A long tradition, a short memory
The Oracle at Delphi told Socrates that he was wisest man in Athens because he alone had the wisdom to admit that he did not know things rather than pretend that he did.
I’m always mortified when I think back to some of the intellectual positions that I once held so firmly, like my sweeping condemnation of certain thinkers as being purely “toxic”—something I learned from bad mentors whom I trusted too much, and something I had to unlearn—and my resulting skepticism of anyone who read or was influenced by those thinkers…despite my not having engaged with them at all.
I thought of this recently when a young new convert to Catholicism, part of a particularly political group on the Lower East Side, joked that he learned to hate David French on the first day of RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation) before even cracking up the catechism. One merely needed to sit in the back row to participate in the ritual scapegoating of the man. It was practically Fundamental Theology.
How might we see through the murderous fog?
About a decade ago I heard a story that helped change my disposition a bit. It was an anecdote about Karol Wojtyła, a Polish cardinal, who was carrying Das Kapital around with him in the lead up to the 1978 conclave that would elect him as the next pope. When many of the other cardinals were scandalized and asked him what he was doing, Wojtyła said that Marx’s position was something that he must understand—something critical to his engagement with the world at that moment in history. Wojtyła had the intellectual humility to engage with another thinker whom he presumed disagreement with but refused to demonize.
(I’ve never been able to verify this with a good source—but, in the words of Kesey: “It’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.”)
And while I would never thrust Marx on an 8th grader—and I still do not agree with his fundamental premises—I can at least say that I have read his major works and have a much better appreciation for the allure and power of his ideas than I did when my default mode of operating was as categorizing scapegoater. (Which is the same spirit that leads to people writing off media personalities wholesale because they at one point merely engaged with the “wrong person".)
But there is a second problem besides our resistance to engaging with those whom we know we’ll probably disagree. It’s this: the “Romantic Lie” of intellectual life is the idea that we must come up with new and original answers to every problem that crops up in our lives or in the world. It is the Romantic Lie of Original Thoughts. (Similar to Girard’s explanation of our illusion of Original Desires, desires generated ex-nihilo.)
Some of the best explanations to modern questions are some of the oldest answers. i.e. “sin.” Yet over the past few years I have experienced the temptation to participate in a strange kind of intellectual decadence—an escalation to extremes—of evermore fanciful and original explanations to basic problems.
Nobody should feel compelled to have an original answer or take on everything, but the incentives to do so are strong: it’s often the only way to be ‘heard’ in a sea of content. And it feeds into the mimetic cult of originality.
Which brings me to the point of this particular piece: I have been thinking a lot about the virtue of intellectual humility lately after I noticed that the Templeton Foundation has made the study of this idea the primary focus of its funding interests this year.
Mark R. Leary, PhD, from the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, produced this 19-page document for the Foundation outlining key features of intellectual humility, along with proposals for how to measure it and develop it. I hope some interesting projects come out of it. I’ll leave you explore that document if you’re interested in learning more. That’s not what I intend to do here.
My opening salvo here is simply to note what I think may be an anti-mimetic approach to engaging with people in the Discourse—at a time when intellectual humility is rare, and a great many podkasts (sic) now seem like ever-more self-indulgent sessions of over-intellectualized nonsense, the constant consumption of which has led to conspiracy theories or elaborate explanations of simple problems that do things like invoke Deleuzian philosophy to explain why my car costs more to fill up with gas.
The indulgence of intellectual pride is a perennial problem, but it seems particularly acute in our age. The anti-mimetic solution is not anti-intellectualism. That would be the contrarian or reactionary approach—just putting a minus sign in front of something that you recognize as unhealthy.
The anti-mimetic approach, rather, is refusing to be drawn into the game at all—a refusal to take those decadent conversations as a model to overturn or even respond to.
One way to do that is by changing the nature of the game at the most fundamental level—by changing the ‘form’. But on the level of content alone, there is still something to be done: reframing the nature of the discussion.
Anybody who has had any media training at all (or who simply has good intuitions) knows that it’s almost always a bad idea to take questions literally and to try to answer them directly in the context of public theatre. Hosts want to lead discussions in certain directions, and its critical to understand the motives of your interlocutor before even engaging in the discussions to begin with.
It’s helpful to think of questions as ‘suggestions’ of what to talk about next or where to take the conversation. You can learn to reframe the discussion on better terms as opposed to a 1:1 correspondence or valley between question and answer. You’re not batting a ball over a net to one another; you’re playing an infinite game where there isn’t actually a net. You can grab the ball and run in any direction at any point.
For instance: a conversation can be pivoted from a mimetic display of intelligence to a moment of reflection on an incarnate reality in a matter of seconds if party changes the game, the way that a group of people debating around a campfire can have their attention captured by the setting of the sun, or the beauty of the flames licking the logs. Christ kissing the lips of the Grand Inquisitor is another of these anti-mimetic acts.
And this is one of the challenges of audio-only formats so popular today—they simply don’t lend themselves well to those kind of moments. But the pivot can still be made. It’s just harder.
In thinking about intellectual humility in the context of our current media environment, I’ve come to recognize one particular character—the Content Creator with a Thousand Faces. One mark of him is this: there is always a book he has read, a study he is familiar with, or a thinker or podcast that he listens to which sets him up as having some gnostic knowledge that others lack. (In my experience, some of the people who went the furthest out into space during Covid were the ones who coveted their sources the most.)
Conversations with these people turn into never-ending exchanges of content nuggets that lack any solid foundation, and with nowhere to land. The invitations always lead into different rooms, each with 10 more doors.
It’s better to be good than it is to be well-listened and well-read. The last time I heard the Parable of the Good Samaritan—the story of a man robbed and beaten and thrown into a ditch on the road to Jericho, whom a priest and levite pass by on the road before a Samaritan actually cares for him—I envisioned the priest and Levite with AirPods in their ears listening to the latest episode of Red Scare, solving the world in their minds.
"He was a man getting on in years, and undoubtedly
clever. He spoke as frankly as you, though in jest, in bitter jest. 'I
love humanity,' he said, 'but I wonder at myself. The more I love
humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams,'
he said, 'I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the
service of humanity.’”
There have been millions of people who have went before us who had no access to computers, and many who could not even read—yet who knew everything they needed to know about how to live a good life. And they did so. They attended to reality, which speaks to us in a thousand different ways if we have the ears to hear it and the eyes to see.
Many of us are no morally better than those people, and in many respects we may be much worse—or at least it might be much harder for us to be morally good, or merciful, or even just attentive, today, given the millions of ways in which we can flatter or distract ourselves from the most important realities, like the sick and the poor among us.
Nothing opened my eyes to the folly of our times like sitting beside my mother’s hospital bed, holding her hand shortly before she passed away. I came to grips with the finitude of life and the limits of my time, space, and energy. I can only do so much. I am first and foremost a creature before I am a creator. Recognizing and rejoicing in the unique limits of who I am and who I am not brings a special kind of freedom.
I don’t know everything, and I don’t have to. I only ned to know the one thing necessary—and that one big thing is worth an infinite number of smaller and unnecessary things. What I need to know is the one thing that I can do—given the unique circumstances that I’ve been put in, and the gifts and talents I’ve been given. I need to know the right plough to set my hand to—the one I will be working on with enough purpose so as to never have to look back.
There is something incredibly incarnate about all of this. W.H. Auden’s poem, Like a Vocation, finishes with the words below. I have committed them to memory by this point and call them to mind from time to mind, in coffee shops and restaurants and—these few months—on beaches, in the noises and policies of summer:
But politeness and freedom are never enough,
Not for a life. They lead
Up to a bed that only looks like marriage;
Even the disciplined and distant admiration
For thousands who obviously want nothing
Becomes just a dowdy illness. These have their moderate success;
They exist in the vanishing hour.
But somewhere always, nowhere particularly unusual,
Almost anywhere in the landscape of water and houses,
His crying competing unsuccessfully with the cry
Of the traffic or the birds, is always standing
The one who needs you, that terrified
Imaginative child who only knows you
As what the uncles call a lie,
But knows he has to be the future and that only
The meek inherit the earth, and is neither
Charming, successful, nor a crowd;
Alone among the noise and policies of summer,
His weeping climbs towards your life like a vocation.
Thank you, as always, for reading.