If all men truly desire by nature to know, as Aristotle claims, then a human society in which evidence is ignored or quashed or in which truth is a commodity cannot but destroy men—and itself. Those ideologies that are plaguing us are fruits of the refusal to heed the natural desire to know.
The basics are rarely sexy. I doubt that we will ever see a newspaper headline that reads: “PLATO WRONG: A UNIVERSAL CANNOT BE A SUBSTANCE!” This is not to say that there haven’t been thinkers who have had the courage—and the opportunity—to begin their works with stunning statements of basics. Aristotle did, for instance, in the opening line of his Metaphysics: “All men by nature desire to know.” Aquinas did in the opening lines of his Commentary on the Book of Job: “Just as things which are generated naturally reach perfection from imperfection by small degrees, so too is it with men in their knowledge of the truth.” But as breathtaking as these opening lines are, and as nourishing, they do not grab our attention nearly as much as do openers like “Marley was dead, to begin with,” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” or “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” They simply cannot compete with “Impeached Again!” or “Winston Busted from Oval Office!” or “Hedge Funds Targeted!” The basics are not the stuff of headlines.
The problem with basics—even these wondrous opening statements of basics—is that we simply do not fathom them. We read “All men by nature desire to know” and do not immediately perceive how earth-shaking a statement it really is. If all men truly do by nature desire to know—as Aristotle claims and demonstrates through the delight that we are all afforded by our sensations—then all of those human beings who do not wonder, do not ask questions, or do not reflect cannot but have some grave sort of disorder. Like those human beings who cannot digest food or whose blood does not coagulate, they do not function as they are meant to, as their nature would have them do. Like their counterparts who have some physical infirmity or other, those who do not wonder, question, or reflect are unwell, unhealthy, ailing, failing, flailing, limping, moribund. And again, if all men truly desire by nature to know, then a human society in which evidence is ignored or quashed, in which the concrete is considered a nuisance, in which questioning and reasoning are replaced by an insistent repetition of ‘correct opinions,’ in which discussions and debates simply do not take place, a society, in a word, in which truth is a commodity cannot but destroy men—and itself. We see none of this when we first read “all men by nature desire to know,” or other statements of basic truths. So we skim over them much like those people who walk straight past a Donatello, or those who hear the Matthew’s Passion without stopping in their tracks.
Ours, to some extent, is a natural reaction to the basics. Our intellects, as Aristotle points out in the Metaphysics, are as blind as bats by day: While we all naturally grasp the principles at work in reality—the basics are self-evident, after all—we do so only vaguely, “as through a mirror darkly” –αἰνίγματι—as St. Paul so poetically phrased it. What is worse, we can (none of us) immediately comprehend how those basics that we so nebulously grasp actually inform—or ought to inform—reality: the concrete world, our society, ourselves, our actions. So the basics can seem boring, and we become convinced that they have nothing at all to do with us, the world, or with our problems. “Right,” we can impatiently respond to Aristotle, as we quickly close the cover of the Metaphysics, “‘all men by nature desire to know’—and while we’re at it ‘are all created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights’—but we don’t have the time for this. We have real problems on our hands. We are swimming in a sea of dangerous lies and debt, incapacity and mediocrity, ignorance and muck. Our way of life, our history, our beliefs, our families, our children, our future are all under siege. We have no idea what is to become of our nation, damned as we are if we ignore the mayhem that surrounds us, and damned as we are if we do not; damned as we are if our journalists and politicians continue their current practices, and damned as we are if there are no journalists or politicians at all; damned as we are if our schools and colleges collapse, and damned as we are if they do not; damned as we are if churchmen need to please earthly powers more than divine ones, damned as we are if there are no churchmen at all.”
Yes, the temptation to rush past the basics can be quite natural, and for millennia scores of human beings fared quite well without ever having laid eyes on Aristotle’s Metaphysics or without being able to articulate the basics with anything remotely resembling finesse. But their ignorance is not our ignorance, the natural temptation not our temptation. Joan of Arc never read Aristotle or the Gospels. But this was not because she thought that doing so was not necessary: that the basics could tell her nothing about herself, or about reality, about how one ought to live, or about the point of it all. It was not because she did not know that she needed to know them in order to be herself. Joan of Arc did not read Aristotle or the Gospels because she could not. She was illiterate. Books in her day and age were a precious commodity… We, on the other hand, who are not illiterate, we who have access to the Metaphysics (and Scripture), we who have the leisure that it takes to reflect on the basics, we who like Joan need to know the basics in order to be ourselves, to fulfill our natural needs, we do not want to be bothered with them. We would rather become incensed, take pot shots at our enemies, feel the joy of moral superiority course through our veins.
Our disdain for the basics should not be shocking. It has been carefully cultivated since the father of modern philosophy convinced the Western world that no human mind’s grasp of the basics can be rectified, and that the material world (which includes our bodies and our societies) is completely distinct from the mind and its desires. Like obedient descendants, we assume that we cannot improve our understanding of the basics. We assume that the basics will tell us nothing about concrete reality. We assume that our own understanding of the basics has nothing to do with what we are, with how we live, with our fulfillment as persons. Why, then, reflect on the basics? Why re-learn how to spell or add: puzzle over the rules that regulate orthography, the axioms that ground number theory? Why, for that matter, examine our understanding of what we are, or of how we know? We already know these things—or can at least quickly find out what they are on Wikipedia, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or any one of the hundreds of websites at our disposition. And even if we cannot quite make out why some thinkers still fuss about things like the difference between νοῦς (insight) and ἐπιστήμη (reasoned understanding), τέχνη (know-how) and φρόνησις (wisdom), or what they are really fussing about, we are quite sure that those arcane distinctions have nothing concretely to do with us, our society, the world, with what we really want, that understanding them is useless. So with the smugness of Wilde’s Gwendolen, we inwardly reply to lines like “all men by nature desire to know,” with an “Ah! That is clearly a metaphysical speculation, and like most metaphysical speculations has very little reference at all to the actual facts of real life as we know them.” And we skip past the Donatello without realizing that there could be no education systems, no journalists, no politicians, no constitutions, no nations, no shutdowns, no vaccines, no unemployment, no ideologies, no insomnia, no hysteria, no problems or disagreements at all of any sort for us to worry about, if “all men [did not] by nature desire to know.” We skip past it, ignoring that those ideologies that are plaguing us are fruits of the refusal to heed the natural desire to know. We skip past the Donatello without realizing that we are starving ourselves by not wondering at its beauty.
Our disdain for the basics is, of course, unnatural and if nothing else, our growing incapacity to read anything other than complaints, attacks, and jeremiads, to reflect, calmly to communicate with a waxing plethora of obstinate relatives, neighbors, and colleagues who aggressively insist upon repeating things that are blatantly false, uninformed, or slanted (and feel perfectly justified when they ignore common sense and evidence, when they unashamedly apply double standards) should key us into this. Our defensiveness should key us into this, and the lack of joy and laughter in our lives.
There is a reason why the present feels so chaotic, so empty, so hollow, so absurd, a reason why no one who is someone seems to be abiding by the rules, why the rules that these someones put in place are unintelligible, a reason why trust seems to be a thing of the past, why we seem to be incapable of doing anything. The modernists’ cathedral, that monstrosity built upon those carefully cultivated beliefs that have made us blind to the wonder of the basics, is finally being unveiled in plain sight. And we who recognize the ugliness of that cathedral, the hypocrisy of those who in the name of equality and freedom would ‘overturn’ nature ‘in order to rebuild it,’ find that we cannot find the means with which to communicate the grounds of our horror to those who would applaud the ‘overturn.’ We repeat Chesterton’s quips and Belloc’s, we quote Newman and Lewis, Kirk and Burke. We become frustrated when people do not understand or listen to us—or bask in our own superiority when we realize that the others do not grasp what we say. But the fact is that we too, with our indignation, our correct basic beliefs and rightmindedness, we too are responsible for the building and unveiling of that cathedral. We have compromised with the European architects of modernity: with the Bacons and the Descarteses, the Humes and the Kants. We have let them define the basics, determine the problems. Theirs is the epistemic framework within which we operate, and the metaphysical. Theirs is the agenda. Theirs are the terms. The foundations of the conception of reality that is operative in our minds are theirs. As much as we might gloat in the conviction that the Empiricists were superior to the Rationalists, in the fact that Locke was not one of Marx’s intellectual forebears, the truth is that both Locke and the Rationalist ancestors of that curious brown idealism that has devasted the world share the same basic premises: that the concrete world with its wondrous motley orchestra of living things is intrinsically unintelligible to us, that we can thrive without knowing it, that we must control it. It is these premises that lie at the foundation of the modernist cathedral.
And we, who are suffering at the sight of the abuse of our principles, have let the fears and doubts of the Hobbeses and Bayles smother the wonder that we by nature feel when we see the world around us. We have let the conceited certainty of the Bacons and Descarteses stifle our natural desire to know the basics. We have let the Millses’ and Benthams’ promise of a perfect society and eternal youth suffocate our awe. We have lost our innocence. We have fallen into the modern trap of believing that the weight of the world rests on our shoulders: that we are alone in this fight. We have become a dour and cantankerous bunch.
The good news is that we need not be. “All men” truly do “by nature desire to know.” We might have forgotten what we are and walked straight past the Donatello, or any number of “mortal things” that “Deal out that being indoors each one dwells,” but we are human, and we can learn again to listen and see, to delight in our sensations and in our questions, in our own understanding and in walking the path illuminated by our own real need to know. Ours is a natural need. It will not die as long as we live. And the Donatello too is there, waiting to be seen and grasped.
What, then, is this need of ours to know of which Aristotle speaks, and Aquinas? What is knowledge?
We operate today under a profound misconception of knowledge. We are told not just that basic beliefs are unchangeable and “social constructs”—that they “have very little reference to the actual facts of real life.” We are also told that knowledge, real knowledge that is, must be objective: hold equally (and in the same way) for all people and all things and be expressed in abstract propositions. Knowledge must, or so our narrative would have it, have nothing to do with us as thinking subjects, or with our real lives (our interests and disinterests, likes and dislikes, natural needs and hopes, our fruition, our joy). Contact with thinking subjects and their interests would taint it. Thinking subjects are, horror of horrors, subjective.
It is the belief that knowledge is a set objective of universal abstract propositions that must exist independently of thinking subjects that leads us to think that we need only memorize encyclopedia entries to understand the difference between νοῦς (insight) and ἐπιστήμη (reasoned understanding), τέχνη (know-how) and φρόνησις (wisdom). It is this same belief that lies behind standardized exams, multiple choice tests, curricula, jeopardy, and trivial pursuit. It is this same belief that makes the basics so boring.
We are also convinced that the purpose of knowledge is its utility. Knowledge, we are told over and over again, is power. It is what allows us to control the concrete world—our bodies primarily—and protect ourselves from it. It is what allows us to control pain, make vaccines, control populations, make distance irrelevant, age irrelevant, individuals irrelevant, nature irrelevant.
Ours is the modern view of knowledge and is steeped in the Promethean myth: the quest to steal fire for the frightened people who live in the dark. Knowledge is for modern man essentially a rebellion against God: the means with which to ensure that what I want becomes what is. It is no wonder, then, that when we read Genesis, we get stuck on the command not to eat of the forbidden tree—“the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” God, we are told by modern philosophers, wanted to keep man in the dark.
We could not be more wrong. Knowledge is not a set of abstract propositions to be memorized any more than loving music is wearing a fur coat to the opening night of the season at Carnegie Hall. Books and computers store propositions. They know nothing, and never will. Knowing is an act performed by a person. It is that act through which he relates to reality and (in the human case) is nourished by it. That that act when performed by human beings must be preceded by a host of other incomplete cognitive acts—sensing, remembering, experiencing, abstracting, categorizing, formulating, composing thoughts and dividing them, comparing them to our sensations—must not distract us from its essence. Knowing is a relation between a knower and what he knows. It is precisely because it is a relation that we can speak of Adam’s knowing Eve, or of the beatific vision as fulfilling. Knowing is the act through which we “reach perfection from imperfection” through the reception of reality.
If instead of focusing on the forbidden fruit, we were really to read the rest of the first chapters of Genesis, we would see what knowledge is. When God put Adam in the Garden of Eden, He did give him commands. The first was “Eat of every tree in the Garden.” That command was directed at a rational being, and not a slave or marionette. It was qualified with the adverb “freely.” It implied that Adam would do his own eating—and not be spoon fed—and would do so as he saw fit. God did not give Adam a rigid nutritional plan to follow. “Eat three oranges for breakfast, four apples for lunch, six kiwis at teatime, and five mangos for dinner.” “Eat freely,” He commanded, but eat “of every tree.”
The trees of which Adam was commanded to eat, one supposes, were the “seed-bearing ones,” that God had given man for his sustenance (Genesis 1:29), and this is an important side of the story for another time. Suffice it for now to realize that the command God gave was aimed not just at ensuring that Adam participated in his own physical nourishment (did his own eating). It was also aimed at Adam’s mental nourishment. Adam needed to do his own learning as well as his own eating. He needed to come to know the trees, that were all “pleasing to the eye.” It was after all he who had to care and rule over them and over all of Earth. It was he who had to give all things names. He could do none of these things without knowing the Earth: mentally ingesting and digesting God’s creation. Hence the command: “Eat of every tree” so that paulatim ex imperfecto ad perfectum pervenitur… circa cognitionem Veritatis—reach perfection from imperfection by small degrees… in his knowledge of the truth.
The command holds for us too. We too must each do our own eating, and our own knowing. And what we are commanded to eat is not the inanities of our enemies, the bricks of the modern cathedral—the what I want that bears no seed—but what is. And this means going back to the basics, the boring basics, so that we can learn to digest it and rule over that part of it that was given us.
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The featured image is “The First Thorns of Knowledge” (1864) by Hugues Merle (1822–1881) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.