Thursday 16 May 2013

May 2013 Meditation from Bob Sweetman

Two weeks ago or so I finished teaching a course on the intersection of philosophy and rhetoric. It was a very special seminar, one I have been missing since it stopped. I look forward to getting the papers to mark in part because it will be a little like the seminar is still on the go. Together we in the seminar looked at texts that were produced by orators and philosophers of the ancient and medieval worlds as they struggled to understand the connections between language, personal formation and wisdom. Words, they understood, can function as a principle of motion in and among their hearers and readers. Words are dynamic and communicative. You can do things with words. Of course if words are to lead to wisdom one has to pay attention to the circumstances in which words are spoken and received. Wisdom is picky it would seem.

Collectively, these ancient and medieval theorists paint a very interesting picture of words in their connection to wisdom. For one, wisdom demands more than the words themselves can mean or say. Wisdom demands love. One must fall in love with the world that words articulate if one is to encounter wisdom within the words. Speakers and writers must understand the connection between love and wisdom and structure it into their very way with words. You can lay out the truth—Athens should do this or that with respect to the Thebans or Spartans—but if you do it in a way that leaves Athenians cold, that does not provide a way for Athenians to see what ought to be done as lovely and as such moving and attractive, an object of love, you have failed in your truth-telling for truth is in matters of wisdom but a means to an end, and the way from truth-telling means to wise end is motivated by love, at least when the end is something human or divine.

If love has this role, they were convinced, then love must mark the context in which we seek wisdom, in which we seek to see and desire wisely because wisdom is present and deigns to gift us with herself. For the ancients and medievals, that context was communal, a community in which interpersonal relations were marked by friendship. A community of friends, they thought, was the most obvious context in which to generate the love that can move us from truth to wisdom and a life lived wisely. Among the Christian voices we examined there was a sense that the existence of human communities of friends always bespoke a divine agency involved transforming a speaker’s effect so that hearers would be informed, pleased and transformed. Christ the Word and the Spirit were to be numbered members of the community of friends seeking wisdom.

In remembering all this, it struck me that medieval and Christian theorists we read this semester marked out something important about ICS too at its best. It too understands there to be an intimate relationship between words, love and wisdom. It too is at its best a community of friends who struggle to think and speak the truth in love, to speak the truth in such a way that love marks the world spoken in the conviction that there is wisdom to be had in such speaking and loving. May ICS, heck, may we all truly be a community of friends in love with God’s world and as such open to God’s wisdom in service of that world.

Bob Sweetman