Posted by: Harold Knight | 03/22/2012

Steak, peaches, and Socrates

Walking with me to my car last evening to say good night, my friend pointed out a steak house across Main Street in Dallas where the steaks are 40 bucks each. I commented that I’ve virtually stopped eating red meat. This is not a conscious decision to help the environment or avoid ingesting hormones. No, it is a simple matter of convenience—when I simplified my diet (with remarkable and felicitous results), preparing a steak or a burger became more bother than it’s worth.

Cooking for one is a pain in the (some body part), no matter what the food is, so giving up beef has been no great sacrifice. The foods that are easiest to prepare (stick them under the faucet, give them a little scrub, and eat) are the healthiest anyway. So why bother with a hunk of red meat that’s expensive, needs careful seasoning and cooking to make it both tasty and chewable, and may be doing weird things to my body?

I think most of the best decisions of my life have happened by default rather than any great reasoning powers on my part.

On the other hand, some of the worst decisions of my life have resulted from the same lack of deliberative power, too—moving halfway across country without securing a job first in order to be with HIM (and not really getting to know HIM first, either). You’d think I would have figured that one out before seventeen years had passed on the basis of the Massachusetts Blizzard of ’78. It should have given me some clarity about my desire to live in a place where I would not have to shovel snow. Irrespective of HIM. The blizzard happened four months after my disastrous move.

Earlier, when I decided the time had come for me to earn a doctorate in organ so I could secure a church organist position that would support me and give me professional cachet, I made my choice of school almost totally on the basis of—well, I don’t remember. What I do know is that the organ faculty told me after my “qualifying” recital for the program that we all knew I could eventually earn a performance doctorate, but that life was really too short to put us all through that, and if I were willing to earn a PhD in musicology, they would essentially give me a free ride through my residency.  I am more easily bribed than I am thoughtful, so I accepted on the spot.

I have described a person of doubtful self-understanding, of little ability to take charge of his life, of almost no self-discipline, and of little sense of direction or purpose in life. The kind of guy that I really don’t want to deal with in the college first-year writing classroom. God spare us!

Or, perhaps, God made us that way. All of us.

My personal struggle to decide if how when why and where I might believe there is a God (or are many gods) or whatever one might want to come to believe is, according to one friend and mentor, the most important aspect of my mental/spiritual/emotional – whatever part of me – life and has been since I first doubted that my “giving my life to Christ” in junior high school was possible (was there a Christ to give my life to?) or desirable (if it is my life, why should I give it) or knowable (if there is a Christ who is part of divinity, how can I possibly know what my human mortal relationship to him is). If I were of the same intellectual prowess of, say, St. Augustine of Hippo (see my previous post) and knew all about Plato and Socrates, and the earliest Church Fathers, I might have the ability at least to formulate these questions in a way that would shed both light and heat on the dilemma of my deciding not to eat beef simply as the path of least resistance instead of making life decisions based on information, reason, or at least intuition.

So quite by accident—trying to learn to understand and think about something quite other—I took the path of least resistance and discovered writings about St. Augustine. I was intrigued by the information that, “Among the ideas that Augustine took over from the [Greek] philosophers was the notion that improving the self is a question of practice” (1). Stock explains that in Augustine’s view, following the philosophers,

cultivating the self can be compared to training to be an athlete or learning to play a musical instrument. Socrates suggests that as we acquire a skill of this kind we become aware that we possess something within us that the modern world calls a “self” [but we cannot] “find out what precisely this ‘itself’ is;” [we] can only acquire a limited understanding of the makeup of “an individual self,” namely, [our] own. The reason for this is that the self, like the mind, cannot know itself fully, since, in seeking such knowledge, it is both observer and observed (2).

This leads me to more of my constant thinking about my “self,” as opposed to “myself” (which I do, also). This lifetime of contemplation I have always thought must be related to my TLEpilepsy which affects me (and my comrades) with an aura of dissociation. However, I think perhaps it is simply what I do as part of my quest to find (oh, I wish I had a better way of putting this) “the meaning of life.”

This all gets more complicated than I can sort out. I’m not a professional philosopher or theologian, so I do not have the language for sorting. I’m not sure whether thinking about my (or your, or the) “self” is the same as thinking about the “soul.” I am, however, drawn to Augustine’s concept that the

inner space of the soul contains not only individual memories but the intelligible truths that are common to all minds, including “the Truth by which all things are true” . . . as Augustine put  it. . .  God is the “unchangeable Truth that contains everything that is unchangeably true” which is another way of saying God is the eternal mind. . .  So this inner world of memory that Augustine treats . . . is not an absolutely private space. Not only does God see all that is within the soul . . . but his presence within each soul is the same divine light that inwardly illuminates every soul . . . (3)

Since I’m not sure I believe in God, I’m not sure where I was going with this when I began. So I’ll stop as abruptly as I started. The inner world of my memory is not an absolutely private space. That’s where I was headed. All of those decisions I’ve made by default (even not eating beef and losing 55 pounds) are not private. They involve a host of other people. Does that mean God? Stay tuned. More will be revealed.
(1) Stock, Brian. “Self, Soliloquy, And Spiritual Exercises In Augustine And Some Later Authors.” Journal of Religion 91.1 (2011): 5-23.
(2) Stock; quotations from:  Plato. Alcibiades 129a–b, trans. (with emendations) D. S. Hutchinson, in Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 1997), 587, 589.
(3) Cary, Phillip. “Philosophical and Religious Origins of the Private Inner Self.” Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science 46.1 (2011): 121-134. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Mar. 2012.


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