Friday, January 4, 2008

Into the Wild, Wisdom and Virtue

Perhaps the most significant philosophical casualty of the modern era is the disappearance of the concept of wisdom. The modern world began with doubt about the metaphysical basis of traditional wisdom, progressed to doubt about the very possibility of wisdom, and has now reached the point where it has even forgotten that there is a concept of wisdom. This is one of the more depressing aspects of the case of Chris McCandless from Into the Wild. Here was a highly intelligent, talented, passionate young man who graduated from Emory University with outstanding marks in a liberal arts curriculum, yet who apparently grew very little in wisdom through the process.

I am not talking about his penchant for radical living and taking chances. A radical lifestyle that calls into question “normal” and “safe” ways of living may be an expression of deep wisdom. Socrates, St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas and Kierkegaard all lived more or less radical lives. But they understood that such a lifestyle is truly “radical” only to the extent that one has understood and mastered oneself. Most people, in thrall to various passions and vices, need the restrictions and pressures of society to keep the bad side of their natures in check. Absent such pressures, such people become “free” only in the sense that their vices are given head. In places where the civic structure has broken down, it isn’t peace and universal brotherhood that breaks out but riots, looting and arson. Only the man who has attained a high degree of virtue is capable of stepping outside the structure of society without such a move turning self-indulgent.

All this was once part of the essence of wisdom, the wisdom taught at Plato’s Academy and the medieval universities. Students then were far more truly radical than they are now (living as beggars, for instance, just to be able to hear lectures at the University of Paris). But they were not subject to the superficial understanding now current that becoming radical is a simple matter of dropping out of society and going “on the road” as a vagrant. When a young man born into nobility in the Middle Ages decided to renounce his privileged life and live as a beggar, a man such as Thomas Aquinas, he didn’t merely give up his trust fund and hit the open road in an illusory “pure freedom.” Instead he took a vow of poverty in an order of mendicant friars, an order that would allow him to live as radically as he liked, but would also discipline him in his vices such that his freedom matured into true freedom.

This is particularly the case with the vice of pride, to which men of great passion and talent, like Chris McCandless, are particularly vulnerable. Seeing the lust, gluttony and envy that are common vices in mankind but seem to have been largely absent from himself, it was almost inevitable that McCandless would become subject to the vice of pride over the fact. He might have understood this about himself if he had attended the University of Paris in 1288 instead of Emory University in 1988. But the modern university is not about Socratic self-examination and growth in wisdom, but about instilling a self-righteous pride as a substitute for wisdom. I’m just fine, it’s the rest of the world that needs fixing.

McCandless finished college only out of duty to his family and couldn’t wait to hit the road on graduation. The result was entirely predictable. He renounced his old self by giving all his money away and severing completely his ties with his family, and began the search for transcendent truth as a “supertramp.” Of course, money or no money, he was still the same man with the same virtues and vices; his considerable virtues carried him for awhile but, unfortunately, the vice of pride eventually caught up to him in the Alaskan wilderness.

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