Friday, 9 November 2012

The bonds of knowledge

Somewhere amongst the pure and exquisite prose of Thomas Mann – perhaps in Death in Venice but I am not sure – there is a rumination on knowledge, what it means to have knowledge in terms of its impact on how we live our lives. There is the suggestion, striking us as almost paradoxical, that knowledge ultimately forms a bond stronger than any ignorance and from which we cannot break free otherwise than by jettisoning that same knowledge, an expulsion which can only be achieved through the crudest of means, death or its surrogate. We say, ‘but this is paradoxical,’ because all our lives we have been told that knowledge will liberate us from the tyranny of ignorance, that the dark ages were dark and as prisons because people suffered through their days without knowledge, but that once the path to knowledge was discovered, then light and freedom entered, growing in harmony with the growth of knowledge.

So how is it that Herr Mann can tell us that knowledge is a bond and expect us to treat such a statement with anything other than scorn, indeed, to read it and know that he is right? Certainly, in a particular and quite quotidian sense, his statement is absurd and we would not wish to dwell on it for any longer than it takes to pass the eyes across the words. Certainly knowledge has enabled us, people, to achieve great things, to build vast monuments to our brilliance. But this is not the kind of freedom of which the sublime stylist is writing. The freedom of which he speaks is the freedom of the mind, the freedom of the spirit and of the soul, the freedom to know right from wrong, good from evil. So then we must ask, but how does knowledge bind the spirit, how does it bind the soul? Surely knowledge is the key to open the door of the cage so that our souls might take flight. But that is not, in fact, what happens when we gather knowledge and hold it sacred, that is, that knowledge which is scientific and rational and which is not interested in our opinions but is only concerned with what is. In this sense, Mann is as concerned with the insidious way in which such knowledge, covertly and beneath an appearance of benign regard, shackles our very selves.

What happens when we have explained ourselves to ourselves with a formula that brooks no dissent? Quite simply, we no longer have the solid rock from which we can confidently go forward into the world of action and affairs, into the world of moral choices. For Mann, ‘knowledge can paralyse the will, paralyse and discourage action and emotion and even passion, and rob all these of their dignity’. And if, despite the sovereign destruction of the moral base which is wrought by knowledge, we steadfastly hold to a moral position, then this: ‘moral resoluteness at the far side of knowledge, achieved in despite of all corrosive and inhibiting insight – does not this in its turn signify a simplification, a morally simplistic view of the world and of human psychology, and thus also a resurgence of energies that are evil, forbidden, morally impossible?’ The anarchy which threatens chaos and disorder as we shed our moral certainty for absolute knowledge, is of a kind which arises when we abdicate the responsibility which freedom of the will demands in favour of the predetermined, the fated, the inevitable act. If there is no freedom, there is no responsibility, and there can thus be no right, no wrong. And so, we must choose: to live according to what we genuinely believe to be true, and thus to hold no one responsible, neither to blame nor praise, or to accept one thing as true but live as if another were the unquestionable law. To live, as Augustine said, as if each act we did were by ourselves alone willed, whilst at the same time accepting that God or fate or destiny has determined all, that is the latter choice.
I think what I am trying to say, clumsily and heavily, is that rather than bringing the certainty which we might like so that we can live at peace with ourselves, knowledge very often brings only uncertainty and agitation, an unsettled mind which is no longer sure, no longer calm. Mann has his protagonist choose to repudiate knowledge, to renounce all moral scepticism, and to live according to precepts he will hold as timeless and impregnable. And that is the choice we must make.

1 comment:

  1. A challenging read, giving lots of food for thought!