Monday, November 11, 2013

{ambituity} Absolute Truth is Absolute Ignorance

One major critique of Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained brings up the seeming contradiction between Milton's advocacy of free speech and circulation of knowledge and Raphael's charge to be "lowly wise" or Christ's assertion that he has come as an "inward oracle / To all truth requisite for men to know" asserting that there is only a certain amount of truth men should know, putting this text under much criticism. This contradiction can be resolved, however, if we look at Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained with the Chinese understanding of knowledge.

In most western societies, we see knowledge and truth as something absolute finite. Once obtained, it's something to be declared and shared through speech. As illustration, we have idioms like the following:
  • know the ropes 
  • can't make heads or tails of it 
  • under one's belt 
  • know something backwards and forwards
In Chinese cultures however, knowledge is extraordinarily relative and ambiguous. Because of that, it is not shared with what you say, but how you live or what you feel. They have idioms such as the following:
  • 口說無憑 Words can't be taken as evidence.
  • 信口開河 If you believe in words, you open a river of destruction.
  • 心直口快 If your heart is straight, your mouth will be fast (or you will say what you have to in few words).
  • 知足常樂 To know is enough to make one happy.
  • 不知所措 The root of all mistakes is not knowing.
Or perhaps the most fascinating one with the story attached:
塞翁失马,焉知非福。 The old man lost a horse, but it was a blessing in disguise.

Chengyu Story and Background

There once was an old man who lived with his only son at the border of the state. They liked horses and often let them graze freely. One time a servant reported to the old man, “A horse is missing! It went into the neighboring state.”

His friends felt sorry for him, but the old man was not bothered at all by the loss. In fact, he said: “Who knows! The loss may bring us good fortune!”

A few months later, a weird thing happened. Not only did the missing horse return home safely, it also brought back with it a fine horse from the neighboring state.

When his friends heard the news, they congratulated the old man on his good luck. But the old man said, “Who knows! This may bring us ill fortune!”

One day, when the old man’s son was riding the fine horse, he fell off it, broke his leg very badly and became crippled. Many friends came to comfort the old man, but the old man was not disturbed by the accident in the least. “Who knows! This may bring us good fortune after all!” he said.

A year later, the neighboring state sent troops across the border. All young and strong men were drafted to join the fight, and most of them got killed. The old man’s son however was not drafted because he was crippled - and so his life was spared.
There is a sense of ambiguity and relativism associated with wisdom: nothing is that simple, thus there are some truths that are requisite for all men to know, but most truth varies from person to person or situation to situation. Think of Nephi who was told to kill Laban after knowing the 10 Commandments. When this reading of knowledge is applied to charges given by both Christ and Raphael, we are able to realize that they are actually promoting the discovery of knowledge by telling them less and only what can be quantified.

1 comment:

  1. THIS. This is a great post. I wish I would have seen it sooner. I don't know how I missed it. But one of the big issues I've been wrestling with lately is how people can proclaim to know absolute truth when those truths keep changing over time. And it's because truth is important in different ways to different people. Thanks for sharing.