“All men by nature desire to know.” So Aristotle begins his Metaphysics. We desire to know what is and we desire to know it truly and this desire is “by nature” — as every parent of a miniature metaphysician can testify, for “what?” and “why?” are the words his child’s mind lives by from morning to night. Having been to this manner of engaging the world born, having been driven to distraction by the incessant questioning of our own children, it is all too easy to take for granted this awesome power of the mind to know what is, to see it as mere “child’s play.”
Consider for a moment the truth about cats and dogs. Your two-year-old has only ever seen individual substances. What does this mean? Your two-year-old has only ever seen separate individual kitties and doggies. But after only a few instances of this seeing, she knows what a cat or dog is, and can now accurately judge that this new individual animal is a cat or is a dog, and she can make this judgment even if the new cat or dog possesses attributes of color, size, fur length, etc. completely different from any individual cat or dog she has ever previously encountered. (These external, changeable attributes are called “accidents”.) She also knows that a cat is not a dog, that to be a cat means to not be a dog (or anything else) and vice versa. Now knowing that a cat is not a dog is to know a fact accessible to the senses; but to know that “catness” is not “dogness”, to apply this knowledge to new instances of cats and dogs, is to know a truth because “catness” and “dogness”, like “treeness” and “humanness”, are not known by the senses but with the mind.
Okay, granted, this is all very useful for making our way around in a world of cats and dogs, humans and trees, tables and chairs, arsenic and powdered sugar and myriad other substances between which careful distinctions must be made, but perhaps you are not yet impressed by this power. Well then, try this on for size:
Imagine a perfect square that is small enough to fit into the palm of your hand. Now imagine a diagonal line bisecting (cutting in half) that square from corner to corner and forming two triangles. Suppose I were to propose to you that it is possible to draw a perfect square larger than the one that covered your palm, say 6 inches by 6 inches, but that a diagonal line bisecting it would be shorter than the line that bisected the square on your palm? Impossible, you say? You are right. But how do you know?
You do not know because you have ever seen a perfect square; you have not — not even in your high school geometry text book. You do not know because you have had vast experience with squares and triangles, because even someone to whom the principles of geometry are brand new knows this instantly the moment the concepts are presented — knows it as truth without hesitation, and can apply it to any set of squares of any size imaginable.
Have You Forgotten More Than You Know?
This impressed Plato and according to him, impressed his teacher, Socrates. It impressed him so much that he concluded that such incredible mental powers could only belong to a being who had once existed in the realm of the ideal (perfect and true) square and triangle, and for that matter the ideal tree, cat, dog, and table. He thought that our ability to know “what is” about all these things could only be accounted for by the prior existence of our souls in a place where we learned the very essence (essential characteristics) of each thing we encounter in this life, so that what we take as “learning” is not learning at all, but remembering what we once knew. It is to just such an account of human knowledge and learning that the English Transcendentalist poet, William Wordsworth, alluded in his “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
The image of infant souls trailing their own divinity in their wake as they arrive on earth may have the romantic appeal of a Hallmark card, but it disguises a most disturbing feature of this theory: we have forgotten most of what we ever knew and only by painful experience along with right instruction regain even a small portion of it. Sound frustrating? Sound like it might take more than one lifetime to remember all that the soul knew in the ideal realm? Then you understand why this account of human knowledge and learning goes hand-in-glove with a theory of reincarnation.
Aristotle had another explanation: Your two-year-old correctly recognizes the substance of a cat or a dog. How does she do this? She has abstracted “catness” and “dogness” from her experience. She has learned; she has not merely remembered.
Well, that works fine for concrete things of which we have experience — but what about things like perfect triangles and concepts like justice and love and beauty, things that are abstractions in themselves, things we never see or touch? What can we say about a mind that has the power to perceive and distinguish such things? We can say that such a mind is designed to know spiritual realities. That it is made to judge between the truth of propositions made about spiritual things, just as truly as it judges that a cat is not a dog and that a tree is not a man.
This is not to say that the one act of judgment is not more difficult than the other, or that it does not require more training of the mind — it does; but it is what the mind is for, and developing this power of the mind to make right judgments, to know the truth, is clearly something not to be neglected.
Without Context, There Is No Meaning
Aristotle’s account of ethics explains why this is so. There is a contrast between man-as-he-happens-to-be and man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-essential-nature. Ethics, therefore, is the science which helps men move from the former to the latter. According to this construction there is an account of the human telos (end or purpose).
Moral sentences — statements about the rightness or wrongness of a given action — used within this framework make claims which are true or false according to whether, in fact, a given action will lead toward man’s true end. The setting for every moral decision is the narrative quality of a human life. It is precisely this narrative quality that reincarnation denies — especially when, as a doctrine, it is itself removed from the moral framework of the eastern religious traditions from which it came. We can observe how it makes mincemeat of moral reasoning in the way some New-Agers use reincarnation to justify abortion — the unborn child “chooses” to be carried in the womb of a woman who would abort him or her in order to “work off karma” from a past life. The woman who aborts has done the child a favor and helped him or her along the path to the next, supposedly better, reincarnation. (Even in its historical religious framework of Hinduism, the doctrine of reincarnation produces the morally repugnant belief in the “untouchables,” a class of human beings whose low station, poverty and misery are supposedly the consequence of unremembered actions in their past lives.)
Real Characters in True Stories
Constructing an intelligible narrative requires the double context of a personal life story and the history of the setting or settings to which the person belongs. Narratives are embedded in one another: the narrative of a child’s birth is embedded in the narrative of a marriage which is embedded in the narrative of a family. It is in reference to these larger narratives that the episodes of stories — and even such small parts of them as single conversations — are intelligible. To use an example: You are waiting at the bus stop and a man walks up to you and says, “I need it back now.” What is required for this to be intelligible?
You must have a context in which this makes sense. The context includes a prior remembered relationship. He can’t be talking to you about something he loaned you in a past life that neither of you recall. Both of you must know what “it” refers to. But beyond that, you both must share a number of other concepts, including that you speak the same language and understand lending and borrowing and giving back. In addition, this entire context would be instantly assumed and understood — as being intelligible — by everyone at the bus stop who heard the man address you. And when you handed him the umbrella you were holding, all these shared concepts would make the entire exchange between you completely intelligible to every onlooker.
If however, you said to the man, “No, I have decided to keep your umbrella,” every onlooker would immediately see that there was a moral problem of injustice here: You have borrowed something belonging to another person and were now arbitrarily deciding not to return it; their moral sympathy would be with him. If instead you added, “I will return your umbrella to you, when you return to me the barbeque grill I loaned you and that I have asked you for 5 times,” the onlookers’ moral sympathy would switch immediately to you. The judgment of the observers would be based upon their understanding of what a man is and what is good, i.e. just, for man, what moral actions further man toward his purpose — fulfill his essential nature.
Intelligibility, then, is what enables us to discern an action as the continuation of a narrative and judge it according to the telos.
When we know what narratives our lives are embedded in, we know what kind of characters we are. When people do not know what stories their lives are embedded in, they feel that their lives are unintelligible to them — and they are. Characters in a narrative who attempt to take the story-line off in directions which are incoherent in view of the limits imposed by the narrative in which their personal story is embedded are unable to contribute to the progress of the narrative. Their lives become incoherent; the thread of the story begins to unravel. They literally do not know who or even what they are.
Sanity lies in another direction, in the direction of intelligibility, where lived narratives have a teleological character — the recognition that we live out our lives and conduct our relationships in the light of the possibility of a certain shared future. We know that we are characters in a true living story, which unifies the two questions: What is the good for man? and What is the good for me?
I know what is good for me if I know what is good for man, and I only know what is good for man if I know what man is and what the good is. Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic Church say that the human mind can know the truth of these things. Now there’s real mental power for you.
(© 2012 Mary Kochan)