From Augustine to august acquisition. Where are we today, but, also, where are we going?
Changing, a most fabulous term, is either active or passive in its usage, transitive or intransitive, functioning as a noun or verb. Knowledge is also the same, it is a term that connotes acquired information and one needs to be engaged in some way to obtain knowledge. Put the two together to look at the process of how individuals gain knowledge, and we are off to the races. Education: expression of ideas, storage of ideas, accumulation of ideas, creating ideas, are all part of each individual’s acquisition of knowledge.
The brain is the most wonderful of creations. Our education flows from it; this takes place in everyone from the moment they are born through some miracle of dendrites connecting to axons. It allows species to interact with the world. Memory is a part of knowledge, but the word, when applied to our own species, is a word to represent a process and status. Society has a big stake in both. Societies’ collective knowledge has always been kept (and unfortunately in myriad cases destroyed). Those ideas and values which each society determined august were passed on to the next generation. This is critical for survival, of the individual and the society. But it is also problematic. Some of these societies, nearly all of them in history, came up with ways to represent ideas in written form. In Augustine’s time, he learned with Roman characters and numerals and his main language was Latin.
Born in North Africa, Augustine lived a full and varied life until he reached Milano. Once there, he came to the conclusion that this earlier life was filled with mistaken directions, decisions and the resultant value structure he had allowed to define him. He decided to write about this life and use it as a lesson for him, but, more importantly, for the rest of humanity. He intended his audience to include contemporary and future generations to ponder his words and ideas. Living during the Pax Romana, he “became” Christian- another concept that has become many things since its inception. In doing so, he challenged himself to change his knowledge of the world.
One of the methods he chose in doing this was to implant himself into the conversation about how his knowledge of that which is spiritual came to be. The autobiographical nature of his writing in The Confessions, the use of the first person to do so in his world, was novel. It allowed us and him to track the history of how he became knowledgeable in that which he found most important, most august. Augustine, though, was a salesman in knowledge. Once he became, he wanted those other inhabitants of his world to change their own concept of knowledge to appreciate what he had learned.
His writing takes us from the moment of his own birth up through an exploration of how each of us acquires knowledge. In doing so, we all have the opportunity to become like him. This is his goal in the writing. His efforts had and still have a profound impact on the world.
I came to this blog’s intent through reading an article in The Atlantic. Its tenor was that we are diminishing the opportunity to acquire correctly and with the needed support of society evaporating. Another aspect of its content was that scholars spend much time and effort to write objective assessments, copiously developing huge indexes, yet when reading from an expert they do not invest enough time in the whole of the body of work. An excerpt from the article led me down the usual paths, with one of them arriving at this excerpt from the article:
As the historian Michael O’Malley humorously summarized the nature of much scholarly reading and writing, “We learn to read books and articles quickly, under pressure, for the key points or for what we can use. But we write as if a learned gentleman of leisure sits in a paneled study, savoring every word.” Or as he more vividly described the research process, academics often approach books like “sous-chefs gutting a fish.”
How are we in the 21st century enjoying our responsibilities as acquirers of knowledge and how can it be done better? Another Atlantic article, by Eric Klinenberg, warns of our crumbling social infrastructure that is not being addressed. In fact, it is systematically being ignored or disassembled. He points out that while our physical infrastructure of communication, roads, bridges, methods and infrastructure needed to travel, control and facilitate that movement are in serious need of investment, the tools of democracy are even in more need of support. How libraries function is also in transition. That we are ignoring this fact is supported by our record and ranking in national knowledge when compared to other developed nations.
As a country, we are the third worst in the world, behind Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, for its country’s citizens’ percentage of denying climate change. Obviously there is something wrong with our education system, the media platforms that disseminate “knowledge” and the biases that too many of our citizens hold that are preventing too many of them from accessing and utilizing information that is both beneficial to themselves, but, most importantly, critical to the rest of the world’s humans and its floral and fauna. While some earlier societies that were destroyed and their accumulated knowledge wiped from the historical record by other less enlightened (some might claim less evolved, more mundane….stupid) societies, we stand the possibility of collectively destroying habitats and groups of individuals all on our own. This is happening even as there is a digital collection available to the whole world to acquire great knowledge and wisdom. Would there hopefully be historians to write about it in the future, the American record at present will not be treated kindly by them.
So how should we understand this changing nature of how we acquire knowledge in the 21st century. The first person process, writing an autobiography with an audience in mind started for religious purposes which was started by Augustine has often morphed into libertarianism, nihilism, Nietzchist and other forms of cocoons that prevent one’s dendrites of individualism from reaching the necessary stimuli and connections to gain greater compassion, understanding and, ultimately, happiness for more than the short term for the individual ego and its gratification. Ego, a great Greek word.
To offer an antidote, let’s turn to poetry. My two offerings are tributes made by W.H. Auden to Freud, a 20th century explorer of the human ego who would have been a good foil to Augustine’s thoughts. And, another tribute Auden gave to Yeats, that great Irish complexity of conundrums who spoke of life in such rich terms and who always leaves me happy. Many people make me happy and unfortunately Mary and I are saying goodbye to some fine ones of late due to our demographic. Whom are those you cherish and could be inserted here?
When there are so many we shall have to mourn,
when grief has been made so public, and exposed
to the critique of a whole epoch
the frailty of our conscience and anguish,
of whom shall we speak? For every day they die
among us, those who were doing us some good,
who knew it was never enough but
hoped to improve a little by living.
Such was this doctor: still at eighty he wished
to think of our life from whose unruliness
so many plausible young futures
with threats or flattery ask obedience,
but his wish was denied him: he closed his eyes
upon that last picture, common to us all,
of problems like relatives gathered
puzzled and jealous about our dying.
For about him till the very end were still
those he had studied, the fauna of the night,
and shades that still waited to enter
the bright circle of his recognition
turned elsewhere with their disappointment as he
was taken away from his life interest
to go back to the earth in London,
an important Jew who died in exile.
Only Hate was happy, hoping to augment
his practice now, and his dingy clientele
who think they can be cured by killing
and covering the garden with ashes.
They are still alive, but in a world he changed
simply by looking back with no false regrets;
all he did was to remember
like the old and be honest like children.
He wasn’t clever at all: he merely told
the unhappy Present to recite the Past
like a poetry lesson till sooner
or later it faltered at the line where
long ago the accusations had begun,
and suddenly knew by whom it had been judged,
how rich life had been and how silly,
and was life-forgiven and more humble,
able to approach the Future as a friend
without a wardrobe of excuses, without
a set mask of rectitude or an
embarrassing over-familiar gesture.
No wonder the ancient cultures of conceit
in his technique of unsettlement foresaw
the fall of princes, the collapse of
their lucrative patterns of frustration:
if he succeeded, why, the Generalised Life
would become impossible, the monolith
of State be broken and prevented
the co-operation of avengers.
Of course they called on God, but he went his way
down among the lost people like Dante, down
to the stinking fosse where the injured
lead the ugly life of the rejected,
and showed us what evil is, not, as we thought,
deeds that must be punished, but our lack of faith,
our dishonest mood of denial,
the concupiscence of the oppressor.
If some traces of the autocratic pose,
the paternal strictness he distrusted, still
clung to his utterance and features,
it was a protective coloration
for one who’d lived among enemies so long:
if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd,
to us he is no more a person
now but a whole climate of opinion
under whom we conduct our different lives:
Like weather he can only hinder or help,
the proud can still be proud but find it
a little harder, the tyrant tries to
make do with him but doesn’t care for him much:
he quietly surrounds all our habits of growth
and extends, till the tired in even
the remotest miserable duchy
have felt the change in their bones and are cheered
till the child, unlucky in his little State,
some hearth where freedom is excluded,
a hive whose honey is fear and worry,
feels calmer now and somehow assured of escape,
while, as they lie in the grass of our neglect,
so many long-forgotten objects
revealed by his undiscouraged shining
are returned to us and made precious again;
games we had thought we must drop as we grew up,
little noises we dared not laugh at,
faces we made when no one was looking.
But he wishes us more than this. To be free
is often to be lonely. He would unite
the unequal moieties fractured
by our own well-meaning sense of justice,
would restore to the larger the wit and will
the smaller possesses but can only use
for arid disputes, would give back to
the son the mother’s richness of feeling:
but he would have us remember most of all
to be enthusiastic over the night,
not only for the sense of wonder
it alone has to offer, but also
because it needs our love. With large sad eyes
its delectable creatures look up and beg
us dumbly to ask them to follow:
they are exiles who long for the future
that lives in our power, they too would rejoice
if allowed to serve enlightenment like him,
even to bear our cry of ‘Judas’,
as he did and all must bear who serve it.
One rational voice is dumb. Over his grave
the household of Impulse mourns one dearly loved:
sad is Eros, builder of cities,
and weeping anarchic Aphrodite.
From W.H. to W.B. ……
He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
The snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.
But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
[Auden later deleted the next three stanzas.]
Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and the innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.
With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress.
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.