Chapter 5 of Ken Myers’s All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes is really a preliminary to the discussion to his discussion in Chapter 6 of C.S. Lewis’s book An Experiment in Criticism, so I’ll save what little I have to say about Chapter 5 until next week.
Chapter 4 presents me with the exact opposite problem. In it Myers discusses the restlessness and craving for distraction that springs from modernism. From my perspective just about every point Myers makes deserves a lengthy discussion, but he writes just enough to raise a question before moving on to the next. I could probably write twenty long posts inspired by this chapter, but all of them would address things that I’ve learned elsewhere about a particular point rather than anything Myers has to say about it. I’ll restrict myself to one post about one point.
Myers quotes one of my favorite passages from Pascal’s Pensees:
All the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber … They have a secret instinct which impels them to seek amusement and occupation abroad, and which arises from the sense of their constant unhappiness.
(The ellipsis above covers a lot of important ground, and I’d encourage you to read that as well.)
Unfortunately, I think that our modern way of life encourages us to misunderstand Pascal’s point. It is no longer necessary as it was in 1660 to go abroad to find amusement; in fact, most amusement these days is probably experienced in one’s own chamber, courtesy of a television or electronic game or internet-connected computer. Even books and magazines can now provide such distraction in a way that wasn’t possible in Pascal’s time, two hundred years after the printing press was invented.
If a man in Pascal’s time were to stay quietly in his chamber, I think his primary companion would be his thoughts, and so I think this is the state of mind that Pascal is discussing. Myers also quotes a passage in which Pascal points out how many distractions and preoccupations burden the average man (of his time!), then says this:
"It is, you will exclaim, a strange way to make them happy! What more could be done to make them miserable!— Indeed, what could be done? We should only have to relieve them from all these cares; for then they would see themselves: they would reflect on what they are, whence they came, whither they go, and thus we cannot employ and divert them too much. And this is why, after having given them so much business, we advise them, if they have some time for relaxation, to employ it in amusement, in play, and to be always fully occupied. (Emphasis added)
Well, OK, distractions and preoccupations will keep us from engaging in reflection. But what benefit do we lose from that? What can reflection give us that preoccupations cannot, especially if we preoccupy ourselves with the best that has been thought and said?
Although I won’t make a case for it here, I think the answer is that reflection is the route to wisdom, and in fact the only route. Later in the chapter Myers quotes another favorite passage, this one from T.S. Eliot’s Choruses From “The Rock”:
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?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.
From time to time I encounter someone who has endless facts about a subject at his command but doesn’t seem to know very much about that subject. I assume this is because he has mistaken facts for knowledge. But I think knowledge is actually the integration of facts, developing an understanding of how they fit together, and for those who enjoy facts it is probably a great temptation to spend time accumulating more of them, rather than integrating the ones you already have. Thus Eliot’s point about losing knowledge in information.
Similarly with wisdom. It is just as easy to mistake knowledge for wisdom, or to let the time spend accumulating knowledge crowd out any possibility of reflecting on what you know. I think that in part wisdom is being able to properly employ the knowledge you have, and that to gain wisdom you have to get some knowledge, make various attempts to use it, watch how others use (or abuse) it—and then reflect long and hard on what you’ve seen and heard. For example, not all old parents are wise, but I think all wise parents are old, largely because the path to wisdom in parenting is long and difficult, a journey of many years; reflection yields wisdom in bits and pieces, and it takes time and experience to accumulate enough to be considered wise.
I don’t think that wisdom should be sought to the exclusion of knowledge, or knowledge to the exclusion of facts; all three are good, all three are needful, none is superior to the others. But I do think that working to obtain these things for yourself is superior to trying to appropriate them from the efforts of others. And it may be necessary to limit time spent accumulating facts in order to have the time needed to forge them into knowledge, and it may be necessary to limit time spent forging knowledge so as to have the time needed to refine it into wisdom.
Some examples of what I consider reflection might be helpful.
Although I’ve read a fair amount of classic fiction, I’ve bored people by endlessly quoting just a few pieces that I have thought about deeply for many years. One is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which continues to teach me the purpose of limits on human behavior, and the results when those limits are lifted. Another is Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, which has taught me a lot about what it means to be modern. (I don’t think it’s an accident that both of these pieces take only a few hours to read.)
In the past few years I’ve read voluminously about economic history, but I’ve only found a couple of books that have me thinking again and again about their thesis. One is Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, another is Naomi’ Wolf’s The Shock Doctrine. Although I haven’t embraced the thesis of either one, both books showed me that I needed to rethink my understanding of free-market capitalism, and both theses have been useful lenses through which to review the historical facts.
Wendell Berry is a well I return to again and again, both for thoughts on agrarianism and for examples of plain, clear thinking. I’ve mentioned before that I read most of Berry’s non-fiction in a months-long session six years ago, then left it alone until last year. When I began to re-read his books I was surprised again and again to see him writing about something that I had thought about often in the interim; he had given me much to reflect on without me even realizing it.
I’ve pondered some of the things that Jesus said for many years. One example is His parable of the prodigal son. Aside from the obvious things it teaches, I’ve spent much time turning over in my mind the role of the elder brother in the story. Among other things the elder brother has helped me to see how it is so easy to miss out on the benefits of Kingdom life because of a bad attitude, e.g. he was upset about never having been given a goat (so he could go and celebrate with his friends!), while all the while everything that his father had was his.
I won’t make the case here for this either, but one of the things that convinces me reflection (and the wisdom that results) is an important component of the good life is that it is avail
able to anyone, regardless of their economic circumstances or educational background or intellectual capacity.