Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. Serpent to Eve, Genesis 3:5
Adam knew his wife, and she conceived Cain. Genesis 4:1
[The painter] can now assert his right as a human being to deal with the world about him in an audacious, even cavalier way, and to conceive—that is, to organize—his environment, his relationships, and his destiny in accordance with any system he pleases. The universe is there to be used by him, not he by the universe.Andre Malraux, The Twilight of the Absolute
In Hebrew the verb “to know” is used to describe the tenderest, most desired, most fruitful of human relationships. That relationship combines eros and charity, desire and obedience. In That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis says of the comedic heroine Jane Studdock, “You did not fail of obedience because you did not love; you failed of love because you failed of obedience.” In rightly ordered love, the lover is conditioned by the existence and the good of another.
There are pathologies of knowledge. The most common is knowledge as a means to control. Satan urged Eve to shape the moral world not in obedience to God but as she desired. Malraux was praising the philosophy of modern painting. Art is to be set free from anything other than the painter’s subjectivity: it is to be “a deliberate declaration by man of his will to master the world; to create it in conformity with his own ideals.”
Painting often precedes philosophy. The challenging, tortured canvasses of the twentieth century, revealing as they do a world in which no order is to be respected that does not spring from the painter’s will and vision, was the harbinger of the redefinition of knowledge as rebellion against the forms in things. For then the poem means what the critic says it means, nothing more and nothing less. Philosophy can mean anything because it means nothing. Taking these clues, medicine can, in principle, do anything, and if it has not yet produced eternal life in practice, advances have been made that promise that goal. Already it can cause a woman to have no children or eight in one confinement, turn women into men and clone humans and animals. Knowledge is the technical expression of the power of mankind. In the empyrean heights it offers progress and the conquest of planets. On the vulgar plain it dominates nature to produce money and comfort.
And this is the approach that has made genuine learning seem pointless. For true knowledge dominates nothing; it submits. When Aristotle wrote that all men by nature desire to know, he was observing that all men unless they are corrupted by the serpent want to know reality as it is. Philosophy begins not in shaping a vision in conformity with our will, but in wonder, in obedience before the depth of the world. And the means to this is contemplation.
Famously, and perhaps to our confusion, Aristotle also wrote that human life has three purposes: pleasure, politics, contemplation. By politics he did not mean electoral success but participation in the conversation that forms the city and willingness to defend its freedom with a life of honor. By contemplation, he did not mean that grace-filled listening to God’s reality that religious practice, although that is the highest form of contemplation and is to be desired. He meant more simply the gift of the intellect to what is. But knowledge is a gift and the intellect may be given to what is not. The average American may protest that he knows nothing of contemplation, an action at best unintelligible, at worst useless. But in fact he is an adept of sorts. Contemplation is the gift of the intellect and imagination to the world beyond the self, and in that way the box of flickering pictures which the average citizen watches five hours every day becomes the serpent’s answer to the soul’s desire. Reality can be changed by remote control. Imagination is passive before the virtual world, giving itself to what is not. Real knowledge changes both the knower and the known. The virtual knowledge of the picture-box changes only the knower, or we might say, the victim.
Knowledge is a moral action. This truth is the fact rejected by those who consider technology ‘neutral,’ or merely a means. For means express a motive. We may approach reality with a desire to dominate, with a subtle hatred of the limitations that reality places on desire and imagination, or with the submission born of love.
Nature is, as the romantics knew, a means to love because nature is loveable, and while an imaginal world dominated by love of the natural may digress into mere ‘naturalism,’ the tempered love of nature is the foundation of other loves, things visible revealing the realities unseen: God.
Persons are a means to that knowledge which is love because in love for another knowledge is fulfilled. That Waugh’s memorable line from Brideshead, “to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom,” appeared in a context of a charity flawed by a debased eros does not diminish its truth.
The knowledge of other persons may change them as it changes us, but to know God in the love whose name is Holy Spirit changes us, drawing us into the life of the Blessed Trinity, in which act we become whom we love while remaining always the creature God in his sovereign love foresaw at the dawn of creation: “We all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (ii Corinthians 3:18). “When we see Him, we shall be like Him” (i John 3:2). And this is why receiving Jesus in the Eucharist, his Body and Blood, His Person, is the earthly consummation of knowledge and love. The knowledge that is love is not an individual possession, for it is the nature of love to be shared, and what we know together is the stuff of a common life that makes a civilization. If love is to be shared and stabilized this will be done not by voiceless intuition but by words, and that means by books. The common knowledge that makes a civilization is an art and a literature that embrace reality with love. Books do not seize; they offer. And God wrote a book.
God did not give either the Greeks the political skill of the Romans or the Hebrews more than transitory military success. But he made them eternal in another way, for God gave both the Hebrews and the Greeks books, and to the chosen people, the New Israel, he gave the greatest book.
Artifacts tell us something: the statues of Easter Island, the rose-red city of the Nabbateans, the carvings of bearded Assyrians tease imagination, but they are powerless to form a civilization, incapable of making us who we are in the way of the Iliad and Beowulf. Chesterton wrote that the Iliad will be remembered because life is an epic, the Odyssey because life is a journey, and Job because life is a puzzle. He might have added that these are great because they are refractions of the one great book, the Bible.
Books, great books, are the doorway to that knowledge that can be a love affair with reality. As we give ourselves to what is, it is not the world of human experience that changes, but us. This was surely the point of Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Life is known as a tradition of words, of intelligibility, the high intelligibility of philosophy, the revealed intelligibility of God’s revelation, and the felt intelligibility of poetry. And as we share in the great tradition, it makes us who we are. But we bring something to it as well, for the tradition is a living stream. And if we do not change the God-given tradition as we may the literary tradition, we do refract it in ways that display a richness surely known to its Creator.