As I See It by Columnist Jon Huer: Young Maddie’s self-knowledge

Published: 1/28/2022 11:21:06 AM
Modified: 1/28/2022 11:19:48 AM

As I read the columns by Maddie Raymond in the Recorder, her self-knowledge that locates herself as a tiny being in the larger orbit of society and history impresses me.

Her latest column begins with her personal woes: Young Maddie got rejected by the college of her choice and, in the solitary reflection that followed (her mother tested COVID-positive at the same time), she found a larger truth, transcending the trials and tribulations of her young life. In her struggle, she saw herself more clearly and in larger perspective, which liberated her from her own personal woes.

As a middle-class white youth, her self-awareness is one of those rare gifts of life we normally associate with Black people, whose keen knowledge of themselves generally derives from the School of Hard Knocks.

And then I browse “the Great Courses” catalogs we receive, which offer all kinds of lecture courses, from quantum physics to wine tasting, and every other subject in between. I am struck by the fact that Maddie’s wisdom could not have come from any of the great lectures offered by great professors. I have a feeling she largely teaches herself. Likely it’s the professors who need to learn from her about “knowing thyself,” the one subject we can never pursue enough in our entire lifetime. As Socrates taught, self-knowledge is not navel-gazing or aggrandizing yourself. It is recognizing how easily we are misled by ignorance and impressed by our own knowledge. The more you know yourself, he taught, the smaller you become proportionally to the world that surrounds you.

In this wisdom’s progress, the rejection from the college of her choice, compounded by her mother’s viral case, led Maddie to recognize her own woes as part of a very large world, namely, her society and its history. There in the large world beyond the horizon, she realized that her personal life had become hostage to her white legacy. Instead of predictably seeking solace in comfort food or consolation, she summoned her strength of character and intelligence and found enlightenment in the forces of society and its history. For her resolution, she made herself a fly on the wall. By making herself small and insignificant, she discovered the larger truth and her own freedom from the yoke that her society and its history had imposed on her.

If you attended a lecture on medieval cathedrals in Europe, you would be in awe of the sheer splendor of their architecture and beauty. Maddie might think about the countless laborers whose sweat and blood built them to glorify the vanity of popes and the rich.

I doubt taking all of the Great Courses would ever teach you to go back to the simple self-knowledge of loving your neighbors or treating everyone like yourself. But, of the hundreds upon hundreds of courses in the Great Courses, there is not a single course on improving your own humanity. If your purpose of life is to become a better neighbor, as most people claim it is, there is no such course offered anywhere. You go to college for many years and even get a Ph.D. in some subject, but you only come out more self-aggrandizing than before. Where, then, does self-knowledge come from?

To clear our heads about all this, let’s divide knowledge into the kind offered in colleges or the Great Courses (let’s call it “natural knowledge), and one that is possessed by somebody like Maddie who sees irony in society and life (we can call it “ironic knowledge”).

To put it in simple terms, Natural Knowledge, like 2 plus 2 equals 4 — or its more complex variations in quantum physics, economics, psychology, whatever, all of which begin with that simple logical assumption–serves us to function in society. In all of our professional-occupational capacities, we unconsciously accept what we are taught and consciously seek our rewards, all anchored in the 2+2=4 equation. Our Capitalism counts on this certainty and truism.

Ironic Knowledge, on the other hand, the kind that leads Maddie to her self-knowledge and self-discovery, is a very special kind of human knowledge. Sometimes called Wisdom or Truth, there is no standardized instruction of teaching it to a child or even an adult. It’s the ability to see what is hidden, to detect the truth that is covered up by routine functionality or deliberate falsehood, to connect dots that are visible only to the mind’s eye.

In utter irony, Delphi’s oracle told Socrates that he was the wisest man in Athens simply because he was the only one aware of his own ignorance. It is your Ironic Knowledge that detects falsehood in advertisements or in political promises or lottery games, or, most imperatively, in yourselves. Natural Knowledge teaches us how to pursue success, but Ironic Knowledge teaches us that success is a mirage. To some extent, all good people struggle between the two parts of their existence: How to survive as a functionary and how to live as a human being. You are surviving as a debt collector, but you wanted to be a poet. Ironic Knowledge helps you navigate through such inevitable vagaries of chance, without defeatism or cynicism, and find the meaning of life.

Institutions of higher learning tend to discourage Ironic Knowledge in their professors and students as parents mostly do in their children. By contrast, revolutionary radicals, struggling artists, free philosophers, otherworldly prophets and religious, as much as the debt collector who wants to be a poet, are all in pursuit of great transformations through Ironic Self-Knowledge, as is our own young Maddie.

Too bad, the college of her choice didn’t realize that one of its applicants had such rare wisdom and strength of character.

Jon Huer, columnist for the Recorder and retired professor, lives in Greenfield.


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