Monday, September 3, 2012

TFTD: Damnant quod non intellegunt (They condemn what they do not understand)


Dammant quod non intelligunt – They condemn what they do not understand.  These words of wisdom by Cicero are important to consider when witnessing the modern American political discourse.  All too often we see rhetoric which condemns a position while that condemnation demonstrates no comprehension of what they oppose.

A couple of days ago, someone posted the following comment on Facebook.

"[A]ll of us need to put a stop to the 'Republican WAR ON WOMEN'. I can NOT, I am mean [sic] I can not understand why ANY woman would be a republican."

Which made me think of a comment made by GK Chesterton:

"It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.

—G.K. Chesterton in The Catholic Church and Conversion

I think this points out the dangers of the ideology being forced on us today.  The people who cannot comprehend why we believe what we do respond by ad hominem attacks condemning those they disagree with. 

GK Chesterton wrote once, in the article, The Drift from Domesticity:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

I think it is a valid point.  I can understand why a Blue Collar Catholic or a Feminist might support the platform of the Democratic Party.  I believe their reasoning is faulty and leads them to a wrong conclusion, but I do understand the point their reasoning comes from.  I can also understand why certain Conservatives might be tempted by the Ayn Rand concept of Objectivism (a wrong turn in the concept of objective truth), even though I believe it is also wrong.  It is by understanding what they do think, I can also understand where they go wrong.

But when someone who opposes the Republican platform says, "I can not understand why ANY woman would be a republican," shouldn't such a person step back and ponder the issue before condemning it?  How do they know their knowledge contains all truth and no part of untruth?

Essentially this mindset argues that (to put it in a valid form):

  1. Everything I understand is true (All A is B)
  2. I do not understand [X] (No C is B)
  3. Therefore [X] is not true. (Therefore No C is A)

Even if the major premise is true (doubtful), that does not mean Everything that is true I understand (all [B] is [A]).  There can be gaps in the knowledge, and if there are gaps, there can be things which are true and you do not understand.  So it is foolish to think that because you do not see a reason a thing can be so, it follows that it cannot be so.

One can say, "I understand what they claim, but reject it as false."  One can say, "I do not understand, and so I need to explore more."  One can say, "I understand what is claimed and I accept it as true."  These three responses can be wise.  But to say, "I do not understand, so I think it is wrong" is not the act of wisdom, but the act of a fool.

This is one of the problems of modern thinking.  Nobody seems to recognize Socrates' maxim, The unexamined life is not worth living (Plato, Apology 38a), which is a pity  Responding to the question at his trial as to why he cannot just be quiet and stop teaching to save his life, he says:

Now this is the hardest thing to make some of you believe. For if I say that such conduct would be disobedience to the god and that therefore I cannot keep quiet, you will think I am jesting and will not believe me; [38a] and if again I say that to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you will believe me still less.

Plato. (1966). Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1 translated by Harold North Fowler; Introduction by W.R.M. Lamb. Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd.

In other words, Socrates believed he was obligated to continue to examine himself and others as the greatest good to man, and the life which failed to do so was not worth living – not an endorsement of suicide but a commentary on the quality of life of the person who does not do so.  All of us are called to search for the truth and to absorb it into our lives. 

To refuse to accept truth and to refuse to reject error on the grounds of not understanding, is foolishness.

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