What’s Inquiry For? Reflections on Literary Representations of the Philosophical Quest
The inquirer—the seeker of truth, the lover of wisdom—has chosen a seemingly solitary and onerous path, one that demands far more of the individual than is humanly possible. The inquirer is left with an unquenchable thirst, a desire to encounter truth in its purest form, though much of the world remains unintelligible to us. In addition, there is the demand for intellectual humility, to not stake a claim to some truth until there is sufficient reason for doing so. Thus, the inquirer vacillates between these extremes of knowledge, all the while being thrust into the real world, where she must conduct an ordinary life and tend to material needs. Literary representations of this quest provide an opportunity to clarify and reconcile these conflicting demands.
In C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, he provides an allegorical vision of heaven and hell and the choice that lies between them. The story begins in hell, a gray and dreary place, in which the citizens are tortured not by some external force but by their own quarrelsome and selfish egos. The neighborhood expands infinitely away, as people decide to build new homes on the outskirts of town, farther and farther away from the community center, in order to escape their unfriendly neighbors. Consequently, they move far away from the bus station that provides their only way of leaving this miserable realm. A few, however, haphazardly venture onto this bus, soon finding themselves touring the heavenly realm which stands in stark contrast to the gray home they know.
Once arrived, most of the human beings quickly wish for a return to their known gray world, finding that they are nothing more than ghosts in this other realm, “man-shaped stains on the brightness of that air.”[i] Compared to the transparent, intangible bodies of the humans, the landscape in heaven has a physical thickness and hardness that they cannot endure, making it difficult for them to even walk on the grass, their bodies unable to act on this world. This is meant to represent the concrete manifestation of spiritual truth and goodness as a more complete and higher reality than the ephemeral nature of material existence. Lewis distinguishes between these two realities, “Hell is a state of mind… And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind—is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly.”[ii]
The entirety of The Great Divorce is meant to counter the idea of spiritual unity, the idea that all roads lead to the same place in the end. Rather, Lewis claims, “Good, as it ripens, becomes continually more different not only from evil but from other good.”[iii] Hence, the physical description of the heavenly landscape—its thickness, its glaring substance compared to the humans—illustrates how goodness naturally departs from and distinguishes itself from evil, not just in thought, but in concrete reality. For Lewis, it is no wonder why earthly good and evil cannot penetrate into this realm: “Here is joy that cannot be shaken. Our light can swallow up your darkness; but your darkness cannot now infect our light.”[iv]
The story consists of a series of encounters between these ghostly humans and Bright Spirits—humans that have been sanctified and changed into heavenly beings. In reading the various interactions between the ghosts and heavenly creatures, the reader is made keenly aware of the folly of the ghosts who—in the face of open invitations to leave behind their fleeting, unsatisfactory lives in hell and join in the joy of heaven—cling only more tightly to their lives and turnabout, sprinting away from life, life of the highest reality, back to the bus.
One particular interaction illustrates the inquirer’s challenge, the choice between staying and returning. We are introduced to a ghostly father’s discussion with his now heavenly son. It is made obvious that the two frequently argued about philosophy and religion, with the father despairing that his son became too “narrow-minded” toward the end of his life. Instead, the father hails the virtues of liberal theology, rejecting concrete belief in heaven and hell and objective truths about the nature of God, in general. The boy remarks of their unauthentic quest to understand divine reality, “We didn’t want the other to be true. We were afraid of crude salvationism, afraid of a breach with the spirit of the age, afraid of ridicule, afraid (above all) of real spiritual fears and hopes.”[v] Instead, they found solace in broad visions of spiritual unity—all the glory of divinity, without the consequence, the attainment of goodness without surrendering what is obviously unfit for this realm.
When the son invites his father to join him—declaring that none of their philosophical musings are any longer of importance, as truth now stands before them—he is met with resistance. The father insists that he cannot withstand a heaven that does not offer “an atmosphere of free inquiry” and a “sphere of usefulness” for his intellectual talents.[vi] To this the son replies, “No atmosphere of inquiry, for I bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.”[vii] Yet, the father continuously praises “the free wind of inquiry”—the reluctance to accept a final answer—as an intellectual virtue. In fact, he describes such stagnation as “soul-destroying.”[viii] The son responds, “You think that, because hitherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect. I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched.”[ix]
Again, the reader is confronted with the folly of a man who would describe the attainment of truth, as it lies directly before him, an invitation to experience life of the highest manifestation, as “soul-destroying.” Clearly, the father prefers his own conception of heaven, his own sense of what it ought to be like, to the one that lies open before him. In doing so, the father makes an idol of inquiry itself, setting it as the final end for the intellect. Thus, inquiry is an endless journey, in which the inquirer is travelling with no destination, or at least, none that can be tasted. Lewis later despairs of such idolatry, “There have been men before now who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God Himself… as if the good Lord has nothing to do but exist!”[x] Inquiry is diminished to a mere intellectual pleasure, sought by its practitioners for its own sake, rather than for the outcome. Ironically, the “free wind of inquiry,” when taken to such extreme, praises intellectual humility for its careful deliberation of truth, yet ends up abandoning certain truth altogether. For Lewis, it is clear that truth itself, and not the act of inquiry, must remain the real end of the philosopher’s quest, though he is modest about human ability to attain this truth through the power of their own intellects alone.
In contrast to Lewis’ portrait of an encounter with absolute truth and eternal reality, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse illustrates a case for inquiry that is wedded to the subjective experiences of ordinary life. She paints an image of the pitiful and unhappy philosopher, Mr. Ramsay, a man whose intellectual calling becomes a curse. His quest to understand and advance the knowledge of humankind isolates him from his fellows, most especially his family. As Woolf describes his calling, “It was his power, his gift, suddenly to shed all superfluities… so to stand on his little ledge facing the dark of human ignorance, how we know nothing and the sea eats away the ground we stand on—that was his fate, his gift.”[xi] Thus, he is compelled to consider all else mere triviality; he spends his days reducing all of life to “angular essences,” unable to appreciate lived experience as it is.[xii]
Woolf metaphorically describes Mr. Ramsay’s quest for knowledge as a trek through the alphabet, A to Z. Mr. Ramsay finds himself stuck at Q, a tremendous feat, as few minds are capable of achieving this. Yet, he stakes his whole life upon reaching R. What, then, would stop him from relentlessly seeking T? Mr. Ramsay is caught in a vicious cycle, called to advance human knowledge, while struck by the haunting reality that pure truth would never be his to taste. Hence, when facing this ledge of human ignorance, he is forced to turn away, finding “consolation in trifles” and “disposed to slur that comfort over, to deprecate it as if to be caught happy in a world of misery was for an honest man the most despicable of crimes.”[xiii] Hence, he allows his mental obligation to overshadow all other parts of his life, including his relationships, as this quest was not an easily accompanied one.
His sense of duty makes him a lousy father, husband, and friend. The weight of human knowledge bears down on him, so that he demands the praise and pity of others for his intellectual service to humankind. Likewise, his family is wrought with a mixture of feelings towards him—resentment, pity, frustration, and sorrow. Two of his children refer to him at times as a “tyrant,” as he so strongly imposes his will and his burden onto others. All secretly conspire that he surrender this weight, “Who will not secretly rejoice when the hero puts his armour off, and halts by the window and gazes at his wife and son… who will blame him if he does homage to the beauty of the world?”[xiv]
Lily Briscoe, a guest of the family and a strong-willed woman—who refuses to bestow upon Mr. Ramsay the praise and pity he craves—is both amused and bothered by his tendency to dismiss the ordinary pleasures of life. She reflects, “It was a disguise; it was the refuge of a man afraid to own his own feelings, who could not say, This is what I like—this is what I am…why so brave a man in thought should be so timid in life.”[xv] Moreover, Lily suspects that Mr. Ramsay has doubts about his quest, whether there is a truth to be found at all and whether it is worth the time he gives to it.[xvi] Thus, Mr. Ramsay is revealed not as a hero, but as a coward, a fool who exchanges the life before him for a futile quest for truth, knowledge laid bare to human eyes.
Mr. Ramsay’s triumph is revealed in the last scenes of the book, when he is snapped back to the reality of his life. Lily Briscoe sees this change when, in complimenting his boots so as to avoid acknowledging his need for pity, “There was that sudden revivification, that sudden flare (when she praised his boots), that sudden recovery of vitality and interest in ordinary human things.”[xvii] In this scene, Mr. Ramsay is filled with color, life, and personality. He suddenly drops his austerity, his solemnity, and unabashedly leads his children away on a trip to the lighthouse. Mr. Ramsay’s ultimate victory is described as the boat nears the lighthouse shore, “He rose and stood tall, for all the world, James thought, as if he were saying, ‘There is no God’.”[xviii] In this declaration, Mr. Ramsay reclaims the life he had stowed away; it seems that, in denying a transcendent reality, the reality of his own life becomes all the more acute. Such a bucking off of his intellectual duty is shown to be necessary for him to boldly declare his interest in “ordinary human things,” what he before dismissed as mere triviality.
Unlike the conclusion Lewis illustrates—that “Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth”[xix]—Woolf seems to imply that Mr. Ramsay is better off admitting that his philosophical quest is just as trivial as all other aspects of his life. He then finds relief in letting go of R, the symbolic attainment of some absolute truth, instead reveling in the practice of philosophy itself. He is allowed to admit that he enjoys “talking nonsense” with the students at his school, inquiries for the sake of themselves. This allows him to elevate his appreciation for other ordinary things and to reclaim what he likes and who he is.
Of course, an obvious difference between these two representations is the realm in which each character is placed. The ghostly father in Lewis’ tale has shed his earthly limitations and is face-to-face with the choice for truth, though he ultimately rejects it. Lewis situates this narrative inside the assumption that there is an ultimate truth, a higher reality, in order to make sense of the act of faith to stay in the heavenly realm that lies before each human ghost. In assuming this, Lewis posits, “I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself.”[xx] There is a sense that this truth is already in our grasp, that the Christian call to faith Lewis allegorizes already puts us face-to-face with that higher reality.
Though Woolf flirts with the opposite assumption, that “there is no God” as Mr. Ramsay implies, there is a mystical quality to her writing. She illustrates the quest to find meaning and answers throughout the book, personified as the sleeper who is drawn from bed to the beach in the middle of the night to find “an answer to his doubts, a sharer of his solitude.”[xxi] Several contrasting answers are provided, both that the sleeper finds no image that brings “the night to order” and makes “the world reflect the compass of the soul” and the opposite—that the landscape mirrors the minds of men, assembling “outwardly the scattered parts of the vision within.”[xxii] Ultimately, she seems to conclude that what is seen in nature is but “a reflection in a mirror… which forms in quiescence when the nobler powers sleep beneath.”[xxiii] Thus, the order and truth one derives from nature are but projections, and when not seen as thus, can stifle the “nobler powers,” life unhampered. As Woolf says of Lily Briscoe’s attempt to find the meaning of life, “The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.”[xxiv]
Therefore, to release the power of these moments, one must re-frame the search for “the great revelation,” which might overshadow them, as was the case for Mr. Ramsay. Woolf is not issuing a rejection of truth altogether. Rather, she reflects on the futility of that human instinct: “the extraordinary stimulus to range hither and thither in search of some absolute good, some crystal of intensity, remote from the known pleasures and familiar virtues, something alien to the processes of domestic life.”[xxv] For her, it is not knowledge laid bare that we ought to seek, but knowledge wrapped in the experience of ordinary life, for she assumes it impossible “that we should ever compose from [the] fragments a perfect whole or read in the littered pieces the clear words of truth.”[xxvi]
How, then, shall inquiry proceed, in light of these two portraits of the human quest for knowledge? The philosopher is tasked with a tricky balance: to embrace humility and fuel relentless curiosity, to live steadfastly and unreservedly on imperfect knowledge, and when faced with truth, to cast off what is transient and drink at the water of life, that which she was always aiming towards. It is this tension between abstract, objective truth and embodied, subjective truth that we must here contend with.
In response to the philosopher’s trilemma, Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith, described in Fear and Trembling, provides us a conciliatory image of one who has succeeded in this quest. Like the philosopher’s singular pursuit for truth, the knight “has the strength to concentrate the whole of his life’s content and the meaning of reality into a single wish.”[xxvii] For him, this wish is expressed as a movement of faith.
The knight embraces all aspects of what is expected of the inquirer: “the single individual now sets himself apart as the particular above the universal”[xxviii] and is “at every moment making the movement of infinity,” yet “to him finitude tastes just as good as to one who has never known anything higher.”[xxix] The infinite to him is not something “remote from the know pleasures and familiar virtues” of domestic life. Instead, he “belongs altogether to the world,” the finite, and receives it fully, finding the utmost joy in what is familiar to ordinary life, expressing the “sublime in the pedestrian absolutely.”[xxx] Having tasted the absolute, the finite tastes just as sweet to him. The knight is able to make the movement of resignation to the infinite, much like Mr. Ramsay's desire to sheds all the superfluities of his life in sole pursuit of truth. Only through faith, however, is the finite a “new creation,” one gifted to him not through his own strength, but on the “strength of the absurd.” Therefore, he can fully embrace both the infinite and the finite, as the former has become the source of the latter.
We can examine this movement of infinity through Abraham, Kierkegaard’s exemplar of faith. When God commands Abraham to take his beloved son Isaac to be sacrificed at a mountain in Moriah, he did so not begrudgingly or sorrowfully, for he would have forevermore resented God for asking him to sacrifice what was most precious to him. Furthermore, we cannot think of him as a murderer, for he loved his son more than any other parent, as Isaac was a fulfillment of God’s promise to make him the “father of many nations.” When Abraham tells Isaac, “God Himself will provide a lamb for the burnt offering,” we must understand this act of faith as the movement through which he receives Isaac again, on the strength of God, not his own calculation. As Kierkegaard states, “Through faith Abraham did not renounce his claim on Isaac, through faith he received Isaac.”[xxxi]
Kierkegaard contrasts Abraham’s faith with his own: “I do not burden God with my petty cares, details don’t concern me, I gaze only upon my love and keep its virginal flame pure and clear; faith is convinced that God troubles himself about the smallest thing.”[xxxii] Kierkegaard’s own passionate love for God is “incommensurate with the whole of reality.”[xxxiii] That is, he makes a movement of “infinite resignation,” through which his passion leads him to forsake his temporal interests for the sake of the singular pursuit of divine love. Yet, Abraham is able to go beyond this resignation and receive back his interest in the finite—his beloved son—due to his faith that God concerns Himself with that interest, as He made a covenant with Abraham to do. Kierkegaard explains, “It takes a purely human courage to renounce the whole of temporality in order to win eternity… but it takes a paradoxical and humble courage then to grasp the whole of temporality on the strength of the absurd, and that courage is the courage of faith.”[xxxiv]
How can a quest of inquiry conclude in a movement of faith, which is often portrayed as its opposite? The quest for truth is, after all, a quest to encounter the infinite, the universal, reality in its fullest. Even Lewis’ depiction of a direct encounter with absolute truth suggests that the faith to stay in heaven and participate in that reality is of far more importance than are our human attempts to grasp that truth with the abstract intellect alone. Thus, both faith and inquiry seem to aim at the same ends, a particular relation of the individual to the infinite. To know the truth—to “taste it like honey and be embraced by it,” to receive back from it, as Abraham did—is clearly a higher manifestation of the philosopher’s quest than is to merely know of truth—that is, to have mere propositional knowledge of reality. As Kierkegaard elsewhere explains in his spiritual writings, “Truth is not a sum of statements, not a definition, not a system of concepts, but a life… truth is not a matter of knowing this or that but of being in the truth.”[xxxv] Thus, it seems impossible that one could “go beyond” the accomplishment of Abraham’s faith, a truly enigmatic expression of the universal in the finite world of daily life.
Like Kierkegaard, however, this movement of faith can only remain for us an impenetrable mystery. We cannot understand the knight of faith; we can only admire him. Yet, his task is “always enough for a human lifetime,” for the knight will always say, “I’m by no means standing still in my love, for I have my life in it.”[xxxvi] If the task of the philosopher was simply for propositional knowledge, he would “never have time to make the movement, he [would] be forever running errands in life; never enter the eternal.”[xxxvii] Instead, knowledge must be accompanied by passion, the “authentically human factor,” that personal relation to the absolute.[xxxviii] As Kierkegaard explains, “If I knew where such a knight of faith lived I would journey to him on foot, for this marvel concerns me absolutely…I would consider myself maintained for life and divide my time between looking at him and practicing the movements myself.”[xxxix] Perhaps for us, too, the knight of faith warrants our attention and our imitation, as he so gracefully integrates the infinite and the finite, a union for which the philosopher so desperately thirsts.
[i] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing, 1946), 27. [ii] Ibid., 69. [iii] Ibid., 6. [iv] Ibid., 118. [v] Ibid., 41. [vi] Ibid., 43. [vii] Ibid., 43. [viii] Ibid., 43. [ix] Ibid., 43. [x] Ibid., 71. [xi] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 1981), 44. [xii] Ibid., 23. [xiii] Ibid., 44. [xiv] Ibid., 36. [xv] Ibid., 45. [xvi] Ibid., 155. [xvii] Ibid., 156. [xviii] Ibid., 207. [xix] Lewis, 44. [xx] Ibid., 7. [xxi] Woolf, 128. [xxii] Ibid., 128, 132. [xxiii] Lewis, 134. [xxiv] Ibid., 161. [xxv] Woolf, 132. [xxvi] Ibid., 128. [xxvii] Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, trans. Alastair Hannay (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 72. [xxviii] Ibid., 84. [xxix] Ibid., 69-70. [xxx] Ibid., 70. [xxxi] Ibid., 77. [xxxii] Ibid., 64. [xxxiii] Ibid., 63. [xxxiv] Ibid., 77. [xxxv] Søren Kierkegaard. Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, ed. Charles E. Moore (Farmington, PA: Plough Publishing, 2007), 52-53. [xxxvi] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 147. [xxxvii] Ibid., 72. [xxxviii] Ibid., 145. [xxxix] Ibid., 68.