op-ed

Searching For America’s Nationhood — A Preliminary Reflection

And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being; …. (Acts 27-28)

According to Plato (Apology 21d), Socrates, once compared himself to a man reputed for wisdom. He reached the conclusion that “I seem therefore, in this small thing, to be wiser than he: I do not think I know what I know I do not know.”  The redundancy seems almost nonsensical unless we consciously remember that, on account of our self-consciousness, one characteristic of the human way of knowing (which seems to distinguish us from other animals of our acquaintance) is that we know we know.  This characteristic allows us to question immediate impressions, so that, for example, we not only apprehend the difference between a painted apple and a real one, we are consciously aware of it that knowledge.  We notice and may consciously catalog such differences, in order knowingly to place the painted apple in a different category of its own, different from that of the real one.

Other animals may make the distinction, but without knowing that they do so.  So, when some interview with me was showing on TV, for years pet Labrador never reacted to the image on the television screen as if it was me.  His indifference was, in a way, entirely accurate.  On the other hand, in consequence of that indifference he suffered the loss of all the pearls of wisdom I was undoubtedly sharing with my human interlocutors.

I might mistake his reaction for a touching sign of affection, but the truth is to the contrary.  My pet failed to react to the image precisely because it is not touching him in the sense he finds most compelling.  He saw and heard me, no doubt.  But even in combination, those sensory perceptions did not persuade him of my presence.  Given the fact that his sense of smell was acute, we might be tempted to conclude that it was critical to convincing him.  But it might also be that some precise structural combination of sensory perceptions was required, buttressed by repeated and habitual experience with my actual presence in his vicinity.

The fact that he can be trained to respond, sight unseen, to a voice command, which he hears coming from some other part of the house, suggests that habitual experience (training) can affect the result.  But is this a direct effect, or just the catalyst that triggers a cascade effect in his sensory imagination strong enough to produce the desired response.  Do different parts of his brain simultaneously light up with activity, as the usual stimulus triggers the cascade?  Or does that result also require something else, some emotional response conditioned by the treatment I have meted out to him?

The introduction of that emotional element must cause us to look for systemic evidence (changes in heartbeat, respiration, etc.) that might be clues to their cause.  But if those clues are results, the question of their ultimate cause remains unanswered.  Because of our experience of our own inner life, we inevitably presume the existence of that cause, whatever it is, even when we do not consciously know what it is, or even that it is.  Doesn’t this presumption about the dog reflect the similar presumption we must inevitably make about ourselves, the presumption that convinces us that there is some being within us that corresponds with the various nouns and pronouns we use to designate and identify ourselves?

There is no object of our perception that exactly corresponds to this being within us.  Our body may be the locus of its existence, but no particular limb, organ or other constituent part of the body comprehensively represents its existence.  Without experiencing it directly through any of the usual faculties through which we otherwise perceive the objects we experience, we yet and still assume that it is there. Moreover, we assume that it is, within certain limits, subject to our will.  Indeed, that very word (will) connotes the aspect of this unseen presence that, despite its being, as it were, in absentia, produces the effects we presume to ascribe to ourselves.

With that thought in mind, its noteworthy that Socrates’s famously knowing profession of ignorance takes this very being for granted.  When he says, “I do not know”, he nonetheless takes himself for granted, ascribing both ignorance and knowledge to the being every such self-reference naively assumes and apprehends. Yet, though asserted with almost helpless certainty, this way of being can never be scrutinized except in its effects.  It includes the assumed repository of every concrete result in our experience.  It is, or else hosts and so contains, the force or forces that structure and account for our understanding of that experience—yet in and of itself as such it never appears to be part of it, never submits to scrutiny in any way that does not leave the most critical aspects of its way of being beyond the scope of what we know as knowledge.

Socrates is also famous for asserting that the most important thing is to “Know Yourself.”  But in terms of the knowledge we know ourselves to know, isn’t this the very aspect of our experience that remains outside the scope of our apprehension?  Before every advance of Rome’s legions, the Scythians would melt away rather than come to grips with them.  Once one of their generals revealed the key to coming to grips with them: “[I]f nothing will serve you but a pitched battle, we have the graves of our fathers; come, find these and essay to destroy them; then shall you know whether we will fight you for those graves or no.”

But the being we take for granted within (and therefore without) ourselves, though it retreats before every advance of our knowledge, always remains intact behind it.  It is part of the background those advances leave behind (“I saw the river” is a tableau in which the river appears, but I do not, since I am here and now the one remembering it.)  In this respect, though it lives on in thought to produce the results that we call knowledge, it does not exist to be occupied in fact by the one who remembers it.  Whatever the key and essence is of being itself, our remembrance is a casket, a tomb, a mausoleum in which I am as dust, already dispersed in time, as if on the wind.  However hard I look, all I find is my own presumption, my own apprehension, my own claim still to possess what has already passed away.  In the end, that memory amounts to no more than the opportunity to press forward into what is yet to come, in which I myself will still be, as it were, hidden from the knowledge I pursue.

We have a name for the elusive being in which we search to find ourselves, and always, yet never quite, do. It is the name of God.


Views expressed in op-eds are not the views of The Daily Caller.