T H O U G H T  P R O V O C A T E U R S


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Dr. William O'Meara

Self-Knowledge in
Philosophy, Psychology and Religion

by William O'Meara


About 25 years ago, I was walking through the Art Institute in Chicago with my wife-to-be. There had been a contest, and the first prize painting had won $1000. We walked, looking at the different entries in the contest. When we came upon the first prize painting, and my immediate reaction was to laugh. I thought to myself, "So this is modern art; I could have painted this." It was a canvas, approximately three feet by five feet, painted entirely black. I thought to myself, "there must be more to the painting than this." So I looked again, and the painting began to draw me in. It was like a mirror, not a mirror that showed me my surface self but a mirror that invited me on an inner journey.

Today, I want to take you on a journey into that black painting, I want to take you on a search for the self in philosophy, psychology, and religion. I have chosen the black painting as part of the image of self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is a journey that begins in darkness. This is true in philosophy, psychology, and religion: self-knowledge begins when I realize that I don't know what I think I know.

In philosophy, Socrates summed up the beginning of philosophy as the search for self-knowledge when he said that the only thing that I know is that I don't know. Socrates was the Athenian philosopher who was put on trial and condemned to death because he taught young men philosophy. He was charged with impiety to the Gods and with corrupting the youth. Both charges reduce to this: He had taught the young to question values and religious beliefs. When he was on trial, he explained that a friend of his Chaerephon had gone to the temple of Apollo, the god of wisdom, to the oracle at Delphi. Inscribed in this temple were the words "know thyself." Chaerephon had asked the oracle if there was any man wiser than Socrates, and the oracle's reply was that there was no man wiser. When Socrates heard this from his friend, he was greatly puzzled. How could he be the wisest man if the only thing that he knew was that he didn't know? He thought surely there must be men wiser than he. So he went around the city questioning different people. These people knew about their trades and professions but when he asked them about values, he discovered that they didn't know what they thought they knew. The wisdom of Socrates consisted in this that he knew that he didn't know; the foolishness of his fellow Athenians consisted in this that they didn't know that they didn't know. The wisdom of Socrates was not a theoretical, abstract thing; it was a living, practical commitment. Aware of his ignorance, he committed himself to trying to overcome that ignorance. He summed up this commitment in the most famous statement of all philosophy: "the unexamined life is not worth living." Philosophers call this the Socratic commitment.

I believe that we have all made this commitment somewhere between the age of 1 to 20. Young children are always asking questions: why do I have to wash my face, why must I brush my teeth; these questions parents can answer. But as the children grow older, they ask questions about religious and moral values. As young adults we all realized that we had to question these things for ourselves and answer them for ourselves. Only in this way would our lives be truly our own. We wanted to be free from imposed values and beliefs and free for developing our own values and beliefs, and we could only do this by the examined way of life.

I believe that we have all made this commitment to the examined way of life. Yet there are times when the importance of this commitment becomes very clear to us. One of these times for me occurred in my first year of teaching. I was attempting to present a proof for the existence of God. I was using a proof that had been carefully worked out by the best teacher I had studied with. I had gotten an A in this course. Yet when I presented the proof, I realized that I really didn't know it. There were assumptions in the proofs which I had not questioned thoroughly enough. It is true that people say that you never really know something unless you can teach it. But my discovery of my lack of knowledge was hard to accept at first. I learned that I had to deepen my commitment to the examined way of life. I learned that the first step in the journey of self-knowledge is the awareness of my own lack of knowledge.

The importance of self-knowledge is easy to find in psychology. Psychology means in the root words, the study of the self. There are many ways of doing psychology today, but few deny the importance of Freud. Freud was working with another doctor named Breuer. Breuer was treating a patient named Anna. Anna had been caring for her sick father and had begun to suffer hysterical paralysis of her arm. Breuer and Anna discovered that talking about her emotions removed the paralysis. Words and phrases that Anna had muttered in states of incoherence were told to her by Breuer; and when she talked about her associations to these words, she would become cured. But Anna fell in love with Breuer. Breuer's wife insisted that he stop treating Anna. So Breuer decided at her next visit to his office. But that night Anna went into paralysis again, and Breuer had to be summoned for the talking cure again. Then Breuer and his wife went away on a second honeymoon, and Freud took over the case. Breuer is never heard of again in the history of psychology. But Freud is. Freud begins to treat Anna. Of course, she falls in love with Freud. One day in his study, Anna throws herself at Freud, declaring her undying love for him. One of Freud's servants happens to enter, and Freud is able to see through the declaration of love. He knows that she doesn't know what she is saying. Imagine, the most sacred words one person could ever say to another, "I love you," and the person doesn't even know what she is saying. As Freud later explained this kind of event, the patient was transferring feelings which she had for her father to the doctor. Parents know that when little children say "I love you" they are saying "I am dependent on you, I need you to take care of me." There is a difference between that dependent love of the child and the unselfish love of the adult. But the difference is not always so easy to know when we are the ones involved in a love relationship.

Awareness of our motivation is never complete; again we learn that the first step in the journey of self-knowledge is awareness of our own lack of knowledge. We learn that we have to deepen our commitment to the examined way of life. Whether we are trying to develop a philosophy of life or trying to develop our personality, we have to begin by deepening our commitment to the examined way of life. The same deepening of our commitment to the examined way of life is a basic factor in religion. We find that the Socratic commitment is a fundamental moral-religious truth, a fundamental moral-religious valued for one of the great leaders in religion in the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi. The major commitment of his life is to live by the truth, and this is to live by conscience. He once wrote:

God is that indefinable something which we all feel but which we do not know. To me God is Truth and Love, God is Ethics and Morality. God is the fearlessness of the morally good man. God is the source of light and life; and yet above and beyond all these God is conscience. He is even the atheism of the atheist.

Bertrand Russell tells the story that when he was imprisoned in WWI for his pacifist activities, the jailer asked him his religious beliefs and Russell replied that he was an agnostic. The jailor replied that he had never heard of that religion but that although men have many different religions, they all worship the same God. Russell didn't attempt to tell the man that an agnostic does not worship God but instead affirms that there is no evidence to prove that God does exist or that He does not. But Russell thought that the man had made a good point. Both the agnostic and the religious believer should be living according to their consciences. The unexamined religious belief and the unexamined agnosticism are both not worth holding. So, both Russell and Gandhi agree then that belief in God is and must be primarily belief in one's own conscience, belief in living according to the truth.

What Gandhi found out in his self-knowledge was that he was no guru, no prophet, no saint, no infallible teacher. He was simply a man, he tells us in his own words, "who blunders from error towards truth." With this attitude towards truth and towards his own inadequacies, he found it necessary to accept without qualification democratic methods of reaching truth, to accept without qualification persuasion rather than compulsion. He tells us that he had no desire to conquer his adversaries by force. He wished to convert them or rather he wished to communicate with them, to persuade them, to be persuaded by them, of the truth. Gandhi believes that the truth leads humanity to God, that the truth shall make us free, but more fundamentally that we must be free to seek the truth.

Usually we think that being free to seek the truth means that we shall be free from compulsion by others in our search, but there is a deeper meaning. We need to be free from our own inadequate knowledge and from our own inadequate motivation in religious and moral practice. True religious belief requires a deepening of our commitment to live the examined way of life. The truth shall make us free, but we must be free from our own inadequacies in our search for truth.

We have begun the journey of self-knowledge: as we face the black painting, we are aware of our need to deepen our commitment to the examined way of life. Yet we must question if philosophy, psychology, and religion can teach us common truths we must all accept. In one sense, we have to answer "no" - philosophers do not agree among themselves; they will never agree. Religions do not agree; they will never agree. Psychologists do not agree; they will probably never agree. In our search for the meaning and value of the self in relation to the world, each one of us must make the journey alone into the darkness; no one else can make our decisions; no one else can be responsible for them. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre tells a story that illustrates very well the unique responsibility which everyone has for the meaning of his life. This story is all the more remarkable since it is about a man of religion, and Sartre is an atheist.

Sartre was a prisoner of war of the Germans after the Nazis defeated the French. While he was imprisoned, he made the acquaintance of a somewhat remarkable man, a Jesuit, who had become a member of that order in the following way.

In his life he had suffered a series of severe setbacks. His father had died when he was a child, leaving him in poverty, and he had been given a free scholarship in a religious institution, where he had been made continually to feel that he was accepted for charity's sake. Later, about the age of 18 he came to grief in a sentimental affair; and finally, at 22 - this was a trifle in itself, but it was the last drop that overflowed his cup - he failed in his military examination. This young man then, could regard himself as a total failure: all these experiences meant something, but what did they mean. He might have taken refuge in bitterness or despair. But he took it - very cleverly for him - as a sign that he was not intended for secular successes, and that only the attainments of religion, those of sanctity and of faith, were open to him. He interpreted his record of constant failure as a message from God and became a member of the Jesuit Order. Who could doubt but that this decision as to the meaning of the sign was his, and his alone? One could have drawn quite different conclusions from his experiences of failure. He could have become a carpenter or a revolutionary or an atheist. ("Existentialism is a Humanism")

Only the individual can decide the meaning of one's life-experience: we cannot appeal to the agreement of others as taking away our own responsibility. It is true that talking with others and reading philosophy, psychology, and religious writings helps us to avoid self-deception when we claim to know the truth, but we must determine the meaning of life by ourselves.

Although we determine the meaning of life by ourselves, there is an area where others can help us. Others, especially our close friends, our spouses, our children, help us to know how we live out that meaning which we have chosen. We might think we are acting in a loving way to our children, but our spouses and children are often better able to judge the quality of our behavior. Others help us to know how well we live out the truth of life as we see it, and they help us avoid inadequate interpretations of life, but each one of us is personally responsible for our own interpretation of life. We can never give up that responsibility by appealing to truths that all philosophy, psychology, and religion would agree to. So in one sense, we have to say that philosophy, psychology, and religion cannot teach us common truths we must all accept. But, in another sense, I believe that the basic value of self-knowledge In philosophy, psychology, and religion has implications which are recognized by those three ways of relating to the self.

When Socrates appeals to us to deepen our commitment to self-knowledge, when Freud appeals to us to clarify the meaning of our love, and when Gandhi appeals to us to have a conscientious religious belief, all three are calling for an integration of the heart and mind. They are calling for an integration of emotion and thought, of choice and understanding. As we stand before that black mirror which begins to reveal the inadequacies of our knowledge, love, and faith, we cannot make our journey of self-knowledge as though we were pure intellects. We must summon the courage of our hearts and take the risk that things may not turn out the way we want them to. We have to admit that the conscientious religious believer must be willing to disbelieve if the evidence would require him to do so. And so we must be courageous in deepening our commitment to the examined way of life. We are entering upon a dangerous journey; we recognize that the totality of life constitutes an experiment.

Mahatma Gandhi recognized that life was an experiment. The subtitle of his autobiography is: "The Story of My Experiments with the Truth." Working on the assumption that God's truth and love ruled the world and united all beings in their inmost self, Gandhi proceeded to experiment with his life. He behaved with love and trust toward all his fellow humans in his private and political life. The response of love and trust which others gave to him strengthened his faith, and this strengthening of his faith enabled him to continue to love and trust even those who refused his love and trust. It was his religious faith which animated his leadership of the non-violent civil disobedience which eventually freed India from Britain. The name which Gandhi gave to non-violence was satyagraha, the force that is born from truth and love (truth-force). If the truth is that God is in all things, if the truth is that God is love, then one can treat another with love and not with violence, and that way of non-violence will be more productive of human good.

The key life experience which brought this truth home to Gandhi was the time that he confessed to his father that he had been stealing money from the family to eat meat and smoke cigarettes.

"I decided at last to write out the confession, to submit it to my father, and to ask his forgiveness. I wrote it on a slip of paper and handed it to him myself. In this note not only did I confess my guilt, but I asked adequate punishment for it, and closed with a request to him not to punish himself (by hitting himself on the forehead) for my offense. I also pledged myself never to steal in the future. I was trembling as I handed the confession to my father. He was then ill. His bed was a plain wooden plank. I handed him the note and sat opposite the plank. He read it through and pearly drops trickled down his cheeks, wetting the paper. I also cried. I could see my father's agony. If I were a painter, I could draw a picture of the whole scene today. Even today it is still so vivid in my mind. Those pearl drops of love cleansed my heart and washed my sin away. Only he who has experienced such love can know what it is. As the hymn says: 'Only he who is smitten with the arrows of love knows its power.' "This was for me an object-lesson in love. Then I could see in it nothing more than a father's love, but today I know that it was pure love. When such love becomes all embracing, it transforms everything it touches. It is hard to measure this power."

Gandhi's interpretation of life, that God's love is present in all, became truer for him the more that others responded to his love. Gandhi's love for his father which encouraged him to confess his stealing permitted Gandhi to discover the power of love. Gandhi's belief in God which inspired his political movement of non-violence enabled him to confirm his belief in God as love.

Religious truth is different from mathematical truth. To know that 2+2=4 does not affect our moral character, but to believe in God is to affirm a truth that should inspire our moral character and cleanse our heart when sincerely held. Religious truth is something that becomes more true; it verifies itself by its consequences, by the way it cleanses our heart and leads others, as Gandhi discovered in his experiment with life, to a life of love and non-violence. Consequently, a religious belief is not held by our intellect alone; it needs to take root in our heart, cleansing our heart and leading us to God's love. But there can be great risk in giving oneself completely to God's love, especially when we seem to be surrounded by darkness in our lives. So we need to deepen our commitment to our basic religious hypothesis, just as we need to deepen our commitment to the examined way of life. Moral and religious truths do not come to us without risk.

Only the courageous commitment of love can reveal the basic truths of human life. I cannot know the potentiality of a child by studying the child with a neutral emotion, with only my intellect. My positive interest in the child, my love for the child, is a creative force that helps to release the potentiality of the child I want to know. The same positive interest, the same love, which helps to create the meaning of the child's life, is in Gandhi's term the truth force that creates the meaning of humanity, that enables us to create and discover that the meaning of our lives is love. In all our lives, we seek lasting value for ourselves and for our families. Gandhi's life teaches us that our values are bound up with the value of all humanity and that the totality of human value is bound up with the truth of God's creative and overflowing love. The statement, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, all thy mind and all thy strength, is in fact the best definition of God we shall ever possess. God is that which is supremely worthy of our total commitment, supremely worthy of worship. Our commitment to the examined way of life, our commitment to the truth, requires a commitment of love to realize what the truth of human life is. When we feel totally alone and surrounded by the darkness, our commitment to the truth should lead to a courageous love, both deriving from and leading to the universal presence of God's love.

(c) Copyrighted by William O'Meara, 1997

Bill O'Meara is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at James Madison University. His academic interests include Phenomenology and Existentialism, American Philosophy and Pragmatism, the thought of Karl Marx, the social nature of the self and morality, contemporary Catholic theology, the Christian scriptures, world religions, computer-assisted instruction, and critical thinking.




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