HTSS: Day Four, On Detachment and Practical Wisdom

11:22am "Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb."

Here's the full passage that I've been promising to share with you. It is from a Baccalaureate Sermon that Northrop Frye gave 19 March 1967 to the graduating classes of Victoria and Emmanuel Colleges, in the Victoria College Chapel.

The text for the sermon was Matthew 6:34: "Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself."

"A man may write a shelf of books and get a reputation as a formidably erudite scholar, but he will know what he knows, and it won't be much. Further, he will not finish his books with any sense of achievement, but only with a feeling that he has once more come 'round to the point at which he can begin again. I often think of the remark of Isaac Newton, made toward the end of his life...: 'I do not know how I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been a child playing with stones on a beach, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.' That is the kind of detachment that a wise and good man can attain from his own life.

"Without some measure of such a detachment, we shall make ourselves very miserable, if we try to judge our own lives as a body of things achieved, accomplished, or done. Society is a better judge of what we have done, partly because it knows less. If there is a final or last judgment to be made on our lives, it cannot be made by ourselves, or by our friends, or even by those who love us, who come much closer to it than anyone else. It could only be made by an omniscient but infinitely compassionate being.

"What I am saying is that if you look forward to the future, with the expectation of identifying your lives with a definite body of work achieved, you are doomed to the bitterest disappointment. The future is too slippery to rely on: other things over which you have no control frustrate your intentions and twist everything you do into unrecognizable shapes. The morrow takes thought for the things of itself. If you go into business, your achievement may be only to adulterate goods and raise prices; if you go into politics, your achievement may be only to compromise your principles and raise taxes. It is much better to detach oneself from the whole notion of achieving anything, leaving that dimension of one's life to others if they are interested.

"So if you give up the notion of achieving anything, what else can you do?"

Frye answers: "Manifest something. For example, a social worker does her work with a vision [that is, a practical wisdom derived from the records of the best that humanity has done: the concepts of philosophy, the imagination of the arts, the accuracy and the discoveries of the sciences], in her mind, of a more just and equitable, a more adequately privileged, a cleaner and less neurotic Toronto than the Toronto she is working in. She does not feed herself on the delusion that her efforts will bring this better Toronto into existence in the future. But the light of that vision shines through what she does, and it is that light, not the consequences of what she does, that makes her work effective.

"In taking this vision of practical wisdom with you...into your social life, you may also have a few glints, a few hints and suggestions of a greater wisdom still. You can live without this greater wisdom, and perhaps some of you would prefer to do so. But if you want it you can certainly train yourself to recognize it. [But if] I am to speak here for Christianity as well as for a liberal arts college, I have to take one more step.

"It is very hard to give up the childish habit of projecting our parents into the universe, and creating there some omnipotent Santa Claus, floating free in space, who will fill our plate with goodies if we only believe in him. Later on, we may start calling this figure by flossier names, like the historical process or the technological revolution or the great society, all aliases of the great Godot who will come without fail tomorrow. But whatever we call him he is still the same dead, stuffed, grinning Santa Claus.

"A more mature view is to think that if there is any power or intelligence in this absurd world that makes more sense than we do, or than nature does, it can only be a power or intelligence that has entered human life, that works with human instruments under the limitations of the human condition, that suffers with man's humiliation as well as sharing his rare genuine triumphs. And perhaps, as we struggle to apply our education and practical wisdom to society, we may occasionally feel a sense of a Presence which is ourselves yet inifinitely bigger than ourselves, which lives with us but will not disappear into death when we do.

"Such feelings do not come very often, and when they do come there is no guarantee of their validity except in our own subjective and hidden lives. They may come in moments when we feel we have made a difficult and painful but nevertheless right decision.... Or they may come in moments when we lose someone greatly loved, and feel that nothing so precious can really be totally and forever lost. Whenever they occur, it is in such moments that, as Jesus says, wisdom is justified of her children [Matthew 11:19]."

--Northrop Frye on Religion, ed. Alvin A. Lee and Jean O'Grady (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), pp. 284-86.

Comments

  1. Thank you for the post, F.B.! This is wonderful!

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my blog post. I look forward to hearing what you think!

F.B.

Popular posts from this blog

The Witches of Salemville

Make the Middle Ages Dark Again