Knowledge and its enemies

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Knowledge has been in the centre of the Western worldview for so long that we often forget that it has always had, and still has, its enemies. We instinctively agree with Aristotle’s dictum “all men desire to know” and with Plato when he says that “knowledge is virtue”. It is therefore puzzling when we encounter statements attacking knowledge.

Lev Shestov writes in Athens and Jerusalem that ‘knowledge would poison the joy of existence and lead man, through terrible and loathsome trials, to the threshold of nothingness’. Nineteenth century Russian writers in particular seem to dislike knowledge with great intensity. In Anton Chekhov’s story, The Bet, the main character restates the argument of Ecclesiastes that all is vanity, including knowledge:

I despise your books, I despise wisdom and the blessings of this world. It is all worthless, fleeting, illusory, and deceptive, like a mirage. You may be proud, wise, and fine, but death will wipe you off the face of the earth as though you were no more than mice burrowing under the floor, and your posterity, your history, your immortal geniuses will burn or freeze together with the earthly globe. You have lost your reason and taken the wrong path. You have taken lies for truth.

In Dostoyevsky’s novels contempt for Reason is articulated with great power. Dostoyevsky is one of misologoi, haters of Reason. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov deduces through logic that it is reasonable to kill a pawnbroker for the sake of humanity. He assumes, like they do in Europe, that Reason rules the world and that Man is capable of shaping his destiny on his own. And yet circumstances force Raskolnikov to murder both the pawnbroker and her sister who was meant to be among the beneficiaries of his deed. He is a murderer but his crime has to be seen in religious terms as the transgression of divine laws. Raskolnikov must recognise his limitations and submit to God.

In the Russian Orthodox tradition, knowledge does not offer salvation and salvation is what Man should seek. The only path to God is to choose the Tree of Life instead of the Tree of Knowledge. Knowledge reduces reality to what can be perceived through senses and categorised by reason. It gives men an illusion of having boundless power and even being god-like. The desire to know is therefore sacrilegious. Dostoevsky says that Raskolnikow is rightly punished for choosing reason and knowledge rather than faith.

Russian writers with Slavophile tendencies, like Dostoevsky, chastise Europe for having human knowledge in its centre. They believe that Europe took the wrong path and was guilty of misunderstanding the Creator’s intentions for humankind. As the Third Rome, Russia’s destiny was to continue the Byzantine tradition of theocentric contemplation, distinctively different from the Latin world’s anthropocentrism with its emphasis on human action. In Goncharov’s Oblomov, the main character refuses to get out of bed, arguing that inaction is superior to action, to the despair of his German friend.

In the theocentric world, God is the source of all knowledge, given to human beings through the act of revelation. Human beings are weak creatures who need God’s support. Submission to God’s will is absolutely necessary and, without it, it is impossible to be fully human.

We find the same emphasis on humankind’s subordination to God in Islam. The term ‘Islam’ means submission to Allah’s will. Man must submit to God’s will unreservedly and unconditionally. Everything is divine and regulated by the holy text. In the West, the Enlightenment triggered the process of the sphere of sacrum becoming ever smaller while in Islam sacrum still permeates many aspects of one’s personal and communal life. Human knowledge is of little consequence when compared with the truth of the Quran. In the modern world, this emphasis on faith and submission to God is alien and anachronistic to many people.

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European civilisation inherited from the ancient Greeks the belief that man – and not God – is in the centre of the universe. Sophists were the first to revolutionise the relationship of man with gods when they made Man the master of his own fate. In Protagoras’ words, “of all things the measure is man, of the things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not.” Man should not be preoccupied with gods. “Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not or of what sort they may be. Many things prevent knowledge including the obscurity of the subject and the brevity of human life.” For Xenophanes, “men make gods in their own image; those of the Ethiopians are black and snub-nosed, those of the Thracians have blue eyes and red hair. If horses or oxen or lions had hands and could produce works of art, they too would represent the gods after their own fashion”.

The Sophistic revolution was a radical step for humankind. Man leapt above the gods. Gods were not needed any more to assure the world’s order. They were once believed necessary to ensure that the world was cosmos rather than chaos, Sophists say, but this belief is an illusion. The world is as it is without gods’ intervention.Thus, the human mind emancipated itself from gods’ or God’s tutelage. Capable of unveiling logos, the rational principle that governs the universe, human reason became the sole instrument of arranging our worldly affairs.

Knowledge has since remained the central pillar of European civilisation despite recurrent swings against it. Theocentric and anthropocentric worldviews clashed repeatedly. It has been Ecclesiastes versus Plato and Aristotle, mythos versus logos, faith versus reason, divine revelation versus factual knowledge, divine authority versus human freedom, and certainty versus methodical doubt.

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