The Quest to Know

November 2011By Tom Martin

Thomas Martin is the O.K. Bouwsma Chair in Philosophy at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Along with his fellow colleagues who are dedicated to the study of the Great Books, he teaches the works of Plato, Aristotle, G.K. Chesterton, Dostoyevsky, and Solzhenitsyn, to mention a few.

“Who you? Why you here?” Grace Rose Mar­­tin, my three-year-old granddaughter, asked Anna Martin, her 91-year-old great-grandmother, at a family reunion. Lo and behold, Grace is a philosopher: She has a sense of wonder and the desire to know. Philosophy begins in wonder when we affirm that sentiment is anterior to reason. In fact, if I did not know better, I would have thought Grace knew her purpose by having read the first sentence of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, “All men by nature desire to know.”

Grace’s questions are as fundamental to being human as childhood is to becoming an adult. Her questions were answered on the literal level: “I am Anna Martin, and I am here for the wedding.” My mother’s answers satisfied Grace — for the moment — but they will not stop her from continuing to ask a plethora of questions as she seeks to weave coherence out of her surroundings.

As Grace matures, the philosophical muse of the examined life must turn inward if she is ever to fulfill herself as an adult. In other words, her questions must become “Who am I?” and “What am I doing here?”

Grace is currently untroubled by self-examination as she bounces about in play. She is, as all children are, “in the now,” a state of innocence in which each moment is sparkling new.

Philosophers have long thought the present moment — this moment — to be the least occupied of places, as most adults live in memories or in anticipation of future events.

The ancient Greeks had two different senses of time. There is Kronos, which is time relating before to after, time as the future passing through the present to become the past. From this Greek word we derive such terms as “chronic” and “chronology.” An illness is chronic if it lasts a long time. Chronology is the arrangement of events or dates in the order of their occurrence.

In addition to Kronos, there is Kairos, which is used when speaking of the time, appropriate time, or seasonal time. This time cannot be measured. In weaving, for example, it is the time for the weaver to draw the yarn through a gap that momentarily opens in the warp of the cloth being woven. In politics it is the speech needed to capture the eternal significance of the moment in which something needs to be said before the moment passes and the opportunity is gone forever. Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” is an example of how words are drawn down to fix the moment that transcends the wear of time by the person who grasps the eternality of the moment in which the human spirit stands still:
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Kairos is not measurable; it is an eternal quality rather than a quantity that intersects with Kronos. Lin­coln’s words still ring true.

So there is the time span of a person’s life, which can be measured chronologically from beginning to end, and there is also the span of time when the timeless intersects with the temporal, weaving context into what would otherwise be disconnected moments in an aimless life. Baptism is an example of a moment when the timeless enters time and starts a person on a spiritual journey for the sake of his soul.

Thomas Merton, in New Seeds of Contemplation, notes, “What is really new is what was there all the time. I say, not what has repeated itself all the time; the really ‘new’ is that which, at every moment, springs freshly into new existence. This newness never repeats itself. Yet it is so old it goes back to the earliest beginning. It is the very beginning itself, which speaks to us.”

In wonder, Grace is on the edge of her unique “newness,” looking out on her world for the first time. The joy of being a child is that you do not know you are a child.

Grace, according to G.K. Chesterton, is in her own cosmos: “Each one of us is living in a separate cosmos. The theory of life held by one man never corresponds exactly to that held by another. The whole of man’s opinions, morals, tastes, manners, hobbies, work back eventually to some picture of existence itself which, whether it be a paradise or a battlefield, or a school or a chaos, is not precisely the same picture of existence which lies at the back of any other brain.”

While Ptolemy was wrong to assume that the earth was the center of the cosmos, Grace is the center of her universe; she is a “micro-cosmos” of the cosmos. As a part, she mirrors the whole. When Grace looks out from the windows of her soul, she draws a bead that begins with herself and ends on the horizon or upon whatever she is looking. Man is the starting point of any line that can be drawn between any two points in space; it was he who drew stars into constellations. There are no points in the universe from which to measure that do not begin in a living soul.

But Grace is not drawing from scratch; she is endowed with an intellect and is forming her mind each time she looks out from herself and wants to know the who, what, and why of everything in her search for order. Grace’s quest — Who you? Why you here? — shows that she has a soul that is meant to know its end. She is being brought up in the moral virtues, which are the sinews, as it were, of family life. As Aristotle says, “Intellectual virtue or excellence owes its origin and development chiefly to teaching and for that reason requires experience and time. Moral virtue, on the other hand, is formed by habit…[and] none of the moral virtues is implanted in us by nature, for nothing which exists by nature can be changed by habit.”

Grace is not moral by nature, any more than she speaks by nature; however, everyone has the potential to be moral and to speak by nature. In Aristotle’s terms, we are provided with the capacity first and display the activity afterwards.

Grace is Everyman: She has fallen into a net, a context, in which she is woven to her parents and relatives, her lifelines. It is fitting that Grace asked her questions of her great-grandmother: The progeny standing before the oldest living source of her life, asking for an explanation, youth in need of tradition. Ludwig Wittgenstein noted, “Tradition is not something a man can learn; not a thread he can pick up when he feels like it; any more than a man can choose his relatives.”

Each person is a continuation of his thread on a continuum. A first name is uniquely individual and a last name ties a man to his people. Tradition is our skin. We do not choose our parents, nationality, or the century in which we are born — the context of our lives. We are woven bodily to the earth and spiritually to our parents in our adventure that continues their history. Our parents are our lifelines, entrusted with setting the tension for the formation of the virtuous life that is essential for our spiritual growth and the achievement of our potential.

Aristotle taught that the primary source of moral virtues is their presence in other beings.

Grace has fallen onto a moving platform yet is at the center of her household. In time, she will get over the shock of being in the world, as her parents bring her down to earth, schooling her in the language of household virtues through fairytales, parables, and chores, which she currently demonstrates when she suggests, “Let’s play family.”

Moving from childhood to adulthood includes the awareness of the timelessness of the opportunities that are present in each moment. Each moment presents itself as a virtuous opportunity. There is a right choice in each moment that is relative to each person.

Being virtuous requires having one’s string pulled. Good parents start pulling a child’s string by teaching him to sit up, say please and thank you, be kind to others, and take pride in himself.

The intellectual virtues start at home and are continued in school. The word “leisure” in Greek is Skole, and in Latin scola, from which comes the English word “school.” Given that man is born ignorant and by nature desires to know, Aristotle states that man sets about learning only after “all the necessities of life and things that make for comfort and recreation” have been achieved.

In order to satisfy the quest to know, man needs to have the opportunity for leisure. In this respect, school is the harbor where one is outfitted for the journey of life.

The university is a playground, the leisure ground in the formation of a person’s self-discovery. It is at this point that a student decides to focus on a specific course of study and center his life on being a nurse, builder, banker, EMT, radiologist, exercise physiologist, farmer, teacher, and so on. This is well and good. In fact, Aristotle noted in the fourth century B.C. that each person by nature has a function, which is his calling in life. A well-governed state would be one in which everyone is suited to his function, the job he is meant to do by nature, and in which work is done for the higher stakes of the greater good. This, Aristotle thought, is a good of the soul as opposed to a good of the body, an external good like a house, which, though useful, is not an end in and of itself, as are the ends of life.

The individual’s function should follow his formation if his life is to be virtuous. And the virtues are eternal truths, the light emanating from Kairos that presents a mindful person with the right thing to do in this, the Kronos of his life. There are permanent moments in every man’s life. There is a right thing to do in every moment.

In effect, college is set up like a loom where the past is woven into the present. Everything we learn is behind us and a good memory is essential for a developed mind.

Within education, the purpose of being a teacher on the playground of the cosmos is to transmit the truth of disciplined thought to the next microcosm, whose soul is endowed with the faculty of reason. Being a teacher is like being a grandparent who is asked by his grandchild “Who am I?” and “What am I doing here?”

So, “Who you? Why you here?”

Back to November 2011 Issue

Read our posting policy Add a comment
Be the first to comment on this story!