December 10, 2006
John Erskine said that it is our moral obligation to be intelligent. Erskine, the father of the Great Books of Western Civilization, admonished us to adopt the Greek viewpoint that knowledge is a virtue and that our highest potential is unveiled through intelligence.This contradicts the fundamental Christian doctrine of avoiding the Tree of Knowledge. In Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” God’s angel warns Adam against asking the deep questions and directs him toward faith. Only the devil questions and explores.Without knowledge, we languish in mere opinion, and “opinion,” Erskine said, “is that exercise of the human will which helps us to make a decision without information.” To an intelligent person, that’s no way to make a decision, yet our society often functions that way.Look at Iraq. Opinion, spurred by emotion, triggered the current disaster. Intelligence, both institutional and personal, was lacking by those who sent us to war. Now the Iraq Study Group recommends “more U.S. diplomacy, less combat.” Duh!Global warming is being met with a similar lack of intelligence given the resounding scientific information of its inexorable progress. This and other environmental calamities are routinely ignored for the sake of easy living and unconscionable denial.Plato said we begin life in a cave, where our only view of life comes from the shadows cast on the wall of the cave by the dim light of the sun. We see a shadow world but take it for the real world because we know nothing else.Plato’s cave is writ large on today’s vast television audience, where values and worldviews come from programs and images broadcast by corporations and governments. Like those in Plato’s cave, we rarely wonder if what we see is real. What passes for real is a virtual reality.What does this mean for democratic governance? If our view of life comes from the flickering images on TV, and if our intelligence is mired in mere opinion, it’s no wonder democracy falters in a faith-based trust of dubious leaders.Thomas Jefferson warned that every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. “The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree.”James Madison said: “A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”The mess in Iraq fits Madison’s conclusion. The Iraq Study Group has finally brought fact into the equation – but too late for almost 3,000 American lives and countless Iraqi lives. These losses mark the failed ideals girding the democratic notions of peace, justice and unity.Plato allowed that it is not a conspiracy that keeps the demos (“the people”) unenlightened, but it is the people’s own disposition that makes them dependent on rulers. The rulers do not create popular ignorance and apathy; they simply exploit it.What Erskine said about intelligence being a moral obligation is a critical idea that needs our attention. Education, the pursuit of truth, engagement in the political process, inquiry, activism – these are the antidotes to the immorality of ignorance.Without them, the majority of people have little knowledge of the details that crucially shape their lives. Maybe it’s that feeling of impotence that makes millions of people so desperately hungry for ever more escapist entertainment … the desire to stay in their comfortable caves watching the shadows.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.The Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.
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