes the test of scrutiny this is the wisdom refined, and only then is it worth preserving.

Most religious wisdom is not refined, it's an unrefined attempt at compiling what, to ancient minds of limited scope and ability, of limited worldview, limited understanding, and restricted by cultural or linguistic limitations, geographical and otherwise, thought was the best advice they had ever heard and so preserved it all (regardless of quality) for posterity's sake.  And it's a good thing they did, because we have it to add to and enhance our wisdom. Soon they exalted it, and made it into paper idols, because they had nothing to balance it against. It was all they knew. And this is the foundation for religious wisdom. More imagination than actual content, more myth than actual  positive knowledge, more muddled beliefs tangled up in superstition based on unconscious fears rather than clarity brought by conscious understanding.

Nonetheless, it was the first attempt to collect it all and keep the important stories  and information alive, to be sure, to save the compilation stories which defined us as a race and gave meaning to our experience as to our very existence. Religion  was devised and adapted to make sense of these stories, and therefore aid us in making sense of the world around us in accordance with ourselves, along with our human goals and aspirations.

I think that the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) had it right when he wrote in his popular work The New Science, “For when man understands he extends his mind and takes in the things, but when he does not understand he makes the things out of himself and becomes them by transforming himself into them.”

Gentile men in turn created divine things from their imagination—and as Vico illustrates:

By means of their natural theology, the gentile, imagined the gods; how by means of their logic they invented languages, by morals, created heroes; by economics, founded families, and by politics, cities, by their physics, established the beginnings of things as all divine; by the particular physics of man, in a certain sense created themselves; by their cosmography, fashioned for themselves a universe entirely of gods; by astronomy, carried the planets and constellations from earth to heave; by chronology, gave a beginning to [measured] times; and how by geography described the world. [p. 408]

Mankind created things according to their own ideas… but they, in their robust ignorance, did it by virtue of a wholly corporeal imagination. And because it was quite corporeal, they did it with marvelous sublimity; a sublimity such and so great that it excessively perturbed the very persons who by imagining did the creating, for which they were called “poets.” [p. 409]

In this fashion the first theological poets created the first divine fable, the greatest they ever created: that of Jove. [p.410]

Symbols fill our consciousness and move to explanation how ignorance + imagination = Man Made Gods.[i] Which is interrupted by language causing a movement to theology, which explains the religious act of the historical tradition. This is representative of the Age of Man trying to justify and explain the age of Gods. For me the necessary progression of things means we must now come into the age of Reason, if not willingly, then inescapably for reason is the event horizon of human consciousness, where intellect informs our individual identities. To deny the age of Reason would be to deny the mind—in essence, to deny the self. Only a person afflicted with the fear of losing the age of Gods would so recklessly cling to the religious notions of the divine so tightly as to pull it kicking and screaming into the age of Reason. Although, this friction may consequently explain why Reason and Faith are at odds with each other in today’s modern world.

No, I cannot accept such a limited and basic form of knowledge and wisdom as that of religion, for its originators are found in ignorance and imagination, where ignorance is interpolated by a robust imagination run amuck to beget the notion of divine powers conveniently made in the image of man. The idea of God, when looked at for what it is, is almost too human for me. Personally, I realize there can be no border, nor boundary, to restrict the amount of wisdom and knowledge one can be permitted to attain. Whereas religion seeks to instill only certain forms of knowledge, regulating how one can seek it, by what means, and to what extent, I realized long ago that this censorship only serves to bolster the religious agenda, and this practice is an affront those who seek true wisdom and knowledge without restraint—for these things are as free as the winds or the currents of the tide. They cannot be forced to fit one mindset, one doctrine, or one theology but even those trapped in the limitations of religious belief can free their minds, for a mind that is prepared to meet such truths head on can re-forge itself into a tempered intellect and break free of any mindset forced upon it!

Prometheus dared to steal the knowledge of the gods and was punished for it. But this is the fear tactic of religion, to punish those who dare to become as knowing as the gods, because religion fears that if you ever learned more than it did you wouldn’t fear god or religion anymore, you’d be free from the shackles of its cantankerous hold over the fearful human imagination, and then god’s authority would cease to be. In shedding our ancient superstitions and growing wise in the immeasurable knowledge we now have obtained, I suggest we all become like Prometheus, fearless and bold and who defies the gods by meeting them on their own terms. Or as Lord Byron, the famous Romanticist poet, once so eloquently put it:

And a firm will, and a deep sense,
Which even in torture can descry
Its own concenter'd recompense,
Triumphant where it dares defy
(Prometheus, 1816)

Wisdom, truth, and knowledge can be had by anyone. There are no special prerequisites, other than perhaps the ability to read—as literacy is a vital part in the assimilation and capacity to retain knowledge—but beyond this the sky is the limit. Anyone can learn to be wise, but the thing worth mentioning is this, religious faith will not make you wise. No spiritual connection, or faith in unfathomable things, will  ever serve to increase your life experience or practical education, your mind will remain stagnant, but the power of a book: this can reshape your life drastically! With that in mind, I wish you all to get involved in as much reading as time allows for, so that your wisdom might not just accumulate but compound and multiply, so that you may feel the liberation of a mind as wide open to you as the sea of ideas! Let the flood come. Friends, let us who esteem wisdom, love, and the pursuit of noble things enter the age of Reason together!

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist