What Do I Really Know?
Oprah Winfrey Asks A Good Question
Oprah’s magazine has an interesting feature where she asks important people from a variety of backgrounds the telling question, “What do you really know?”
Since she failed to ask me, I decided to wonder about it on my own.
"Show me forgiveness
For having lost faith in myself
And let my own interior up
To inferior forces"
Show Me Forgiveness
The Not-So-Wonderful Torment of Wonder
Philosophy is an unkind business - most unkind to those burdened by the Deity to bear its mission, which is wonder. The philosopher finds herself in a perpetual state of bedazzlement by all things, and often; what, for the normal person, is hardly a mystery and is a comfortable, reliable reality, is, for the philosopher, an excruciatingly complex and unclear matter.
Where the normal person glimpses an uninformative shadow, we see ghosts and the possibility of hidden worlds... or the (un)Reality of Nothingness. When the normal person holds his beloved in his arms and is lost in a passionate display, the philosopher's mind often turns immediately to the presence of loss, the inevitability of endings, the impossibility of communion.
So, asking a philosopher a simple question is never a simple matter. Oftentimes I think we'd rather not answer or even begin to contemplate what an answer might look like, if it's possible to answer, and whether one answer is better than another. Perhaps silence is the best answer to most questions - at least by me - because answering is an arduous and perilous journey from the realization that I do not know and about what I do not know toward what I might be able to discover... with a lifetime of labor and questioning and refining questions and self-denial and discipline.
There is no such thing as a simple question. Not for a philosopher.
Learning Is A Private Journey
So, What Do I REALLY Know?
After decades, literal decades of laboring at this question - it, of course, worried me and worried humankind long before dear Oprah thoughtfully posed it in the pages of her magazine - I will first tell you I am not certain I have any great wisdom to share with you. This isn't to say I don't have answers; I have a few, but many of them are private and not to be shared. If I shared them they would be of little value because they require one to experience the answers for oneself to know whether they are true and right and good.
I could point you in the direction, I could show you how to go on the journey toward the few things I really know - and, doubtless, you might surpass me and discover far more (I should hope so). But it will do none of us any good for anyone to just "give us the answer." Without the journey and the deep, integral need for the answer - without having formed the question within your own soul - no answer is truly an answer. It is the difference between actually having a living grasp of something, an intimate connection with it, and just "knowing about" it or memorization.
One is learning; the other is but its shadow. One is worth our time - and time is life - and the other is a waste of time, a waste of life.
This is one thing I really know.
Socrates -- "I Know That I Do Not Know."
Do I Know Anything Else, Really?
After studying the Platonic Dialogues for several years, and paying close attention to those dialogues that are probably nearer to the actual person of Socrates, such as The Defense, and Euthyphro, and Crito, it struck me that the Old Man was onto something.
He denied having any knowledge and any wisdom, yet when he questioned those who claimed to know things, very important things about goodness or justice or the will of the gods, it always seemed he did have a sort of knowledge. A profound sense of reality... yet, at the same moment, he always smiled and denied this.
I came to realize that Socrates' "knowledge" was exactly what he claimed - he always claimed to be keenly aware of what he did not know and that he did not know.
Here's the paradox - if we know what we don't know, it becomes far more easy to pick out what cannot be the truth about reality. Socrates, in the Euthyphro, for example, questions a young man who believes he knows exactly what the gods command and that, because they command it, this means he always knows what is right. Along the line, Socrates' questioning causes Euthyphro to admit that this and that definition of what the gods command and why they command it cannot be true - Euthyphro's assumptions about why right is right and wrong is wrong is chipped away till nothing is left.
Not quite, though. Something is left - after Socrates shows what cannot be true about goodness, in the space of what remains is something true about goodness; once we strip away our misconceptions, somewhere in what is left behind is truth; we are closer to it, or it draws closer to us. Its definitions begin to appear on its own and stand out, in the way that Michelangelo once said that a sculpture appears once one removes all the extraneous bits of stone that conceal it.
Truth isn't something we walk right up to and lay claim on -- the more we attempt a frontal assault, the more likely it is we confuse some falsehood or exaggeration or prejudiced opinion for it. Reality recedes and hides itself the more obvious our approach. Truth is something we must work our way around, in spiraling motions, cutting away what can't be true with each pass, the way the blade on a lathe cuts away the wood on what will be a table leg.
While what is left may not be utterly detailed or absolutely true (that is, complete), it will be closer than what we began with -- its form will be sharper, cleaner, more distinct, a greater boundary with falsehood spelled out than initially.
Truth is approached by discovering what is not true. This is something I know: really.
Music For Meditation And Thought
I know that truth is important to us, essential to our existences as human beings -- we can do without it and we can avoid searching it out indefinitely, we can live on lies -- live in a shadowy, insubstantial, and hobbled fashion. But we cannot flourish without it. We cannot live at the level of intensity proper to humanity without it, because the lifelong search for truth, goodness, and beauty is, itself, that level of intensity.
We can exist and persist and survive in "any old way," but we cannot truly live without embodying certain standards; there is living and then there is living up to standards. Socrates said at his trial that there are worse things than death and that survivial at any cost is not worthy of a rational person.
Or, as Jesus later said, "What good is it for a person to gain the world and lose his soul?"
Sharing Truth Is The Fruit Of Private Discovery
That isn't much to know, really, but maybe that will have to be enough in this world. We are each given our portion of the truth to see, and this seems to be mine -- perhaps you could share something of your own vision, because that is what truth is for: sharing.
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