Saturday, August 17, 2013

Art's Gift to Wisdom / Chewing the Cud

We have all admired someone who, step-by-step, works through a problem and demonstrates the answer. How many times have we looked back and said, "I wish I could do that again. If only I had thought through that better at the time." While we can admire a strict step-by-step analysis of a problem, we cannot spend more time analyzing life than actually living. We need a messy wisdom, a wisdom that speaks in a timely and concerned fashion to our everyday lives.

Giambattista Vico
By 1709, Descartes's push for certainty was in full bloom. Extolling the exactitude of mathematics, scholars subjected life to rigorous logical analysis. Giambattista Vico responded in 1709 with his On the Study Methods of Our Time. In this work, Vico, without denying the value of rigorous analysis, argued that Descartes's method ignored the needs of students. "But the greatest drawback of our educational methods is that we pay an excessive amount of attention to the natural sciences and not enough to ethics" (33). If our schooling has to wait 22 years to teach students how to be good citizens, then that's too long.  Logic is good, necessary, and helpful. However, it often moves too slow, and it cannot grapple with tremendous gaps in our knowledge, an ignorance which is all too common and unavoidable. When we act with patience and a sensitivity to the particulars of a situation, the hindsight of rigorous analysis will often reveal that we may have acted with more wisdom than we knew.

From the Holocaust
Here, art can give to wisdom. Here, art can teach philosophy and theology. An excellent example of this teaching is Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan, one of the characters, addresses the problem of evil in a very graphic way. "This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty- shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, and... they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this." Ivan goes on to draw this conclusion. "Why should he (man) know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child's prayer to 'dear, kind God'!" (224). This passage is considered one of the preeminent portrayals of the problem of evil. There have been various attempts to defend God that rely on logic, but if Christians do not answer the problem of evil in its fullness, in its concreteness, then they will convince no one. An ethics that cannot feel is irresponsible, and it's art's empathy for life in detail, both beautiful and painful, that teaches us both to feel and to judge with wisdom.

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