instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Lord, make me a humble idiot

Abstracting from the political and social context in which it was made, let me point out this argument of Kathy Shaidle: are, what? 20? 21? Therefore you are an idiot.
That a 22-year-old philosophy major might fail to recognize this as an argument -- and, for that matter, as a valid and sound argument, more or less -- shouldn't be too surprising. For one thing, it's missing the major premise, if I've got my terms right, which is obviously, "All 20- and 21-year-olds are idiots." For another thing, all 20- and 21-year-olds are idiots, which puts all 22-year-olds in the neighborhood of idiocy, and it's very common for an idiot to be offended when he's told he's being idiotic.

That all 20-22 year olds are idiots is a practical truth apparent to most people who are no longer 22 years old. There's no more shame in this than in the fact that toddlers aren't good jugglers. It's simply the nature of us time-bound creatures to start out as idiots, and these days a college education only exacerbates it.

The real question, then, isn't whether we were, are, or will be idiots at 22, but, When did we or will we stop being idiots? As the Ven. John Henry Newman observed, the majority of boys remain boys all their lives. Are we, or will we be, in the minority?

I use "idiot" to mean "someone who talks about something he doesn't understand, without realizing he doesn't understand it." To me, then, idiocy is topic-related. I am an economics idiot, for example, but only when I talk about economics and forget I don't understand it.

Ceasing to be an idiot is a two-step process:
  1. Realize what you don't understand.
  2. Don't talk about what you don't understand as though you understand it.
Now, take a look at St. Thomas's rules for study posted below. Do you see how one side-effect of following his prescription is that you will cease to be an idiot?

Note also the fundamental need for humility. If you are not humble, how can you realize what you don't understand? How can you avoid spending time on things beyond your grasp, or wishing to jump immediately from the streams to the sea?

From all accounts, St. Thomas himself practiced heroic humility. This is remarkable, not so much because he was such a gifted man -- denying one's gifts is a false form of humility -- but because humility, as he puts it, is a virtue "to temper and restrain the mind, lest it tend to high things immoderately," and he spent his whole life tending to know Who or What God is.

But this may just show St. Thomas living out his own doctrine. For him, human nature perfected by grace tends toward the highest thing: the Beatific Vision of God. And so, if we are prepared to begin by swimming the streams, there is nothing too high for us to reach.