“But still you must understand that knowledge is neither a tower nor a well, but a human habitation.” These inspiring words belong to French philosopher and spiritual writer, Antonin Sertillanges. He means we must not regard knowledge as something external to ourselves, something to which we refer or draw upon from time to time. Knowledge must be more personal than that, more intimate and immediate. We must embody what we know and literally live our day to day lives according to our own set of preferred truths.
For Sertillanges, having a philosophical frame of reference is essential. “It is undeniably useful to possess, as early as possible, even if at starting [one’s intellectual life] if it may be, a body of directive ideas forming a whole, and capable, like the magnet, of attracting and subordinating to itself all our knowledge. The man without some such equipment is, in the intellectual universe, like the traveller who easily falls into scepticism through getting to know many dissimilar civilizations and contradictory doctrines.
“This lack of a coherent system of ideas is one of the great misfortunes of our age. To escape it, thanks to a sure body of doctrine, is an incomparable benefit.”
It is vital to understand that by “doctrine” Sertillanges is not referring to economic (e.g. communism, capitalism) and political (e.g. libertarianism, conservatism) ideology. He means a basic set of workable and constructive religious or philosophical principles such as the Christian Trinity, Calvinist predestination, Methodist prevenient grace, and so on. To choose one of these codified beliefs, sanctioned by some group or Church, is to acquire a remedy for the crippling uncertainties of scepticism. Sertillanges argues that doctrine provides strength, structure, and organization whereas scepticism wraps everything in enfeebling and paralyzing doubt. We are more able to make evaluations and act when we see things from a particular viewpoint.
As a practicing Catholic, Sertillanges naturally saw doctrine as the only alternative to scepticism. However, there is another option. Psychology offers the concept of the self with a set of values we developed as children. If we come to know ourselves, we find that we already have a basic worldview or simple philosophy of life. At our most fundamental level, we are not, and can never be, sceptics. Like it or not, we all believe in something.
Let me take a personal approach to illuminating these ideas. I am a manic-depressive who has suffered through both the massive ego inflation and the major breakdown and depression required to earn the fateful diagnosis “bipolar I.” For me, Sertillanges words ring with an essential truth. My own healing experience strongly supports the importance of a coherent and consistent worldview, Sertillanges’ “body of directive ideas forming a whole.”
For precisely the reason Sertillanges gives above, I was once a tremendous sceptic. In my pursuit of knowledge, I had exposed myself to so many contradictory ideas that I had come to see everything as being “relative,” and so believed absolutely nothing. After my nervous breakdown, however, I conceived the idea of deliberately acquiring some sort of well-organized worldview. Like Sertillanges, I felt that what I needed was some way to see the world around me from a particular perspective or specific viewpoint. In other words, I was looking for a reference point, or perhaps an anchor. Absolutes were not necessary; I just wanted some way to bring definition to what looked like meaningless chaos and arbitrariness. Hard lessons had taught me that you cannot deal rationally with a world that makes no sense.
Interestingly, the germ of this important idea came from the early pages of a biography of the Russian dramatist, Anton Chekhov. Its author, a Frenchman by the name of Daniel Gilles, maintained that Chekhov was the only major writer who did not possess a particular worldview. Gilles saw this as an asset (his book is subtitled, Observer without Illusion), but as I studied Chekhov’s short life, I recognized my own difficulties in the great playwright’s struggles. In the end, I decided that other major writers did have a worldview because having one was a good idea!
Over the next few years, I studied (among many other things) Jungian psychology, the works of Nietzsche and Hermann Hesse, creativity research, a bit of cognitive research, and stacks of literary biographies. I kept personal diaries, journals about my individuation process, and “idea” notebooks. Out of this rich mix, and by systematically weeding out inconsistencies and contradictions in my thinking and ideas, I forged, as well as revealed, my own personal, coherent, consistent worldview. This yielded a much stronger sense of self and provided a framework within which to analyze and judge all new knowledge as I encountered it. No widely accepted doctrine was required.
I no longer believe everything is relative, but some things clearly are. We each have within us our own personal nucleus of guiding principles that are, for us, the (subjective) truth. Once found, these emotionally important ideas form the philosophical foundations upon which we can build and expand our personal understanding of the world. In this way, we can escape the self-defeating scepticism that Sertillanges so cannily described as, “one of the great misfortunes of our age,” without being entangled with doctrine.
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