The question of knowledge is a very old problem, going back to the ancients. What we can know about the world, and how we know it, is a huge puzzle. Now, we all love to tell stories, to tell people about things that have happened to us—or even stuff that happened to others, if it makes for a good tale. More than that, story-telling seems to be hardwired in us. We have a deep need to construct narratives to make sense out of the world and our lives. So not only do we try to convey what we think we know through our stories, but those stories also reflect the issues and problems regarding our ways of knowing.
I’m going to write a series of posts concerning the history of story-telling and our problems concerning the ways of knowing. I’ll move from Plato to Medieval Christianity, then to Descartes and the Enlightenment, Nietzsche, then modernism and classic film noir, and finally postmodernism. I only intend to provide a sketch of these issues, so what I’ll say is greatly simplified.
PART II: THE MIDDLE AGES
How the ‘Real World’ at last Became a Myth
HISTORY OF AN ERROR
1. The real world, attainable to the wise, the pious, the virtuous man—he dwells in it, he is it.
(Oldest form of the idea, relatively sensible, simple, convincing. Transcription of the proposition ‘I, Plato, am the truth’.)
2. The real world, unattainable for the moment, but promised to the wise, the pious, the virtuous man (‘to the sinner who repents’).
(Progress of the idea: it grows more refined, more enticing, more incomprehensible—it becomes a woman, it becomes Christian…)
–Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols (Hollingdale Translation).
THE FORM OF THE GOOD
In the first post in this series I talked about Plato’s Theory of Forms: the idea that there are real, abstract, non-physical entities that are the objects of necessary knowledge, and which we can know through intellectual intuition.
In Book V of his Republic, Plato discusses the “highest” Form, the Form of the Good. This Form acts as a first principle, says Plato, a rock-solid foundation for all our other knowledge. He describes the ascent of the philosopher to grasping the Good, as if he were scaling a mountain on the backs of his hypotheses and seeing the sun for the first time. Once having grasped that Form of the Good, the philosopher can make the return journey, demonstrating the truth of his original hypotheses, and thus completing a system of philosophical science, a complete knowledge of everything. (The cave allegory depicts this same journey, only using a different metaphor.)
At times, as in Republic V, Plato sounds oddly like a monotheist (which is peculiar for someone of his time), since one could interpret this discussion of the Form of the Good as a description of a mystical union with the divine. That’s not what Plato means, but his work was influential on early Christian thinkers; indeed, there’s a continuity between Platonism and Christianity. As Nietzsche quips, “Christianity is Platonism for ‘the people’” (Beyond Good and Evil).
For Plato, the Forms are intellectually accessible (at least to the philosopher). We can know the truth. And this is born out in the stories Plato tells. Socrates is on his search for the meaning of piety, justice, and so forth. One can live the good life, and the key to doing that is knowledge, knowledge that’s obtainable through a pure effort of reason.
CHRISTIANITY (OR WESTERN MONOTHEISM GENERALLY)
The big leap from Platonism to Christianity is the move from a realm of non-physical, abstract entities that are rationally intuitable to a transcendent, creator God who is not. There is still a big story, an over-arching narrative that governs the way we think about ourselves and the world. For Christianity, there is still a Truth (capital ‘t’), but it becomes shrouded in mystery, an object of faith. It’s a promise that’s left outstanding.
So Christianity (and monotheistic religions in general) poses a very great problem with regard to our ways of knowing. If God is the Truth, and God is transcendent (absent), then there is no real way to know. The nature of God himself, how God created everything, the nature of goodness, sin, redemption, virtue—all these things, unlike Plato’s Forms and Socrates’ virtues, are rationally unknowable and become objects of faith. (Why is there so much inter- and intra-religious squabbling over the exact meaning of these things if anyone can truly know them?)
Further, it’s a common understanding of things going back at least to Aristotle that to understand something, you have to know and understand the cause of that thing. So, to paraphrase Spinoza, if God is an absolutely infinite being separate from the universe and creator of that universe, then the universe itself is completely incomprehensible. That is, there’s no way to understand how God might have created the universe from a pure act of will and out of nothingness, so if he did, we have no hope of understanding reality.
(The nature of faith and it’s relation to knowledge is a huge topic, far too vast to deal with in any meaningful way here; I’m just giving a gloss on it to make my overall point. From Tertullian’s famous quote, “I believe it because it’s impossible,” to Aquinas’ theoretical arguments for God’s existence, it’s clear that knowledge is a big problem for theists.)
THE MIDDLE AGES
I’m not so much concerned with Christianity as I am with the Middle Ages, though the lives of people in Europe were dominated by religious thinking at that time. Further, I’m not qualified to talk about stories from the Middle Ages. I’m more interested in the stories we tell about that period.
Think, for example, of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). During an outbreak of plague, a knight is approached by death (black robe, scythe, all that) and told it’s his time. The knight challenges death to a game of chess for his life. It’s a stunning image, if you haven’t seen it: Max Von Sydow’s knight on a beach, sitting across the chess board from the black-hooded death. In any event, the overarching meta-narrative is in place: There is a Truth about the world and human existence, though it’s shrouded in mystery, and that mystery leaves our anxieties about our lives and our terrors about death intact.
The film version of Umberto Eco’s remarkable The Name of the Rose (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1986) isn’t necessarily an exception. William of Baskerville (an obvious reference to Sherlock Holmes) is superbly rational, a medieval sleuth who follows the evidence and uses his reasoning to solve the mystery of a series of murders. But the setting in which he finds himself, a 14th Century Benedictine Abbey, is filled with darkness and superstition. Yes, William solves the mystery, but he’s unable to save Aristotle’s lost treatise on comedy from the flames; and that work was the reason for the murders in the first place.
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that many epic fantasy tales—I’m thinking of works like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones—while set in alternate realities, are really based in the European Middle Ages. That is, the Middle Ages provide the backdrop or at least the starting point for these alternate worlds. This is clear from the state of technology: everyone rides horses; there is no electricity; everything is lit by torches; people wear armor and live in castles. (Plus, in the film/TV versions, all the characters have British accents.)
Knight and Dragon
This is the way we romanticize the Middle Ages: brave knights pursuing quests, and lovely Ladies in gowns chastely waiting for them, or else plotting intrigue back at the castle. But the fantasy element is in part provided by the addition of elements like dragons and magic (wizards in the case of LOTR; wogs and Melisandre the fire priestess in GoT). That is, it seems to feel quite natural to us to turn medieval life into fantasy, and precisely because of the darkness and mystery that envelopes that period.
So, again, we see that our ways of knowing (or of not knowing, in this case) filter into and are reflected by our narratives, the stories we tell.