Let’s Give Sense-Perception its Due: When Dialogue Might be Unnecessary or Harmful

Any graduate of Wyoming Catholic College is familiar with the scene from Augustine’s Confessions in which he and his mother Monica converse “in the presence of Truth, which You [Christ] are, what the eternal life of the saints could be like, which eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man.” (Confessions 178). As they discuss such heavenly wonders together, Augustine describes what I’ll refer to as the end of the intellectual life:

Rising as our love flamed upward toward that Selfsame, we passed in review the various levels of bodily things, up to the heavens themselves, whence sun and moon and stars shine upon this earth. And higher still we soared, thinking in our minds and speaking and marveling at Your works: and so we came to our own souls, and went beyond them to come at last to that region of richness unending, where you feed Israel forever with the food of truth […] And while we were thus talking of His Wisdom and panting for it, with all the effort of our heart we did for one instant attain to touch it; then sighing, and leaving the first fruits of our spirit bound to it, we returned to the sound of our own tongue[.]

Saint Augustine. Confessions. Trans. F.J. Sheed. Hackett Publishing Company: Indianapolis, IN. 178-179.

By end, I don’t literally mean that one can retire from the intellectual life if he accomplishes this. I’m referring to what Aristotle called telos, which roughly means a thing’s objective or purpose. Thus, we study and learn for the sake of this moment Augustine describes; this ‘vertical ascent’ that we undertake by moving along the ‘different levels of knowing.’ More on this movement from a certain Dr. Jason Baxter:

Per Boethius, there are four levels of knowing: sense-perception, imagination, reason, and intelligentia. Each one of these powers of knowing is appropriate to different kinds of creatures. The clam has sense perception, but no imagination- abaility to picture things to itself- like the dog or cat can do. Reason is the power of [men], but intelligentia belongs only to God. And yet, Boethius suggests, human beings can be given this power as a gift. And thus, we can climb up these powers, higher and higher, as if climbing the rungs on a ladder.

Baxter, Jason. Falling Inwards. Cluny Media: Columbia, SC. 112-113

We now understand that a true intellectual endeavor strives to move us along these ways of knowing: from sense-perception to imagination; from imagination to reason, and from reason to the God-given gift of intelligentia. Boethius would have referred to Augustine and Monica’s experience of “touching Wisdom” as God bestowing this gift upon them. As such, one can never attain intelligentia on his own, but rather studies in order that he may become more and more disposed to receive this gift.

We must also address the communal nature of the ascent. Inasmuch as one must begin with sense-perception, we can immediately discard the notion that the ascent is ethereal, angelic, or somehow detached from the rest of reality. It doesn’t contradict or disrespect creation, it simply leaves it behind as the mind and the heart simultaneously are moved by touching Divine Wisdom. (Even that distinction will pass away with this world; we will be united mind, body, and soul in our heavenly intellectual life.) Thus, the lover of the intellectual life cannot neglect his senses or the things they seize upon, for these are the beginning of any intellectual movement. Words are an obvious way to start bridging the ways of knowing, since they exist at once on the level of sense-perception, can communicate on the level of imagination, and can even communicate about the highest level of human knowing: reason. It hardly needs to be said that words are meaningless unless spoken to one capable of understanding. Thus, it seems likely that most ‘intellectual ascents’ will take place in the context of a conversation.

In fact, it seems that those attempting an intellectual ascent are most likely to choose words as the sense-objects that start the movement along the ways of knowing. This is because words exist in virtue of themselves, as objects sensible by the eye or ear, but also point to things beyond themselves. In this way, they make potent “fuel” for the train moving along the intellectual train track that Boethius outlined. If one were to eventually have great thoughts that were founded in his study of trees, he would first have to spend time with trees, observing them, hypothesizing about them, and studying them before he might be able to reason about them. I mean that quite seriously. Dr. Baxter expounds briefly on the ways of knowing, saying, “sense-perception knows bodily things when they are present; imagination knows bodily things in the memory, even when they are not present. Reason abstracts still more: it finds “types” or “forms.” (Falling Inwards, 113). Consider how much sense-perception and knowledge one would have to have of trees before he could finally understand the “form” of a tree that might, in the right context, dispose him to receive the gift of intelligentia! Now consider how much easier it might be to use words as the beginning of an ascent; good words. Say, for the sake of the argument, that you happened to use the very words I quoted from Augustine and Monica’s ascent earlier in the article. Ruminating on that passage and discussing it with, say, an attractive young woman, you might easily connect it to other religious texts you have read, integrate a sentimental memory of an answered prayer, and essentially fool yourself into thinking that you have approximated the ascent of Monica and Augustine. I’m being somewhat facetious, but don’t discard my argument as a straw man. The fact remains that the ascent is indelibly associated with something the intellectual ought to do or achieve, and as such, there’s a certain pressure to touch Wisdom as quickly, thoroughly, often, and completely as we can. It affords a certain swagger to the intellectual ego; a hint of self-satisfaction in the conversation with the former professor. Thus, the temptation is to read as many Great Books as possible, and to have inevitable discussions with friends about these books. How much of the motivation to read another book is founded in the ensuing conversation, or even shameless boast?

I posit that aspiring intellectuals might not be doing sense-perception its due diligence. It could be that the abundance of words available to us has made us lazy, because they allow a reader or conversationalist to pursue the gift of intelligentia almost as a right. I propose that we form new habits of thought, reading, and speaking that make us more aware of the true nature of intelligentia. These habits will also serve to purify our love of the intellectual life; divorcing it from love of one’s ego.

I maintain that reading a book is already a kind of dialogue; that is, between the reader and the author. The author presents his or her idea enshrined in a story or argument, and the reader has a reaction to that idea. The reader’s reaction then informs his thought. At this point, I must admit, my comparison fails, because the reader has no power to influence the author’s thought. Nonetheless, I believe that reading is a dialogue between reader and author. Imagine for a moment that you had a good friend with whom you talked frequently, because that friend was insightful and helpful. We shall refer to this friend as “Friend One.” Now imagine that you immediately related the contents of that conversation to a third party as soon as that dialogue ended. That third party is “Friend Two.” Would not Friend Two become, over time, implicitly present in the original conversation? Would you maintain the purity of your love for conversation with Friend One, or might you be tempted to have these conversations because Friend Two expected them? If you are a fallen human, you would probably begin to enjoy your conversations with Friend One partially because of the attention you received on their behalf. Something similar might happen if each time we read a Great Book, we talk about it with our friends. In this way our love of the intellectual life might become rained with love of self, ego, flattery, or pride.

I have a three-pronged proposal to counteract these problems. First: cultivate other objects of sense-perception that begin the intellectual process. We examined how words, though accessible, might lose their effectiveness over time. Thus, we can use other objects to begin our thoughts about loftier things. The study of trees, plants, animals, machines, motorcycles, architecture, or music are some examples that come to mind.

The second is this: Let us not feel as if we must have conversation about every book we read. I myself fell into this trap, when I felt the need to write an article after every book I read. It is better to discipline oneself to sit with the book in silence, enjoying its company as if it were a good friend. We ought not flip through the pages attempting to extract every nugget of wisdom we can, but rather read it for what it is and place it aside.

My third proposal is this: Let us make habits of rereading books. This is a practical way to reduce one’s pride, because it carries far less egotistical clout than another book in the mail, on the shelf, or ‘digested’ and written or dialogued about. And after all, aren’t good conversations worth revisiting?

It is my hope that if we can purify our love of the intellectual life, we will not at all stop hoping for the kind of ascent Augustine and Monica experience, but rather that we can understand more fully the weight and power that the gift of intelligentia carries. If, God willing, we are offered that gift one day, we want to prepare our minds and hearts as best we can to receive it.

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