Reason and Nonsense

The human condition is a paradoxical one. What feels right to the human heart can be so very wrong, what seems logical remains so only by a steadfast belief in false premises. As Shakespeare’s Lear drives home with painful acuity, nations are often governed by fools claiming to be professionals, while the professional fool is the only one wise and brave enough to tell the truth. Reason is held to be the intellectual domain of the elite, and nonsense presumed the state of the working class; little time needs to be spent with the elite to understand that what they deem reasonable is frequently at odds with reality.

My recent creative project is a collaborative one. Partnering with my inestimable colleagues, Dr. Andrew Jacobs, Director of the Great Books Honors Program, and Dr. Taten Shirley, Director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program, we are producing a weekly podcast entitled Reason and Nonsense.

Unfortunately, this news may produce a collective groan more than any hopes we may hold of hearing Hoorays or rounds of He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. There are many podcasts out there from which one may sample generously. Political punditry. True Crime. Fantasy Football. The History of the English Language—if that’s your pleasure. Why do we need one more podcast? To which I would answer, surely, we don’t. The market is already saturated with more highly talented amateurs than we three. But we create because it is in the human spirit to create, and to create in community finds ever greater rewards than in the isolation of one’s own thoughts. To expand our community beyond the classroom walls and the halls of our university is more rewarding still.

For the primary audience for this podcast will be current college students, our dearly missed GB alumni, and any others interested in commentary on Great Books. We will draw from the ancients and moderns, contemplating some of the philosophical ideas on the air that we don’t always have time to address in class. As in our classrooms, the tone will be playfully serious, as we will dive into “big shelf topics” like love and romance, God and faith, and literature and culture. Surely some will find our discussions superfluous at best, irreverent at worst. But it is a short journey from prudent to prudish, and those who would deride our banter likely know little of the earnest camaraderie between fellows of the mind and heart. We take this approach ultimately because life is alternately a comedy and a tragedy: a tragedy because of human suffering, but even more a comedy because we are empowered to transcend suffering. To laugh at evil, even to mock it, infuses our bones with strength and courage; for evil holds no power in a world with an empty tomb. The more light we can shine in the darkness, the less darkness will reign over us. Likewise, the more nonsense we bring to reason, the more reasonable we shall become.

You can find the first episode here, and I will link each subsequent episode to one of the pages here on this blog if you are a frequent visitor and would like to make your way to the program. Like Charles Foster Kane’s Declaration of Principles—though hopefully proclaimed with more integrity than he—I can promise several things. I can promise we will be funnier to ourselves than we are to you, but that will not stop you from laughing. I promise we will disagree and debate but always start from a place of respect for one another and commitment to the truth. And I promise we will speak not because we have to say something but because we have something to say.

I cannot promise many goods, though I can affirm we are each together in search of the Good. We invite you to join the search with us.

Owning Knowledge

As I marvel at our technological development, I realize how exceptional a thing it is to be alive today. At the click of a button, we can access any language, find nearly any written document, pull up famous artwork that would have been restricted to museums even a generation ago. The life improvement experts at Amazon are even able to resurrect the dead voices of our loved ones and have them speak to us on the Echo—reading us stories, ticking off sports statistics, and announcing the weather. If we add fiber pills to the groceries list, Great Grandma Gertrude will ask us how we are feeling, and offer to add some prunes and suppositories to the list as well. All data points that work together to build our consumer, health, and political avatar.

I marvel even more, however, at Shakespeare who had virtually no reference materials. Without dictionary or library, if he wanted a story like Piramus and Thisbe on which to model his Romeo and Juliet, he had to remember it from grade school or hunt down a rare volume of Ovid. If he lacked a word, he had to overhear it from conversation, read it from a modern history book, or just make it up–and he did. Words like lackluster, grovel, and puking have entered our lexicon because of the creativity of the Bard. Knowledge and creativity we take for granted in the modern age.

If I want to know anything, and as I am not smart enough just to make it up, I can go to the library, find a book, listen to something on Audible. We are privileged to know anything, to quite literally acquire and possess knowledge—nearly all of which is available on the Google. The 1922 World Series. Einstein’s stomach ailments. How many of our ancestors died in the Civil War. It’s a magic for which in earlier times we might have been burned at the stake.

Yet the problem of instantaneous knowledge is that we do not have to work very hard for it. Like the friend in high school whose parents bought him a Mitsubishi 3000 GT vr4. And when after six months he had totaled it, they bought him a new one. When we think knowledge free, we do not take responsibility for it. Neither do we respect it.

What compounds this problem is that, knowing anything, we assume we know everything. Was the recent election stolen by Joe Biden? Or is Donald Trump a liar? (The jester may remind us these claims are not mutually exclusive.) No American lacks an opinion on this point, and almost no American is timid of sharing that opinion. In the sharing of that opinion often carries with it a scathing denunciation of those who hold an opposing opinion. Words like ignorant, threat, power-hungry, and cultists are frequently invoked. Though none of us counted the ballots to support our claims, each of us believes we stand firm on the side of logic while the other side just follows their hearts.

St. Augustine of Hippo said that when it comes to truth, we are not actually governed by emotion or logic. Rather, we are slaves to our Will, that oft-obeyed but rarely heard force inside us that insists on getting its own way. Thus, if we want to believe in a higher power, and that Mohammed is his prophet, or that Jesus is Lord, we will examine the evidence in such a way as to arrive at that conclusion. And if we do not wish to believe in God, we follow the same path. We grasp for truth with hands already clutching at its derivatives. We should, therefore, not fool ourselves into believing that we are just so rational that we can simply follow the truth. The Will–how humble we are, how disposed we are toward truth–will determine if we actually find it. St. Augustine would say—and he is a wise man who should be consulted more often on a variety of subjects—that we do not have a knowledge deficit. We have a pride problem. And we do not know what we think we know.

More knowledge has not solved human ills. Technology has, ironically, not made us smarter—certainly not wiser. Perhaps it has merely created more avenues to sin with impunity. Until I recognize that I am the problem—not other people—then my hands will do nothing to cultivate the land in front of me.

None of these recognitions negate the truth that it is a great time in history to be alive. But they do remind us of the burden that comes with knowledge. May our virtue prove fit shoulders to bear it with grace.