Wednesday 4 June 2014

Misology: A Most Terrible Disease

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

A little learning is a dangerous thing
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

– Pope

The human race is afflicted by many diseases, but one of the great benefits of modern science has been the successful elimination or treatment of a great number of them. And although some illnesses remain, there is still reasonable hope that they, too, will be conquered by medical progress. But there are some diseases which medicine of the body will never be able to confront. Their cures lie only in the will of the diseased.

Perhaps the most dangerous of these is misology. It has afflicted our species since Adam, but Plato was the first to make a clear diagnosis of it. In his dialogue dramatising Socrates’s final hours and execution, the Phaedo, Plato has Socrates present a long and complex argument for the immortality of the soul. Some of his interlocutors, however, make powerful objections to Socrates’s line of reasoning and some of those listening begin to lose heart. Socrates responds by warning them that they are in danger of contracting a terrible illness called misology—a scourge far more potent than the hemlock he is condemned to drink. “No worse thing can happen to a man than this,” Socrates says. It is very similar in its genesis to another awful disease, misanthropy:
For as there are misanthropists or haters of men, there are also misologists or haters of ideas, and both spring from the same cause, which is ignorance of the world. Misanthropy arises out of the too great confidence of inexperience;—you trust a man and think him altogether true and sound and faithful, and then in a little while he turns out to be false and knavish; and then another and another, and when this has happened several times to a man, especially when it happens among those whom he deems to be his own most trusted and familiar friends, and he has often quarrelled with them, he at last hates all men, and believes that no one has any good in him at all.
Whereas misanthropy is the belief that there is no good in men, misology is the belief that there is no good in rational thought. The disease is usually contracted after one has had persistent difficulty arriving at the truth of something, and reaches its full effect when one finally throws up one’s hands and despairs of truth altogether. It sounds like an extreme state to be in, and it is, but it is not altogether as far away from us today as we may think. There is, of course, the whole movement of the absurd the last century, which is somewhat systematically misological. But even for those who do not go whole-hog for absurdism, the temptation remains, especially in a culture that has rejected God as the ground of a comprehensively rational universe.

Plato thinks that misology is the worst possible disease a man can have because it is rationality that makes us most human. In this regard much of the Western tradition is in agreement. We have been endowed with minds capable not only of perceiving and reacting to stimuli, but also of understanding the world around us. To relinquish trust in our rational capabilities is to relinquish our most distinctive gift. Further, as Plato points out, it renders us incapable of dialogue with other people. Perhaps, in the various forms of fundamentalism that exist today—whether of a religious or a secular nature—we are already reaping the bitter fruits of a certain post-modern, misologic bent in the culture, evident in the frequent clashes of ideologies, often violent in manner.

What is the cure to misology—or perhaps better, what is the most effective innoculation against it? According to Plato, it is a kind of intellectual humility:
Let us then … be careful of allowing or of admitting into our souls the notion that there is no health or soundness in any arguments at all. Rather say that we have not yet attained to soundness in ourselves, and that we must struggle manfully and do our best to gain health of mind.
If we fail in reason, it is not because reason has fallen short, but because our own powers of reason have fallen short.

As Plato tells, Socrates’s whole life was a quest to “gain health of mind”. It is a project that was not merely logical in nature, but consumed all of his rational faculties: heart and will and mind together. And though a pagan, he anticipated the Christian vocation, which is, God willing, to come to dwell in the divine logos itself, where all meaning finds its rightful home.

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