Tag Archives: self-knowledge

Rowan Williams on self-judgment

Bonhoeffer writes [in a poem on his imprisonment], “They often tell me / I would step from my cell’s confinement / calmly, cheerfully, firmly, / like a squire from his country-house.” … But the poem is about the great gulf between what “they” see – a confident, adult, rational, prayerful, faithful, courageous person – and what he knows is going on inside: the weakness and the loss and the inner whimpering and dread. “So which is me?” Bonhoeffer asks. Is it the person they see, or the person I know when I’m on my own with myself? And his answer is surprising and blunt: I haven’t got a clue; God has got to settle that. I don’t have to decide if I’m really brave or really cowardly, whether I’m really confident or really frightened, or both. Who I am is in the hands of God. … It goes beyond the assumption that I am only what I see or know. It tells me that I am more than I realize, in the eyes of God, for good or ill. It tells me to hope in “what is unseen”…, in the one who doesn’t need to be told about how human beings work because he knows the human heart.

From Being Disciples (Eerdmans, 2016), 29-30.

P.S. George Whitefield on reputation

I am content to wait till the Judgment Day for the clearing up of my reputation; and after I am dead I desire no other epitaph than this, ‘Here lies G.W. What sort of man he was the Great Day will discover.’

QTD in Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield: God’s Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1990), 154.

David LaRocca on Autobiographical Remarks

The greatest obstacle to truth in conventional autobiography is not insufficient insight (about facts, memories, desires, or ideas elucidated by the intellect) but vanity — a resistance by one’s will to that very difficult type of understanding we may call self-understanding. […] In the present essay, in light of Wittgenstein’s reading of Tolstoy, I explore the notion that autobiographical practice does not require a form of self-consciousness, or intellect, that may aid the development of humility, honesty, and decency. The real work of autobiographical practice isn’t done by self-consciousness but is achieved by the true humility that derives from will — a will that blocks vanity.

from “Note to Self: Learn to Write Autobiographical Remarks from Wittgenstein,” in Wittgenstein Reading, Eds. Bru, Huemer, & Steuer, (De Gruyter, 2013), 320.

Commentary: With the above LaRocca offers the always needed reminder that self-knowledge is every bit as much a moral endeavor as it is intellectual. And if we would build on LaRocca’s contribution, I’m persuaded that, first, we would do well to remember that there are more obstacles to an honest estimate of ourselves than just vanity. Lusts, cowardice, mercilessness and all sorts of other vices could do the trick of blinding us just as effectively. And second, no matter our vigilance, moral maturity is not an achievement of an individual’s sheer will-power alone. For suggestions as to what other factors are in play, you can browse other posts of mine on this topic here.

John Webster on Barth on self-knowledge

The earlier parts of CD III/2 devote much space to securing one conviction which is basic to Barth’s anthropology and ethics: the conviction that because human persons cannot be defined remoto gratia, apart from the covenant of grace which is the creature’s end, attempts to reach self-definition through self-reflection yield only delusion. “The self-contradiction resulting from our contradiction of God is serious. It really prevents us from understanding ourselves. We are not clear nor transparent to ourselves, nor can we see ourselves from any higher standpoint. We are totally and not just partially incapable of occupying any independent vantage point from the height of which we might penetrate and judge ourselves.” The point here is not simply that Barth, like Calvin, has a profound sense of the ruinous effects of sin on human self-knowledge. It is also that in laying out a procedure for constructing anthropological doctrine, Barth declines to set theological language about humanity in a wider context of human self-reflection.

from Barth’s Ethics of Reconciliation, (Cambridge, 1995), 66.

Book Notice: James Wetzel

How do you introduce a mind as cavernous as Augustine’s to those unversed in the terrain of his literature? Answering this question is the task James Wetzel sets himself for his contribution to Continuum’s series on Guides for the Perplexed. It may be worth noting that Wetzel’s Augustine (2010) is not his first venture into Augustine studies. Quite the opposite is the case. Wetzel holds the Augustinian Endowed Chair in the Thought of St Augustine at Villanova University. Augustine, the point is, is a specialty of Wetzel’s. In fact, he has already offered the well-received Augustine and the Limits of Virtue (Cambridge, 2008), and more recently Parting Knowledge: Essays after Augustine, (Wipf&Stock, 2013). Both of those volumes, however, are more specialized in focus. For that reason, it will serve my purposes better if we simply consider Wetzel’s Guide, which works as a general and more accessible introduction to its subject matter. Wetzel selects as his point of departure Augustine’s moral psychology. It makes for demanding reading. But I would be quick to add that your efforts will be abundantly rewarded. The results of Wetzel’s account are soul-stretching. Wetzel’s Guide doesn’t just introduce you to Augustine, it is itself an exercise in Augustinian spirituality.

What Wetzel so helpfully brings to view is the character of Augustine’s theology as a “great refusal” — the refusal of a lie (125). “The lie is that he [Augustine] is most himself when he is nearest a self-contained intelligence” (126). The truth, however, so often lost amidst our aspirations to a god-like epistemic self-sufficiency, is disclosed in “Augustine’s ideal of a life,” namely, that “of a life confessed” (8). It was a trail of trials and tears that taught Augustine how to surrender his self-definition to others (35); he had to learn that perspicacious self-perception is a fruit of friendship, divine and human. Even in matters of self-knowledge there can be no elimination of truth’s character as a gift received, extra nos, and not the product of an individual’s genius.

Augustine’s insight points to a critical moment for theology and philosophy. Augustine is building to the conclusion that an ingredient of either enterprise is the pursuit of a right spiritual posture. Wisdom is with the humble, we’ll remember (Pr 11:2). The truth is, the blind spots in the field of our self-vision are not exceptions to our general epistemic condition. Rather, they’re indicative of the fundamentally cooperative and dialogical character of all inquiry (i.e., bringing into view some of the moral liabilities of intellectual endeavor). Wetzel is alert to the significance of this consideration, and he aims to practice what he finds Augustine preaching: “I respect and share his [Augustine’s] view that philosophy is not about gaining the upper hand in an argument. It is about risking self for the sake of truth and a more generous self” (10). Here Wetzel reminds me of another philosopher (Joel Backström) who’s made a similar point about this reflexive dimension of inquiry, “Winning arguments and proving others wrong is quite useless. The promise of philosophy is that one may come to prove oneself wrong, to see through one’s own illusions.” Surely theology would applaud this sentiment with a hearty Amen. It’s been a defining task of theology to bid us to mind our sins — even in our theologizing. For theology’s promise, at the end of the day, is the divine unmasking of our idolatries, to have our own unconfessed reserves of faithlessness disclosed.

We, however, Augustine has been cautioning us, ought not to presume to be experts in self-diagnosis (37). We stand in need of a Confessor. “I beg you, God of mine,” prays Augustine, “show me me, that I may testify to what I find mangled in me” (Conf.10.37.62). The truth we can apprehend, we learn, is a measure of the company we keep. This is the difference a student’s spiritual state makes in their intellectual formation. Our temptations to distort or refuse friendship will figure into our capacity to discern truth. But if we would follow Augustine, it will become our prayer that our as-yet disparate spiritual, moral, and intellectual labors would begin to image the integrity of the one God.

So who do I think would profit from spending some time with Wetzel’s Augustine? Well, if you’ve had trouble “subordinating [your] responsibility for sin to [your] more fundamental responsiveness to God” (9); if you’re someone who questions “the value of the life that makes a person liable to grief” (17); if you’ve found yourself tempted by the desire for knowledge that “banks on the notion that knowing the good and being willing to live by it are entirely separate things” (52, 67); if you’re curious as to how the Christian religion functions as a map of the human soul (51); then to you I would suggest letting Wetzel be your guide to both Augustine and Augustine’s God. May they impress upon you the integrity of truth and love. Rest assured, Wetzel knows better than to “stay too long with a negative moral” (111).

Gilbert Meilaender on limits to self-knowledge

Any attempt definitively to review our lives or integrate fully their divergent strands may be futile; for we cannot find a place from which to see ourselves whole, to catch the heart and hold it still.

That is the profound insight of book 10 of Augustine’s Confessions. … For when in book 10 Augustine begins to take stock of how well he is doing in his attempt, since his conversion, to live the Christian life, he comes to see that this is a question he cannot answer.

A reader beginning the Confessions is likely to get the impression that its author understands the course of his life, but it turns out that this sort of life review can be done only by God. Unable to see himself whole and entire, Augustine finally has to acknowledge that our lives are a mystery to us. ‘What then am I, my God? What is my nature? A life various, manifold, and quite immeasurable. … I dive down deep as I can, and I can find no end.’ God knows the course of Augustine’s life better than he knows it himself, and, hence, the recounting of that life must become confession. ‘I will confess what I know of myself, and I will confess what I do not know of myself.’

We cannot really determine whether the course of our life, passing through its various stages, has had the kind of integrity and wholeness needed to make it complete. The division of life into ages offers a certain sense of completion—but at the cost of our capacity for free self-transcendence. … And the related vision of life’s course as a career offers what is, in the end, only an illusion of self-control and self-understanding.

Gilbert Meilaender, “A Complete Life,” First Things, no. 219 (Jan 2012). Also available in Should We Live Forever? (Eerdmans, 2013): 89-106.