“Reading toward Wisdom”

More from Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text.  Excerpts from the first chapter, “Reading toward Wisdom” (page numbers in parenthesis).  Previous post in the series:  “In the Vineyard of the Text”.

There is a line, whose source I’ve forgotten, that goes something like, “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”  Reading about the past is then a little like visiting a foreign country.  Such visits can teach us a good deal about ourselves by throwing our own habits and patterns of thought into relief against the backdrop of the past.  To recognize our difference from the other is to see ourselves a little more clearly.

And so Illich is our guide on this particular foray into the past and below are some observations that touch on the end or goal of reading, the relationship between reading/learning and character, and the correlation between new forms of reading and new understandings of the self:

  • Omnium expetendorum prima est sapentia.  ‘Of all things to be sought, the first is wisdom.’  This is how Jerome Taylor translates the lead sentence of the Didascalicon of Hugh of Saint Victor, written around 1128.” (7)
  • “Hugh’s writings are drenched in Augustine.  He lived in a community that followed Augustine’s rule.  He read, reread, and copied the texts of his master.  Reading and writing were for him two almost indistinguishable sides of the same studium.” (9)
  • “As with Augustine, wisdom was for Hugh not something but someone.  Wisdom in the Augustinian tradition is the second person of the Trinity, Christ . . . . The wisdom Hugh seeks is Christ himself.  Learning and, specifically, reading, are both simply forms of a search for Christ the Remedy, Christ the Example and Form which fallen humanity, which has lost it, hopes to recover.  The need of fallen humanity for reunion with wisdom is central to Hugh’s thought.  This makes the concept of remedium, remedy or medicine, crucial for an understanding of Hugh.”  (10)
  • “Hugh, by developing the concept of remedium, provides for the twentieth-century thinker a unique way to address the issue of technique or technology.  Reading, as Hugh perceives and interprets it, is an ontologically remedial technique.  I intend to explore it as such.  I analyze what Hugh has to say about the techniques used in reading in order to explore the role that alphabetic technology played around 1130 in the shaping of these techniques.”  (11)
  • “I am here concerned primarily with ‘alphabetic technology’ which interacts in a unique, epoch-specific way around 1130 with the northwest European symbolic universe, and how changes in world perception in turn facilitated and oriented the choice of technologies.  In taking this approach to the alphabet as a technology I am indebted to Walter Ong, S. J., Orality and Literacy . . .”  (11, footnote 11)
  • “Authorities, in this now obsolete sense, are sentences which created precedents and defined reality . . . The sentence states an obvious truth precisely because it has been disembedded from the discourse of this or that particular author; it had become a free-floating statement.  As such a verbal institution, the auctorias [sentence worthy of repetition] quoted by Hugh became an exemplary testimony to untouchable tradition.”  (13)
  • “. . . the thought of an ultimate goal of all readings is not meaningful to us.  Even less is there any idea that such a goal could motivate or ’cause’ our action whenever we open a book.  We are steeped in the spirit of engineering and think of the trigger as the cause of a process.  We do not think of the heart as the cause of the bullet’s trajectory . . . . Even more thoroughly, the idea of one first or primary Final Cause, one ultimate motivating reason of all desires that are hidden in the nature of the stone or of the plant or of the reader, has become foreign to our century.  ‘End stage’ in the twentieth-century mental universe connotes death.  Entropy is our ultimate destiny. We experience reality as monocausal.  We know only efficient causes. ”  (13-14)
  • “Studies pursued in a twelfth-century cloister challenged the student’s heart and sense even more than his stamina and brains.  Study did not refer to a liminal epoch of life, as it usually does in modern times, when we say that someone ‘is still a student.’  They encompassed the person’s daily and lifelong routine, his social status, and his symbolic function.” (14-15)
  • “The studium legendi forms the whole monk and reading will become perfect as the monk himself strives for, and finally reaches, perfection.

The beginning of discipline is humility . . . and for the reader there are three lessons taught by humility that are particularly important:  First, that he hold no knowledge or writing whatsoever in contempt.  Second, that he not blush to learn from any man.  Third, that when he as attained learning himself, he not look down upon anyone else.”  (15-16)

  • “The reader is one who has made himself into an exile in order to concentrate his entire attention and desire on wisdom, which thus becomes the hoped-for home.” (17)
  • “That which we mean today when, in ordinary conversation, we speak of the ‘self’ or the ‘individual,’ is one of the great discoveries of the twelfth century . . . .  A social reality in which our kind of self is taken for granted constitutes an eccentricity among cultures . . . .  [Hugh] wants the reader to face the page so that  by the light of wisdom he shall discover his self in the mirror of the parchment.  In the page the reader will acknowledge himself not in the way others see him or by the titles or nicknames by which they call him, but by knowing himself by sight.”  (22-23)
  • “With the spirit of self-definition, estrangement acquires a new positive meaning.  Hugh’s call away from the ‘sweetness of one’s native soil’ and to a journey of self-discovery is but one instance of the new ethos . . . . [that] addresses people at all levels of the feudal hierarchy to leave the common mind-set of the neighborhood, within which identity comes from the way others have named me and treat me, and to discover their selves in the loneliness of the long road . . . . Hugh’s insistence on the need that the scholar be an exile-in-spirit echoes this mood.”  (23)
  • “I am not suggesting that the ‘modern self’ is born in the twelfth century, nor that the self which here emerges does not have a long ancestry.  We today think of each other as people with frontiers.  Our personalities are as detached from each other as are our bodies.  Existence in an inner distance from the community, which the pilgrim who set out to Santiago or the pupil who studied the Didascalicon had to discover on their own, is for us a social reality, something so obvious that we would not think of wishing it away.  We were born into a world of exiles . . . . This existential frontier is of the essence for a person who wants to fit into our kind of world.  Once it has shaped a child’s mental topology, that being will forever be a foreigner in all ‘worlds’ except those integrated by exiles like himself.”
  • “What I want to stress here is a special correspondence between the emergence of selfhood understood as a person and the emergence of ‘the’ text from the page.  Hugh directs his reader to a foreign land.  But he does not ask him to leave his family and accustomed landscape to move on the road from place toward Jerusalem or Santiago.  Rather he demands that he exile himself to start on a pilgrimage that leads through the pages of a book.  He speaks of the Ultimate which should attract the pilgrim, not as the celestial city for pilgrims of the staff, but as the form of Supreme Goodness which motivates the pilgrims of the pen.  He points out that on this road the reader is on his way into the light which will reveal his own self to him.”

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