Being Without Passage

Last week I embarked upon my last semester at St. John’s. It feels good to be back in school, and also good to know it is almost over! I am taking Politics and Society this semester, and there are many good readings about which I look forward to telling you.

Yet, at this point, my classes are not really what’s on my mind. The writing of my Master’s Essay has begun in earnest, and I have until March 3rd to complete it. It’s an optional thesis, and I chose to apply for it rather last minute so the process has been a bit more hurried for me than for other students.

Instead of choosing a lovely novel or something delightful, I decided to write on Aristotle’s Metaphysics; specifically, what Aristotle thinks that wisdom is and how one attains that kind of knowledge. If you’ve read enough of these posts, you’ll know that I do love Aristotle and have been drawn to his writings every semester. So, this is all well and good, but it is a difficult text and I have chosen challenging questions. And, I really do have to figure it out on my own. No secondary literature, no lectures from brilliant experts.

I am not truly on my own, though. I am honored to have my friend Ms. Zena Hitz as my advisor and she has patiently met with me every week for the past few months to help me seek out the answers. Today we had one of our weekly meetings to discuss a bit of writing I did. I am probably going to scrap much of what I wrote, but it was one of our most fruitful talks yet. Fruitful in that deeply challenging, “I need to go home and think about this for a while” sort of way.

And here’s what I’ve realized: I am very uncomfortable with lingering questions. The only reason why I continue to sit with these questions about wisdom is because I have to in order to graduate! Now, of course I have been in this place before, but perhaps to a lesser extent. Normally, whether for a question about life or for a paper, I would seek out other explanations, other scholarship, etc and then feel like I had some insight. Or, I would just dismiss whatever it was that seemed so problematic and move on to something more digestible. In this case, I really have to trust that the answer could be found within the text itself and keep trying to find it. As Zena told me today, I might turn in my paper without any magical insight, without an answer that ties it all together. Fortunately, that is completely acceptable at St. John’s.

It is hard for me to envision turning in such a paper, but I think that the risk of that is very good for me. If it did happen, it might reflect a more sincere effort to understand the text than if I had some superficial argument that sounded good but meant little.

It’s also had me thinking about non-academic life. Sometimes, we might have these difficult questions about our beliefs or someone else’s and it can be very troubling. I think that many of us have the tendency to avoid lingering in those questions, so we ditch them. I see this often with religious faith, where people have some doubt and then give up trying to seek the answer, especially from within the tradition that they find problematic. This might stem from an unwillingness to trust in an authority outside of ourselves, such as that of a religious tradition or even, say, a political one. The truth is, of course, that we are constantly trusting in authorities outside of ourselves, we just aren’t as conscious of them as “beliefs.”

I am not at all saying that we should ignore doubts and questions, or persist in some belief that really seems unbelievable no matter how hard we try to understand it. However, I think I could try to embrace happily the contemplation of certain difficult questions—not as a sign of doubt or of failure, but as a reflection of their richness and their mystery.  And, also, with a desire for truth, with a sense that there is something at stake in understanding or not understanding.

Ironically, here I am, stuck in thinking about wisdom, when Aristotle says that we get at wisdom by being stuck. Many, many times. And by knowing that we are stuck and trying to anticipate other places where we will be stuck.  The word he uses is “aporia” —without passage. How can being “without passage” lead suddenly to being “with passage?”

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