Friday, November 9, 2007

The scholarly life: Two views

The pessimist:

I HAVE, alas! Philosophy,
Medicine, Jurisprudence too,
And to my cost Theology,
With ardent labour, studied through.
And here I stand, with all my lore,
Poor fool, no wiser than before.
Magister, doctor styled, indeed,
Already these ten years I lead,
Up, down, across, and to and fro,
My pupils by the nose,--and learn,
That we in truth can nothing know!
That in my heart like fire doth burn.
'Tis true I've more cunning than all your dull tribe,
Magister and doctor, priest, parson, and scribe;
Scruple or doubt comes not to enthrall me,
Neither can devil nor hell now appal me--
Hence also my heart must all pleasure forego! (Goethe, Faust, Part I)

The optimist:

The ennui of the accustomed explains not only why elderly people like to travel, but also why they incline to live vicariously in the doing of the young. However, this is far less of a problem with someone whose life is dedicated to learning, for there lies before one an endless horizon of more things to learn about. To be sure, it might seem that, very abstractly considered, learning and thinking themselves are "more of the same." But that is altogether false because, concretely considered, the idea at issue is always something new, something fresh." (Nicholas Rescher at age 73, Enlightening Journey, p. 266)
One should also, I think, supplement the quote with Rescher's idea that as one learns more, the knowledge makes possible new questions, and so the quest for knowledge is, in principle, without end for finite knowers.

I think Rescher gets right what Faust gets wrong. It may be true that the more one knows, the more one realizes what a small fraction of the questions there are one knows the answer to. But that is not reason for despair--for one can, after all, know more and more, both more facts and more questions.

I sometimes have suffered from a fear of the ennui of eternity in heaven. I realize that this is an irrational fear--the vision of God, our infinite lover and beloved, can unchangingly satisfy us forever. But it does seem plausible that growth, progress and change are important aspects of human nature (that's one reason I don't like the account of heavenly life as timeless--another reason is the apparent nonsensicality of saying "after this temporal life, there will be a timeless existence"). I was thinking about these ideas from Rescher yesterday, and I think they did much to take away the fear of the ennui of eternity. Here's the argument: I can see the life of ever increasing inquiry, truth leading to questions leading to truth, synoptic view leading to new questions leading to a wider synthesis, as a life worth engaging in for eternity. But what God has prepared for us, which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, either includes that or--quite likely--includes something even more satisfying. So the idea that eternity would produce ennui is mistaken--at least if one loves truth.

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