Our Meddling Intellect

“Greek civilization was undermined by a sophistical excess of speculation which, calling in question the bases of ordered human existence, proved fatal to the permanence of all public and private relations and duties.”  (William Samuel Lilly, On Shibboleths, 1892)

“They say miracles are past; and we have our philosophical persons, to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless.  Hence it is we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves in seeming knowledge . . .” (Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well, 1604-1605)

That “an unexamined life is not worth living” is neither self-evident nor suggested by experience, and this is so even if we follow Socrates and stipulate “not worth living for a man.” I have known many a man whose self-examination proceeded no further than a close inspection of his reflection in the glass, but who nevertheless found life highly satisfactory and very much worth living. And I knew one man who followed the advice of the old gadfly, opened the hood, inspected the machinery, and then fell into a despair that he ended by suicide.  My poor friend fell to the mischief that is caused by what Wordsworth called the “meddling intellect.”

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:
We murder to dissect.

When I examine my life, I ask not only what it is, but also why it is so.  I ask how I came to live in this place? to practice this trade? to wed this spouse? to know these friends? to cherish these treasures? to scorn this trash?  And what my meddling intellect discovers is that intellect is a very small part of the answer. My life was not built like a house after a plan.  It accumulated like a logjam in a river.  And, until my meddling intellect asked these questions, I had thought the form of my life “beauteous.”

When a society holds itself up to criticism, it asks the same questions and comes to the same melancholy conclusion.  How did we come to inhabit this territory? to pursue these livelihoods? to be this people? to espouse this creed?  Intellect finds it was by accident, happenstance and arbitrary choice.  We are a logjam, not a house.  And, until the meddling intellect asked these questions, we had thought the form our collective life “beauteous.”

A rationalist will tell you to bite the bullet and take dissection like a man, because there is for him no truth outside a bloody pile of gore.  But he has ensconced himself in what Shakespeare called “seeming knowledge,” and his sour scrapple stinks beside the sweet lore that nature brings.

Anatomy of the Heart, Enrique Simonet (c. 1900)

23 thoughts on “Our Meddling Intellect

  1. Pingback: Our Meddling Intellect | @the_arv

  2. “Where Ignorance is Bliss, tis folly to be wise.” -Thomas Gray.

    Similarly, “Never let school get in the way of your education” – paraphrased Mark Twain.

    In a nihilistic world, there is despair in such introspection. Ive been victim of that desoair. But I found God through it. Instinct is given direction by Reason. Reason is given meaning by Faith. It took me a long time to find that, but i found some semblance of peace in it. I am blessed to not have yet been able to share this insight with someone pole-to-pole in the black pit, so i dont actually know if that insight is useful. Maybe ignorance is Bliss.

  3. Pingback: Our Meddling Intellect | Reaction Times

  4. Chesterton makes similar remarks in his Suicide of Thought–there is a thought that ends all thought and the Church exists to prevent that thought from being thought.
    An injunction against theological and philosophical fancies is in Book of Sirach, chap3:

    22 Seek not to know what is far above thee; search not beyond thy range; let thy mind ever dwell on the duty God has given thee to do, content to be ignorant of all his dealings besides. 23 Need is none thy eyes should see what things lie hidden. 24 Leave off, then, thy much questioning about such things as little concern thee, and be content with thy ignorance; 25 more is granted to thy view than lies within human ken. 26 By such fancies, many have been led astray, and their thoughts chained to folly

    And Dante
    “Be satisfied with ‘So it is’, O Man,
    For if you could have known the whole design
    Mary would not have had to bear a son.

  5. Perhaps we’re not asking the right questions anymore…

    “21. Whenever unclean thoughts have been driven off quickly, we should try to find out why this has happened. Did the enemy fail to overpower us because there was no possibility of the thought especially afflicts the intellect. Suppose, for instance, that a thought full of avarice is suggested to you. Distinguish between the component elements: the intellect which has accepted the thought, the intellection of gold, gold itself, and the passion of avarice. Then ask: in which of these does the sin consist? Is it the intellect? But how then can the intellect be the image of God? Is it the intellection of gold? But what sensible person would ever say that? Then is gold itself the sin? In that case, why was it created? It follows, then, that the cause of the sin is the fourth element, which is neither an objective reality, nor the intellection of something real, but is a certain noxious pleasure which, once it is freely chosen, compels the intellect to misuse what God has created. It is this pleasure that the law of God commands us to cut off. Now as you investigate the thought in this way and analyze it into its components, it will be destroyed; and the demon will take to flight once your mind is raised to a higher level by this spiritual knowledge. But before using his own sword against him, you may choose first to use your sling against him. Then take a stone from your shepherd’s bag and sling it (cf. 1 Sam. 17) by asking these questions: how is it that angels and demons affect our world whereas we do not affect their worlds, for we cannot bring the angels closer to God, and we cannot make the demons more impure? And how was Lucifer, the morning star, cast down to the earth (cf. Isa. 14:12), ‘making the deep boil like a brazen cauldron’ (Job 41:31. LXX), disturbing all by his wickedness and seeking to rule over all? Insight into these things grievously wounds the demon and puts all his troops to flight. But this is possible only for those who have been in some measure purified and gained a certain vision of the inner essences of created things; whereas the impure have no insight into these essences, and even if they have been taught by others how to outwit the enemy they will fail because of the great clouds of dust and the turmoil aroused by their passions at the time of battle. For the enemy’s troops must be made quiet, so that Goliath alone can face our David. In combat with all unclean thoughts, then, let us use these two methods: analysis of the thought attacking us, and the asking of questions about inner essences…”

    https://www.patristics.co/evagrius-the-solitary-passions-and-thoughts/

    • As your quote says, sin is a corruption of the will. We normally think of this as the will unconstrained by reason, but that leaves the question whether reason can be corrupted because unconstrained. The general thrust of my post is that it can, with disastrous consequences. Just as there must be a limiting principle to the will, so must there be a limiting principle to the intellect.

      • Indeed, I agree with your post. The proper use of the intellect depends on our powers of discernment. The solitaires and early desert fathers are the experts in this area. A few more sections of Evagrius of Ponticus linked above:

        “” 16. As sheep to a good shepherd, the Lord has given to man intellections of this present world; for it is written: ‘He has given intellection to the heart of every man’ (cf. Heb. 10:16). To help man He has given him incensive power and desire, so that with the first he may drive away wolflike intellections, while with the second he may lovingly tend the sheep, even though he is often exposed to rains and winds… ”

        “6. Sometimes thoughts are cut off, and sometimes they do the cutting off. Evil thoughts cut off good thoughts, and in turn are cut off by good thoughts. The Holy Spirit therefore notes to which thought we give priority and condemns or approves us accordingly. What I mean is something like this: the thought occurs to me to give hospitality and it is for the Lord’s sake; but when the tempter attacks, this thought is cut off and in its place he suggests giving hospitality for the sake of display. Again, the thought comes to me of giving hospitality so as to appear hospitable in the eyes of others. But this thought in its turn is cut off when a better thought comes, which leads me to practice this virtue for the Lord’s sake and not so as to gain esteem from men.

        7. We have learnt, after much observation, to recognize the difference between angelic thoughts, human thoughts, and thoughts that come from demons…. “

      • I think that the desert fathers are of the opinion that the limiting principle is the passions. When the intellect excites the passions then it must be reigned back. But it is not always easy to know when this is the case and that is where spiritual discernment come in.

      • The passions are not necessarily bad. Like the will, they must be governed by reason. Christianity departs from Pagan philosophy because it says reason alone will not suffice. There must be a supernatural regeneration of both will and intellect. But with respect to the passions: righteous anger is wrath under the government of (regenerate) reason.

      • And this “limit” for the “meddling intellect” is, paradoxically, (P)erfection.

        And using the profiling power of the internet, one can say with great confidence that the “meddling intellects” of the white males with IQs >140 are, having ascertained the “limits” of objective (S)upremacy, driven towards total annihilation.

        So if the most “intelligent” white males are self-annihilators…

        Then the racist Christian, meddling in no “limits” to (P)erfection, must stage his individual coup.

    • Gal. 5.24
      “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”

      Paul doesn’t say kill the passions like the buddhists say. He says crucify them. And he doesn’t say only the ‘bad’ ones. He does say that this is necessary and not optional.

      So there must be something more to the story…

      Aristotle believed that both the will and intellect were required for practical knowledge.

      • There is no reason to suppose that all passions and desires are of the flesh. There are passions and desires of the spirit. To feel a passion is to be “moved,” and therefore to submit to that movement as Christ submitted in his passion. To be “carried away” by a beautiful passage of music is to submit to a passion, and such a passion can move a man closer to God. I would say that a man filled with the Holy Spirit is “in a passion,” and I can’t see why this should be crucified. The erotic passion has been the downfall of many, but so has an absence of erotic passion.

      • “Christ submitted in his passion” by crucifixion. That is the example he set.

        Also passion can mean ‘to suffer’ something rather than peruse a pleasure.

        “There is no reason to suppose that all passions and desires are of the flesh.” Thomas Aquinas for one disagrees with this.
        http://www.aquinasonline.com/Topics/sensappt.html

        People often believe that the imagination is a part of the intellect but it is of the flesh. When you die you will not have an imagination until you have a new body. Music goes into the ear, taste into the taste bud and they are processed in the imaginative faculties to produce pleasure.

        Early Christians did not peruse music for pleasure as far as I’m aware. I have never heard of this. Concert halls are a recent phenomenon. Here as you say people are ” “carried away” by a beautiful passage of music [and] submit to a passion”. Notice that this is not a submission to passions(sufferings) but to submit to passions(pleasure).

        You say “they must be governed by reason”. But are the passions being ‘governed by reason’ if one is being ‘carried away’ by them or submitting to them(as pleasure)?

        There is some truth to what you say and I used to think as you think until very recently.

      • Suffering and passion mean the same thing–to yield. Agony is a form of suffering, but all suffering is not agony. When the seventeenth-century translation of the Bible has Jesus saying “suffer the little children” he means “let it happen,” “allow them.” If you wish to use the word “passion” to denote only those wicked impulses that arise from the flesh (and agony), I won’t stop you, but you will need another word to denote yielding to inspiration.

        Early Christians didn’t debate theology on the internet, either.

        You are right to say that passion slips the bonds of reason. I’d say the role of reason is to avoid conditions where passions of the flesh are probable, and to seek out conditions where passions of the spirit (inspiration) are probable. Reason tells me to read my Bible and not a porno magazine. Once I start reading, reason steps aside.

      • “Suffering and passion mean the same thing–to yield”. It means to be affected. In biblical, philosophical and theological discourse the terms specifically relate to the emotional faculties.

        “If you wish to use the word “passion” to denote only those wicked impulses that arise from the flesh (and agony), I won’t stop you,” I don’t say that they are all wicked. Just as I don’t construe you as saying that the intellect is all wicked. (Also, the crucifixion of the passions is only painful for us in so far as we are attached to passions.)

        “but you will need another word to denote yielding to inspiration*.” – it already exists: theosis/divination

        Aquinas:

        ‘Now the gift of grace surpasses every capability of created nature, since it is nothing short of a partaking of the Divine Nature, which exceeds every other nature. And thus it is impossible that any creature should cause grace. For it is as necessary that God alone should deify, bestowing a partaking of the Divine Nature by a participated likeness, as it is impossible that anything save fire should enkindle’

        The natural passions cannot cause divination and neither can the intellect. Hence why they both must yield. First the passions yield to reason/intellect, then the intellect yields to God. This is the process of theosis. The intellect yields to theosis but not to the passions.

        “Early Christians didn’t debate theology on the internet, either.” – they did debate it though, even before the composition of the bible. Which is a theologically/philosophically loaded text. And also has Paul debating the philosophers in Athens.

        “Once I start reading, reason steps aside.”?
        This is where passions/emotions should step aside.

        Theosis/divination – this is where the passions/emotions and the intellect step aside.
        …………
        * This term did not always hold the emotive connotations as it does today. And this is part of the problem.

      • I think at least part of our disagreement may be that passion is for me the yielding, whereas for you it is the thing yielded to. I agree that the value of yielding is entirely dependent on the thing yielded to, but also believe that we can yield to divine inspiration (just as we can yield to a “crime of passion”).

      • Yes I think you are right. What you say is apart of our disagreement. But I do think that there is a bit more to it as well.

        Have you ever seen the nike slogan ‘just do it?’ My brother once said that is probably the last thing that many murders say before the act. Do you think it might apply here as well …

        ‘I knew one man who followed the advice of the old gadfly, opened the hood, inspected the machinery, and then fell into a despair that he ended by suicide. My poor friend fell to the mischief that is caused by what Wordsworth called the “meddling intellect.” ‘

        ‘Just do it’ is of cause an intellectual proposition. But it is not much of one and that is because it is the kind of intellectual proposition one might utter to themselves when the intellect submits to the passions. Not vice versa.

        I think that often when a person is ‘going down’ the intellect becomes very active and this is because it is often the last chance a person has of saving themselves. What is going on in the intellect is probably not going to be healthy but perhaps that is because it is being directed by unhealthy passions.

        If we were to grant that Wordsworth has a genuine insight here then why were his intellectual successors so prone to suicide? Although they seemed to hold similar beliefs.

        * as a side note I find that women love this idea of the ‘meddling intellect’ but I believe that is because by nature they are built to act through the passions and get a man to save them with his intellect. So am not sure how much this will apply to them.

        Aristotle/Aquinas differentiates between theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge. Both require the intellect but practical knowledge require both the intellect and the will(passions/emotive faculties). To much theoretical knowledge can be bad. I agree because it disconnects the intellect from the will and that can leave both vulnerable. But I don’t believe this is true of practical knowledge.

        It is true that bad intellectualism can be absolutely devastating. Just like a bad ruler. But that doesn’t mean that we should do away with a system of governance. And for us, as individuals that means the intellect.

        The masters in this area are the desert fathers that is why I quoted Evagrius above.

      • The Nike slogan certainly does sound like an invitation to self-indulgence, but in the context I think it is a challenge to overcome sloth with will. It means, stop talking about exercising and start exercising. Like the passions, the will can get out of hand, but without the will one can do nothing. Our aim should be a well-ordered soul, with faith guiding intellect, and intellect governing (not blotting out) the passions and the will.

  6. For it to be accurate, the intellect must be regulated by a virtuous will. The particular things we think about are (to some extent) guided by the will, so a corrupted will naturally leads to excessive speculation and corrupted reason. And when the will is unwilling to pursue the truth, it will simply lead to sophistry.

    The logjam is in fact rather beauteous: it is only the will’s fixation on something false (the notion of a house) that leads to despair. The rationalist’s proclivity towards eliminative materialism suggests that the entire project has some sort of false fixation of this sort. Whereas, through faith in God there is no despair in logjam nor house, only joy, since both will and intellect are directed toward the truth.

    • Yes, a corrupted will misuses the reason to rationalize its corruptions, and in some cases will inflame the reason with an inordinate lust for knowledge. I spend a lot of time canoeing on rivers in which logjams are plentiful, and as you say, they can be beautiful. But to the mind of a true rationalist, even the crooked river is not beautiful until it is straightened into a canal.

  7. Pingback: The Baneful Sway of French Philanthropy – The Orthosphere

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