Paul Simon sang with General M.D. Shirinda & the Gaza Sisters on the LP Graceland “I know what I know, I’ll sing what I said … who am I to blow against the wind?” Ed Sheeran sang, “Love can change the world in a moment, but what do I know?” Ed preferred to stay with what he knew; music is his world, and he knew of the effect of his songs. This is really the position we all have; we know what we have experienced and the affect it had on us, and we can see to a degree how it affects others, but what do we know?
You really have to try hard to blow against the wind, as Paul Simon said, and most of us have enough humility to question our own wisdom – or do we? There was a time when encyclopaedic knowledge was valued, and we still see it in quiz shows, which are popular because people test their own knowledge when the questions are asked. Instead of volumes of books, most people now use the internet, where you only have to type in one question to get multiple answers. It provides this encyclopaedic knowledge that gives us a foundation for our lives. We go through life with preconceptions that give us stability and generally we stick to peer groups that we agree with or have common experiences with.
In the distant past, this was a matter of life or death, and the Ancients often compounded their experience and knowledge into myths and tales that provided an orientation for their lives. Owen Barfield, an English philosopher, linguist, lawyer and writer, developed the idea of original participation, which stated that people long ago lived in a world that was an enchanted place, and they were caught up in a cosmic drama, in which for example, spirit, breath, and wind are all one thing, without any distinction. Some see this as superstition, but, as Barfield himself explained, it is “a perspective which reveals more and more of perception and less and less of thought.”[i]
We still see this in people who did not have or seek access to encyclopaedic knowledge and are content with their life experience to be “streetwise”, i.e., able to deal with the potential difficulties or dangers of life, which is also of great importance in an urban environment. This can also be the source of many conspiracy theories, which are easily dispelled after reference to a reliable source but thrive where such sources are themselves controversial. This suggests that experience rather than thought prevails, although experience is local and limited to our surroundings. But is not our experience often our first source of knowledge? It certainly is, when people explode in reaction to opinions they reject and emotion takes over. It is the same when we perceive danger and react automatically. How often, when we have calmed down, have we found that we have misunderstood something?
Some people react in the same way when their encyclopaedic knowledge is questioned, and they are confronted with new or different ideas to what they feel secure with. This was certainly the case when in various civilisations in the axial age[ii] experienced individuals who had begun to step back and employ thought to differentiate perception from reality, which is often at odds. It was about putting hindsight before reaction and weighing the evidence. This was also the case when Western theologians began to question the historicity of the biblical stories and Darwin was seen as the one who claimed that humans were not descended from Adam and Eve but from apes (which of course he did not). Until then, the Bible provided the basic understanding of our origins and provided a narrative that ennobled humanity and formed the basis of universal morality.
It was strange to see how the Greek gods, perhaps because of the comedic or satirical portrayal of the gods in some plays, were seen as mythical, much like the Hindu deities, while Yahweh and the Elohim were treated differently. Of course, by the Enlightenment, the myths had lost their meaning and significance and had degenerated into fiction, but the reverence for the biblical God remained, even if it slowly diminished in public opinion. At a time when religiosity has declined twice as much in the last 15 years as it did in the 1960s and 1970s, this may be hard to understand, but in the 1950s, the post-war period, there was a resurgence of religion in America. Some even saw this as a Third Great Awakening, and attempts were made to transfer this development to post-war Europe, where it had only moderate success for a time.
In Europe, the Enlightenment had been far more effective after the Thirty Years’ War from 1618 to 1648, one of the most destructive wars in European history, in which disagreements over religion and imperial authority played a major role. European historians traditionally date the beginning of the Enlightenment with the death of Louis XIV of France in 1715 and its end with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. The overlapping intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries had global influences and impacts, especially in Europe. We also associate “Modernity,” the ensemble of particular socio-cultural norms, attitudes and practices that arose in the wake of the Renaissance—in the “Age of Reason” of 17th-century thought – with the Enlightenment.
The progress that was made following the Enlightenment also gave the academic class a confidence of being able to solve any riddle that nature provided and progressively equip humanity with all the means to understand reality. Humanism began to emphasize the individual and social potential and agency of human beings, and gradually religion lost its standing. Some schools of thought assume that modernity ended in the late 20th century – in the 1980s or early 1990s – and was replaced by postmodernity. There are people who generally view modernity as obsolete or an outright failure, a flaw in humanity’s evolution leading to disasters like Auschwitz and Hiroshima, and see postmodernity as a positive development, whose “anti-ideological ideas” have been associated with the feminist movement, the movement for racial equality, the movement for gay rights, most forms of late 20th century anarchism and even the peace movement, as well as various hybrids of these movements in the current anti-globalisation movement.
We can see that over a relatively short period of time in history, a common narrative that gave society its foundation has given way to a multiplicity of ideas and concepts that have come into conflict at least as much as earlier religious disagreements, and which some have blamed for the upheavals of the 20th century. The conflicts have not abated since the wars, and despite the collapse of communism in 1989, we are still in conflict with Russia and at odds with China, giving people a sense of insecurity. Globalisation has not been without its victims, and a new phase has begun that challenges the status quo and threatens global war once again.
It is then no surprise that the tsunami of information, the conflicting ideas, the spread of unchecked opinions, the ease of medial distraction, and many other factors, could cause people to ask, “What do I know?” For many people I have spoken to, ideas are irritating, and serve only for anecdotal quotation. Some ideas around issues that are considered as “put to bed” are just ignored, or new conspiracy theories grow around them. Democracy, which needs participation and confrontation, examination and discussion, seems to overwhelm many people, who concentrate on issues that immediately affect them, but not necessarily the whole of society. The manifestos of political parties are often many pages long and therefore ignored, and perception is the judge once again. What disturbs me is the fact that we still think that we know so much, despite this lack of participation.
Perhaps we should return to the Delphic maxims: Nothing to excess, know thyself, and certainty brings ruin. It could help us realise that we have the potential for success and downfall in ourselves. It is only a question of what we choose. I feel much of whatever wisdom we have acquired throughout history goes back to these maxims. Additionally, applying the Socratic method, to learn through the use of critical thinking, reasoning, and logic, which involves finding holes in our own theories and then patching them up, could help us, but it involves participation and humility. But what do I know?
[i] History, Guilt and Habit, reprinted by Sophia Perennis, 2006
[ii] A term coined by German philosopher Karl Jaspers. It refers to broad changes in religious and philosophical thought that occurred in a variety of locations from about the 8th to the 3rd century BC.