Lent makes us smarter

Maimonides, quoting Alexander of Aphrodisias (who was commenting on Aristotle) says there are three significant causes of human ignorance; then adds a fourth. This is in chapter 31 of the first part of the Guide to the Perplexed, in my old Friedlander translation.

Arrogance and vainglory lead the list. We are too full of ourselves to fit any new thing into our gorged heads; too cocky to see what is outside us; and indifferent to the movement that would lead us out. In many other ways gentle reader could supply for himself, and probably from self-experience, we are defeated by our own swagger.

Second, the subject itself will prove more subtle, deeper and more difficult than we imagined, so that when we come to examine it we are overwhelmed. Failures of training and education come into this: we don’t know where to start, and have not acquired the equipment to continue. Fools are those, who come to the battle naked.

Only third need we consider our animal limitations. Our own native freedom from information and want of capacity prevents us from comprehending even what is perfectly comprehensible. Our native sloth comes into this, to my mind; by which I mean not sinful acedia, but the slowness of wit that makes anything hard for us to follow, when finally we come round to trying. We are stupid like that; God did not endow us all with superior candlepower.

Each category of foolishness of course redounds on each other, and by combination we may square or cube the effect of forms of ignorance that were more modest in isolation.

Maimonides adds custom and habit to this Aristotelian list. He illustrates this with an unfortunate attack on rural people, which makes me fear he has liberal tendencies. The villager is used to his privations; he does not desire the pleasures of city life because he does not know what they are; but hardly through vainglory. He is accustomed from youth to play the hick, to take almost anything over-literally; for instance to take God as if He were one of His own creatures.

Yet big-city propagandists for atheism (Richard Dawkins provides an especially juicy example) tend to display exactly this sort of supposed village idiocy.

Here the later Sephardic philosopher Falaquera (a man of the thirteenth century) is more pointed. He extends the critique of this peasant gormlessness specifically to scientists never exposed to religion or philosophy, and thus prey to a materialism that would be, on a little thought, self-refuting. Whereas, the peasant has at least some chance of encountering a good rabbi.

Perhaps the twelfth-century Maimonides thought he had already anticipated that, in previous remarks about the kind of shmendrick who disputes what has been demonstrably proved. “Thus you find men who deny the spherical form of the Earth, or the circular path in which the stars move.” To his mind, such characters, who might also confuse God with the image of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, are not worth considering. I must say I find this a blindness on his part, for it is only a variation on the peasant kind of ignorance.

Now, I would invite gentle reader to consider each of these four sources of ignorance (which I have expounded in my own way) in light of the traditional, conventional Lenten practices of Holy Church.

They begin from the bottom by breaking up habit; catching us when we reach for things we would normally consume without thinking, when we remember that we have vowed to avoid them for forty days. This in turn quickens our apprehension of matters we are not in the habit of considering. We begin to realize that what seemed simple and easy is actually rather simple and hard. Our repeated failures provide a cure for the vanities in which we usually luxuriate. The often painful discovery that we are not great, but small, feeds our humility at the foot of wisdom.

And yet, in the memory of Our Lord, we need not be defeated. The whole experience, through seven weeks, is a course of setbacks; and stands, with Jesus, in that wilderness where he confronted the temptations of the Devil, directly. We pick ourselves up from the dust, after each slip; and our better angel tells us to confess it, and that we must resume trying.

Our bodies, but also our minds, are in His boot camp through this period, repeated once a year. Sincerely engaged, we cannot help but come out of it a little smarter than we were, going in.