What Learning Is

“Disagree when necessary, but be in agreement about the truth.” – Saint Columba

“The real community of man is the community of those who seek the truth, of the potential knowers.” – Allan Bloom

Speaking as a potential knower, do I doubt the agreements I come to in community with others in regard to truth? Not if the truth it shares in common is a truth for me to stand by and to die for, not if it is my truth – not if I live and move and have my being in that truth. Is this truth to me a pearl of great price, a treasure in a field that, having found and covered up, I went off and bought with everything I had, so dearly (and gladly) have I paid for it? If so, very well then, having made this truth my own, I am now as a personality transcending myself in that truth, this truth I share in community with others.

But there is this matter of others beyond these others, the great mass of others who do not share this common truth, who live without this pearl, this treasure found in a field, this matter of personalities who seem entirely to subsist in the way of opinions strongly held, of beliefs untried, whose seeking is not truth itself, but whose seeking is comfort rather, comfort in various home-and-daily truths as higgledy-piggledy they happen to present themselves to be, “truths” fundamentally of mere accident and convenience it would seem, “truths” in any case costing nothing. But that one truth, however one may understand that one truth, however one might express that one truth, that single pearl of great price, that unique treasure in the field covered up and bought with all that one has – what is that to them?

Well then, do I delude myself? Am I arrogant toward these “others beyond others”? Is the pearl of great price, this truth I believe I have won so dearly, a commodity merely? Is it one idea in the noisy marketplace of many ideas, one of countless treasures to be found actually in anyone’s field, each field put up at auction as if it were some dustbowl farm among thousands of others, my own intellect auctioneer to my own subconscious desire of who-knows-what popping up to make its bid? Is there in fact a serious danger here to be reckoned with? According to the novelist Doris Lessing, there is indeed, for, in regard to the above questions, as expressed in Prisons We Choose to Live Inside: CBC Massey Lectures (CBC Enterprises, 1986, p. 21 ff) she has this to say:

This business of seeing ourselves as in the right, others in the wrong; our cause as right, theirs as wrong; our ideas as correct, theirs as nonsense, if not as downright evil. . . .  Well, in our sober moments, our human moments, the times when we think, reflect, and allow our rational minds to dominate us, we all of us suspect that this “I am right, you are wrong” is, quite simply, nonsense. All history, development, goes on through interaction and mutual influence, and even the most violent extremes of thought, of behavior, become woven into the general texture of human life, as one strand of it. This process can be seen over and over again in history. In fact, it is as if what is real in human development – the main current of social – evolution cannot tolerate extremes, so it seeks to expel extremes and extremists, or to get rid of them by absorbing them into the general stream.

“All things are a flowing . . . ,” as Heraclitus, the old Greek philosopher said.

There is no such thing as my being in the right, my side being in the right, because within a generation or two, my present way of thinking is bound to be found perhaps faintly ludicrous, perhaps quite outmoded by new development – at the best, something that has been changed, all passion spent, into a small part of a great process, a development.

Certainly she has a point, even if in making that point she commits the logical error of claiming all truth subject to change with the exception of this one truth she has just pronounced, a truth which is supposed to endure henceforth through the ages, now she has unwittingly exempted it from its own principle. As it is obvious that Heraclitus needs a Plato to follow him if he is to make any real, any ultimate sense, so too does Doris Lessing need that same Plato, for Plato after all gave “the flux of change” its full due precisely in order to arrive at that which can never change, namely (let us remember) the ideals of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, however these loftiest of ideals might present themselves in the stream of time, however these ideals might live as differentiated mental pictures in individual persons of flesh and blood, however they might play themselves out as deeds in individual biography and in world history. What is there to learn, if not precisely that one thing of consequence – that principle – that does not change in any particular situation ? What would be the use otherwise? 

“This is what learning is,” Lessing declares in her 1969 novel The Four-Gated City. “You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way.” And it is here that she reveals herself, at least at this moment, a moment many years before her Heraclitian statement of October 1985 in Toronto, in the full glory of Platonic verity, the power of which surely cannot be gainsaid, it being simply the experience of us all, which belies the presumed Heraclitian one “truth” she tendered to us as eternally unchangeable, that there is no “truth” that does not change, this standing in awesome contrast to any other “truth” we would want to take hold of.  Truth of its own nature never changes. Our understanding of truth however – and by this I mean of course higher truth – can and must change as, morally maturing, we make truth more and more our own.

“Think wrongly, if you please,” Doris Lessing bids us, “but in all cases think for yourself.” She is right of course, but only to a degree, and only in certain ways, as I shall try to explain in the next post. Meanwhile, let us fully acknowledge the danger she warns against, this danger of everyone in a group thinking alike, of this thinking becoming a kind of living entity over and above the group requiring the obeisance of each person in the group for its ongoing existence, an entity indentified in the French esoteric tradition as an egregore. Like-minded people thinking together in community is one thing, people thinking alike in a group, thinking for example within a closed system of ideological adherence, which obviously amounts to no thinking at all, is an entirely different thing. The first is freedom, the second is imprisonment, and pity on the blind and deaf who cannot tell the difference!

Like-minded people thinking in community, people seeking truth together as potential knowers, can become as it were an island of peace against a sea of troubles, an island where Wisdom dwells, an island where Goodness visits, an island where beauty Blesses. Whatever the evil of the day, whatever the overriding threat of that evil in the mind’s eye of all possibilities of evil, rest assured that as love of truth leads inevitably to goodness and beauty, so peace in such a place passeth all understanding.

Tomorrow is the feast day of Saint Cuthbert (c. 634 –March 20, 687) an Anglo-Saxon monk, bishop and hermit associated with the monasteries of Melrose and Lindisfarne in the Kingdom of Northumbria, who become in medieval times one of the most important saints of England, with a cult centered at Durham Cathedral. Famed for piety, diligence, and obedience, he spent much time among the people, ministering to their spiritual needs, carrying out missionary journeys, preaching, and performing miracles, his asceticism balanced by his charm and generosity to the poor, his reputation for gifts of healing and insight bringing many people to consult him. He was named of “Wonder Worker of Britain”. Later on in life he adopted the solitary life, retiring to a cave. He eventually settled on one of the Farne Islands, south of Lindisfarne. There he would receive visitors and wash their feet, subsequently confining himself to his cell, opening the window to give his blessing. While on the Farne Islands, he laid down special laws to protect the Eider ducks and other seabirds that nested on the islands, these bird protection laws having been possibly the first anywhere in the world. To this day eider ducks are often called cuddy ducks (Cuthbert’s ducks) in the dialect of modern Northumbria.

May Saint Cuthbert be an inspiration to all those who, as hermits in their love of truth and their longing for truth, learn to wash the feet of visitors, learn to open the window to them and to bless them. Thus may the community of those who seek truth meet together and come to know truth together as, washing the feet of one another, opening their windows to one another, blessing one another, they do as much for all others, for those “others beyond the others”. Thus in this way might the community of potential knowers, everyone thinking together individually in as many different ways as there are thinkers in the circle, in prayer to Holy Mary Sophia, united with Saint Michael, through the power of Her Divine Son – real thinking leading to real deeds – work for the salvation of the Earth and humanity.

“If we only looked at the way along which we are walking,” writes Saint Teresa of Avila in The Way of Perfection, “we should soon arrive; but we stumble and fall a thousand times and stray from the way because, as I say, we do not set our eyes on the true Way.”

To set our eyes on the true Way – more on this in the next post.

Pax et Bonum,
Randall Scott

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