The Tiresomeness of Always Being Right
A little learning, as Alexander Pope once wrote, is a dangerous thing. The same can be said, ironically, for a great deal of learning. Many very intelligent men, quite well meaning in their intellectual endeavors, fall into grave errors not from ignorance, but from just how much they know; at the root of which is, indeed, the same danger against which Pope was truly trying to warn. A modicum of learning is dangerous for the same reason that a wealth of learning is dangerous: namely, pride. Pope’s admonition was not against a pithy education, but rather, against that education which teaches men to believe they are educated, wise, intelligent, or otherwise smarter than the average bear.
Some might look on this as a reason not to bother with pursuing education beyond what is needed to function in daily life. To do so would be to ignore one of the fundamentally directive impulses of human nature: the desire to know. This desire is fundamental not in the sense that it is something merely biological or genetic, though those are certainly factors in its manifestation, but which is indivisible from the continuous existence of any human life. To be human is to be an intellectual being; that is, one endowed with an intelligence irreducible to the corporeal. Yet because that intellect is also dependent upon the corporeal organs, it is not instantaneously fulfilled, but requires a gradual satiation. Contrariwise, because that intelligence is itself incorporeal and can conclude to the existence of wholly immaterial substances, even if it could comprehend the whole of corporeal being, it could never be fully satisfied in this life. In a way, this insatiability is itself a pleasure above and beyond all satiable pleasures: there is always more to learn, more to know, more to discover, always something to stimulate the intellect’s innate yearning. Like all human desires, however, if its pursuit leads to the valuing of a lesser over a higher good, that pursuit can lead man into the trouble of sin. While the truths of things man pursues to know are absolute, the knowledge which he come to possess is not; because it is always partial and lacking in some sense or another, his knowledge can be twisted, manipulated, and subjugated to his particular aims, errors, proclivities, and prevarications.
As such, even the well educated—in fact, often the best educated—can find themselves mired in erroneous ideas, theories, and schools of thought. This propensity is not unique to the individualistic, post-hierarchical systems of government with their advocation of freedom of speech, thinking, and (more and more) doing. The cultural homogeneity of Christendom, the “a cohesive effort, effected by many parts, to cultivate for the whole an order whereby men could be brought to God” mentioned in the previous post, did not come about automatically, without strife, or without imposition of doctrine and condemnations of error. Many of the great minds of centuries past have been heretics, and many of the intellectual elite have followed suit; look simply to the Manicheans.
One part of the difficulty of invested intellectual pursuits, of seeking out the truth, is the truth’s vast expanse: the breadth and depth of things to know is simply mind-boggling, and the natures of these things arenot always clearly delineated by previous thinkers. The previous sentence should make this, paradoxically, quite clear; the only word adequate to describe the objects sought is the incredibly vague “things.” When we come to a subject such as theology, there are safeguards for believers, given in revelation and the magisterial teaching of the Church, safeguards which protect against grave errors. But these safeguards do not protect in every way, especially not against attacks which strike not at what is explicitly revealed, but rather at its interpretation.
Most Christians are familiar with John 8:31-32: “If you remain in My word, you will truly be My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Fewer are as familiar with the less-quoted dialogue which occurs afterwards, in which the Jews ask Christ what He means; they, after all, are descendants of Abraham, and have never been slaves; to which Christ replies: “Amen, amen, I say to you: everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin, and he cannot remain in his house eternally; yet the Son remains forever. Therefore, if the Son makes you free, you will be truly free. I know you are sons of Abraham; yet you plan to kill Me, because My word does not take hold within you” (8:34-37). While it seems likely that Christ included in His meaning the literal act of crucifixion which He was to suffer, it is also likely, and fits within a tropological interpretation of the passage, that He meant the sins which we commit through failure to adhere to the truth, those sins on account of which He died.
Ultimately, to remain in the Truth as an intellectual is not difficult; but it is complicated, and without the virtue of humility, nigh impossible.