Knowledge or knowledge

Given the nature of the time process, it is not particularly surprising that the notion of man's viceregal function and dignity should have been forgotten. We are by nature forgetful, which is no doubt why religion of Islam describes itself specifically as "a reminder to mankind." What is truly astonishing is that this notion should now appear nonsensical to the vast majority of people in the West and, indeed, to "educated" people everywhere. The fact that a view of man's destiny which could be considered, until so recently, as something inherent in human thinking should be dismissed as a fairy tale would be incredible if it had not actually happened.

No wonder that many of those who hold to the traditional view believe the devil himself has bewitched our kind, putting to sleep the faculties through which we were formerly aware of realities beyond the field of sense perception and making use of mirages to lead us into a waterless desert. This process culminates in a narrowing of horizons which Mircea Eliade and others have described in terms of "provincialism." We live and think and operate today within the dimensions of a wafer-thin cross-section of historical time, effectively isolated from the past or from the future.

Evolutionary theory, as it is commonly understood by nonspecialists, has penetrated very deeply into the substratum of human thought. It shapes opinion and distorts judgement in almost every sphere, all the more effectively because it has become a kind of unconscious and therefore unquestioned bias. People readily assume that each generation is likely to be a little wiser (and possibly even a little better) than the preceding one; this assumption is inherent in the idea of progress as it is commonly understood. If that were so, then the beliefs and ideas of earlier generation might reasonably be dismissed as obsolete. Religion would be no more than a vestige of primitive thought, and Christ might be considered, at best, as a man ahead of his time, a signpost on the evolutionary path. This appears to have been the view of Tielhard de Chardin, that misled and misleading priest.

We make certain deductions from the facts available to our senses in this thin slice of time. It is assumed that the people of earlier ages tried to do the same, and since they did not deduce what we have deduced from these facts they must necessarily have been our inferiors. It is taken for granted that their beliefs were based, as ours are, upon the observation of physical phenomena. They were not very good observers and persistently drew the wrong conclusions from such facts as they did observe; they belonged, it is said, to a "pre-logical" stage of human development.

This is, in the first place, a childish attitude. It is common enough for children to enjoy a sense of superiority over adults who cannot climb trees as they do or who make a mess of a jigsaw puzzle which presents no problem to an eight-year-old, and a child may reasonably wonder why a grown-up who can afford to buy ice cream or chocolates every day of his life does not do so, just as we are puzzled that the ancients never developed effective techniques for the exploitation of earth's riches. Grown-ups, however, have a different order of priorities.

The childish aspect of modernism is nothing if not naiive in its view of the past. It takes for granted that if all we want is ice cream or its equivalents, then this is all that people ever wanted. They did not know how to produce it quickly, hygienically and in quantity. We do. They were not clever enough to invent motor cars and aeroplanes. We are (without ever asking ourselves whether our journeys are really necessary). They thought the earth was the center of the universe. We know better.

Arguments of this kind, however ludicrous they may seem, are at the root of a great deal of modern thinking, not, of course, among a sophisticated minority of scholars and intellectuals, but among ordinary people who have received the usual smattering of education and have been encouraged to believe that they know something worth knowing. What matters, from this point of view, is not the pure form of a particular theory but the form in which it has been popularized, processed through the educational machine and assimilated by the masses. Religious (or metaphysical) ideas, when they penetrate whole populations within a traditional environment may adopt simplified and what might be described as "picturesque" forms without thereby sacrificing either integrity or effectiveness, but secular and scientific notions soon become slipshod and inaccurate when they are popularized.

Most important of all, perhaps, modern thought is "provincial" insofar as most people are confined within the narrow limits of faculties designed to deal only with our own small corner of creation and ill-adapted (as is our language itself) to anything beyond self-preservation and the getting of food. Our ideas of truth and indeed of all that is seldom go beyond the things which fit the contours of a mind limited in its way as are our physical senses; and we are necessarily ignorant in the precise sense of the term, since it is obvious that the mind as such cannot comprehend - within its own terms of reference- what lies beyond this particular locality and the view visible from here.

The distinction between ignorance and agnosticism- a distinction which is often ignored in our time - is of great importance. The former is both natural and realistic; it knows itself and recognizes its own impotence. To be human is, in the first place, to be ignorant and to accept the fact that there is a great deal we cannot know and, for that matter, a great deal we do not need to know. Idle curiosity is certainly a vice- a lust of the mind - whereas acknowledgment of the fact that we have no intrinsic right to receive answers to all our questions is an aspect of humility as it is of realism. It is said that a well-known saint was asked: "What was God doing before he created the world?" "Preparing hell for those who ask unnecessary questions!"

Agnosticism however raises a personal incapacity to the dignity of a universal law. It amounts to the dogmatic assertion that what "I" do not know cannot be known, and it limits the very concept of what is knowable to the little area of observation open to the unsanctified and unilluminated human mentality. The agnostic attitude derives from a refusal to admit that anyone can be or ever could have been our superior in this, the most important realm of all: the true knowledge of what there is to be known. Religion is now seen exclusively in terms of faith rather than of supernatural knowledge. In egalitarian terms, faith is acceptable; you may believe in fairies if you wish to. But the claim to a direct and certain knowledge of realities beyond mind's normal compass excludes those who do not possess it and savors of presumption. The idea that a saint among the saints may have known God- not merely believed in him - suggests "unfairness" and implies the superiority of some men to others. It puts us in our place.

to be continued..

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Oct 2, 2007

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