Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Jewish Thought: Man (Part V) - The Pursuits of the Intellect

Rav Leibowitz

In the previous posts we discussed man’s unique intellectual faculties and explored man’s unique free will, which is itself a result of man’s capability to think abstractly.  We noted that man’s free will empowers (and obligates) him to decide where to invest his intellectual abilities.  We also suggested that man’s elevated position in creation demands that he choose to use his mind for pursuits that transcend those shared with the animal world.

We will now to turn to determining where to invest his intellect.  What is man to do with his mind and his unique intellectual faculties?  What field of study and what life pursuits are most fitting for the attention of man’s mind?  

The Pursuit of Truth
The pursuit of wisdom is the process of clarifying “truth.”  But what is “truth?”  Truth – ultimate truth – is related to perception.  When one is in possession of truth, he has achieved and acquired the correct perception of reality. 

Man, who is able to transcend the practical realm and operate on an abstract theoretical level, is not forced to accept superficial – and false – perspectives of reality.  He can, and he should, probe the world around him in order to uncover deeper – truer – perceptions of reality.  This process of clarifying reality perforce includes distinguishing between what is real and true and what is falsehood and only superficially true.  Through this process, man slowly acquires a clearer and clearer perception of reality.  This is the path to the ultimate acquisition of truth, and one of the most significant utilization of the mind, as the Rambam writes,

Intellect [means] to form in his mind the truth of reality to the best of his ability and to understand all that he can possible grasp (Rambam, Introduction to Commentary on the Mishna)

If the greatest intellectual pursuit that man can undertake with his mind is the proper perception of reality, where does man begin?  Which fields of study are the most fitting for perceiving reality and acquiring truth? 

To clarify the truth of reality, man must seek to understand the world around him.  On the most basic level this is attained by gaining greater knowledge of the physical world.  This sharpens man’s perception of reality, at least as it is manifest in the physical world.  The abstract mind assists man in this pursuit, as he is able to not only consider what he senses through his sight, hearing, touch, etc., but also allows him to contemplate deeper realities, ones that are not always perceptible to basic human senses. 

The other forms of intellect in man that we identified earlier must also be utilized to clarify truth.  For example, man’s intellect that is able to distinguish between right and wrong, justice and injustice, kindness and cruelty must be utilized in the pursuit of moral wisdom.  Man must identify positive character traits and develop disdain for negative behavior. 

The same is true in the realm of emotional intelligence.  Man must study the science of emotions, to learn how to understand others and to gain greater insight into human emotions.  

Knowledge of the Creator
All of the above mentioned pursuits are crucial for understanding the truths of our world and human existence.  But if man is charged to use his intellect to gain a truthful perception of reality, so then the ultimate goal must be to understand and perceive the greatest reality that exists.  Which is, the source of all reality – the Creator.  Using his free will, man must chose to focus his intellectual faculties to attempt to understand the Creator and His ways.  This knowledge of the Divine is mankind’s greatest intellectual pursuit. 

Use of the intellect in pursuit of “knowledge of the Divine” distinguishes man from the rest of creation and earns him his most exalted position in the hierarchy of creation.  Indeed, Rambam tells us that it is only an abstract – human – mind that can begin to form intellectual conceptions of the divine.

Intellect is what distinguishes mankind from the other species of living beings.  For man is an intellectual being.  And the meaning of intellect is the ability to form in the mind concepts and ideas… The most elevated intellectual conception is when man forms in his mind the unity [or uniqueness] of God, and other related divine knowledge.  Indeed, all other wisdom is only to develop the mind to be able to grasp knowledge of God.

When man expresses his free will and chooses to apply his abstract thinking in pursuit of divine knowledge – be it directly, or through studying that various preparatory fields that facilitate this knowledge – he is properly utilizing his elevated capabilities and assumes his exalted position in the hierarchy of creation.  He has transcended the practical and the instinctive, and is engaged with pursuit of a deeper understanding of life and a truer perception of reality.   

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