Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Thoughts That Kneel

From the first moment we begin to grow in them, our thoughts dictate to us our chief concerns. Those matters we have pondered are the only ones on which we can act with sober policy. The proportion of thought, then, that we allow to each human dilemma testifies to how sensitive or indifferent we are to every circumstance we confront.
Certainly it is of no small moment that we conduct ourselves in our appointed offices with the humility that reflection by itself cannot produce. A critically minded person can measure how wide a margin lies between himself and the perfected execution of whatever he must perform, but untempered by humility, and unwilling to admit where he is weak, he breaks himself upon hard surfaces. A sharp intellect submitted to the uses of life means little if can take no punishment.
Humility is a fragile thing, and it is all to easy for a man to forsake it, and with it all other men, in service to an easy and unknowing satisfaction with himself. ("Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.") And as should be the case with any fragile thing, Humility is not without its defenders. Humility in a man may be snuffed out, but his conscience is always breathing. Macbeth can kill, and in killing steal a crown, but his wife cannot get her hands clean. Thoughts come to us, though we would have none of them. They undermine our best defenses.
We cannot deny ourselves the habit of thinking, but it is ours to govern the thoughts we have. They occupy a space in all of us, and in that space we arrange them in their files. We give some to work, some to those we love and those we hate, some to art and some to politics, and not a few, if we are wise, we give to God. The arrangement of the patterns of his thought is the only freedom that a man cannot be denied. This we may take for fact that admits of no argument. To think otherwise only proves the point. Everyone is free to choose what type of vessel his mind will be, whether noble or ignoble. It is true that what imposes itself upon us from without has some part in this, and that men in all times and places are not so free as to choose their own path as we in ours, but still this part of ourselves, if nothing else, escapes all attempted containments. Boethius wrote his Consolation from prison. Dante began the Comedy as a political exile on the verge of suicide, ("Where closed/ The valley that pierced my heart with dread. . .") yet his imagination took this sight for its reward:

I look'd
While sight was unconsumed; and, in that depth,
Saw in one volume clasp'd of love, whate'er
The universe unfolds; all properties
Of substance and of accident, beheld,
Compounded, yet one individual light
The whole. And of such bond methinks I saw
The universal form; for that whene'er
I do but speak of it, my soul dilates
Beyond her proper self.

Granted its unconditional freedom, how does the mind best arrange itself? Even if we set aside moral considerations for a moment, it is naive to accept that all thoughts have equal claim to our attention. Both the educated and the uneducated mind are undemocratic, because our desires exist in disproportion, and where desire exists, thought and action bend their dual course. The oinophile gives more thought to the right conditions of his cellar for storing wine than he does to making room in it for a water purification system, simply because water purification is a subject in which he has scant interest. If someone is sitting with the other front row fanatics at a Nascar race, chances are his thoughts are not equally fixed both on the spectacle in front of him and on the latest Phillip Roth novel. His thoughts naturally follow the track of his greatest desire, which is in this case a circular one. Every mind selects its own aristocracy, except in cases of insanity. Madness is anarchy, every bit as much as Anarchy is Mad. And as with anarchy, madness ends with the most violent nerve ending making a tyrant of itself and imprisoning the mind in the despotism of a single thought. Lunatics are nothing if not single minded.
It stands to reason that the mind that is careless of its government will end by abandoning itself to gross authorities, as is the case with many countries that falls into crisis. The Will selects the aristocracy of thought as Desire directs. From these thoughts the individual takes council, and their quality of government determine what principles take root in him. Here he must ensure that the aristocracy lives up to its title. Lack of dignity in thought can only produce lack of dignity in action.
No individual can keep company with the best class of anything by itself and still retain the wisdom of the serpent. We must live in the world, and the world offers unsightly things as well as beautiful, the profane mixed with the sacred. To turn the mind only to cultivated things, whether in the arts or sciences, is no more advisable a project than the Tower of Babel. Every thought should know its place in our conscience and say its piece there, and give way to the next in order. No proverb, however wise, can speak to the sum of human affairs, and no single pillar of wisdom can support the arches of a broad philosophy. The single councilors of our conscience guide us as far as their power permits, each giving place to the one above him, until all our councilors-all of our reasons- have spent their earthly powers, and the last falls silent. Then we in turn do likewise, and take in faith our seat beneath the throne of God.

-Thomas Banks-

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