Knowledge Crawling Over My Skin (The Regime #3)

the regimejayber crow“I seemed to have wandered my way back to the beginning—not just of the book, but of the world—and all the rest was yet to come. I felt knowledge crawl over my skin.”[1] Thus says Wendell Berry’s title character in his meandering reflection on life in the midwest in the mid-20th century, Jayber Crow. Jayber had come to reject the Christian teaching of the seminary due to disillusionment with the attempt to reason with the Scriptures. Here we see him come full circle as he reads the Bible afresh. But things are different now. He has lived more. He has reflected more. He has longed more. And in this longing he desires to return to his origins. He experiences the Scripture in a way that has less to do with rational thought and more to do with the desires of the soul.

Baldassarre_Peruzzi_-_Apollo_and_the_Muses_-_WGA17365In The Republic, a book that can hardly be more removed from Wendell Berry, Plato puts the following words in the mouth of his teacher, Socrates: “‘What is the education? Isn’t it difficult to find a better one than that discovered over a great expanse of time? It is, of course, gymnastic for bodies and music for the soul.’”[2] Alan Bloom, recognizing that most of us have a limited understanding of what “music” is, offers this note on the word, saying, “‘Music’ means originally ‘any activity performed under the guidance of the Muses.’”[3] So it seems that Plato values knowledge gained from the Muses in education. But does he really? As we continue reading in the dialogue, the “Muses” become reduced merely to a highly regulated set of stories that can be passed on to children in which virtually everything from the Muses is stripped. Plato’s Socrates, though claiming himself to have little understanding, is developing a highly rational argument for what is Just and Good.

While I don’t think we can put Wendell Berry in the same category as the paradigm-shifting Plato, we do see above two examples of very different approaches to knowledge. One is highly rational—focused on the head—and one is centered in a story—focused on the heart. This tension between rational philosophy and poetic myth has ancient origins[4]. While many of us Socratic types would like to think that the modern culture wants to jump into dialogues with us resembling that of Socrates and his companions, I believe the reality is that most people are more like Jayber than Socrates’ friends: Glaucon, Polemachus, or Adeimantus.

Postmodernism, disillusioned like Jayber by a soulless modernism, seems to be seeking knowledge based in story—based in longing. The culture has lost faith in rational argumentation because, perhaps, they have seen how easily it can be manipulated—what the ancients called sophistry. Does this then make postmodernists less susceptible to manipulation? On the contrary, it appears that many of them are more susceptible to manipulation, but that doesn’t mean that there is no value in their desire to know truth through story, experience, and longing. While people today seem carried along by whims, trends, and fancies, I believe they are seeking a form of truth in their own way. We can engage this culture by paying more attention to aesthetics and story, which we can call “pre-modern” as much as “postmodern”. Unfortunately, often we seem to be seeking to argue like Socrates while in reality more “Jaybers” abound.

 

[1] Berry, Wendell. Jayber Crow. Berkely, CA: Counterpoint, 2000. p. 79.

[2] Plato, and Allan Bloom. The Republic. New York: Basic Books, 2016. p. 54.

[3] Ibid. p. 449.

[4] Aristophones mocks his contemporary, Socrates, for his irreverent dialectic in his famous work, The Clouds. This, along with other anti-philosophic efforts, will contribute toward Socrates’ death-sentence.

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