Monday, April 13, 2015

Jewish Thought: Man (Part VI) - Living Knowledge

Rav Leibowitz

We have concluded that man must use his free will to focus his intellectual energies on clarifying truth and sharpening his perception of reality.  We identified divine knowledge as the greatest means for achieving a clear perception of the reality.  However, there is another manifestation of free will that is necessary for man to accomplish his goal of transcending the animal world and truly embodying his exalted nature.  That is, man is not only charged to choose where to invest his mind, but must also choose to live in accordance with the knowledge and wisdom he has acquired.  Free will was granted so that man could choose to live that which he has learned.[1]

This is first and foremost in regards to man’s ability to think abstractly.  We have already mentioned a number of fields where abstract thinking empowers man to acquire highly sophisticated perspectives and uncover great truths.  But man must also utilize his abstract thinking in his actual behavior.  Take for example, man’s ability to use his abstract thinking to consider the results of an act before it is executed.  This intellectual ability cannot simply remain a theoretic rumination.  Man must also act in line with the projected outcome - or more often, refrain from acting considering the projected outcome.  Man’s mind must not simply be a machine that is able to consider the consequences of his behavior before he acts.  Rather he must actually weigh his actions before he acts, and then to act in accordance.[2]   If man fails to do so, then he is not fully utilizing his elevated capabilities, as he is not living his knowledge.

The need to live one’s knowledge is also applicable in terms of the fields of study that man pursues with his sophisticated abstract mind.  Take for example man’s acquired knowledge of the Divine, which we discussed earlier.  If man is successful in grasping knowledge of God, he is then required to live his life in accordance with that knowledge.  For our current discussion, we need not address the details of what this entails.  For however we define “living in accordance with divine knowledge” – whether it means daily acknowledgment of God’s presence through prayer, or if it means being honest in business dealing due to a recognition of a divinely decreed morality or out of a belief in divine providence in the realm of one’s livelihood – the point is that it cannot be knowledge that remains theoretical and abstract.  That knowledge of the Divine must be implemented and find concrete expression in man’s life.

The same principle holds true in the other realms as well.  Take man’s pursuit of emotional wisdom.  Man’s emotional intelligence can be utilized to acquire emotional wisdom.  But in addition, man must then make free willed decisions to implement that acquired wisdom.  Hence, man does not only learn to identify emotions and understand the influence they exert in human interactions.  But he must also train himself to relate to emotions.  Towards himself, man must gain the ability to modulate his emotions.  He must exercise control over them – knowing when they are to be expressed, and when to be suppressed.  Towards others, his emotional sensibilities must teach him to relate to others and value their feelings.  He must not only know how to make others happy, how to broadcasts feelings of disappointment, etc., but he must also implement these emotional interactions for the betterment of the other and his relationship with them.    

The use of free will to make life-affecting decisions is also to be manifest in the realm of moral intelligence.  The pursuit of moral truth is laudable, but it does not stand alone.  After properly acquiring moral knowledge, man must engage his free will to then make moral decisions - choose right over wrong, choose justice over injustice, and choose kindness over cruelty.

Man’s intellectual faculty and study of morality must also be utilized to develop his character and traits.  Methodically, man must use his free will to transform his own character to be in line with the moral wisdom he has acquired.  He must decide to overcome his natural tendency to follow the whims of his instincts, and instead make conscious choices about the nature of his character.

With a developed moral intellect, man gains a perspective that teaches him to appreciate refined behavior and manners.[3] He recognizes the value of living a life of sympathy, patience, mercy, kindheartedness, and many other positive traits, for he recognizes their contribution to the betterment of life and their utilitarian value for his immediate surroundings and society at large.  It is man’s intellectual faculty that leads him to distance boorish actions, to improve his interpersonal behavior, and strengthen his compassion and caring for others.

Another area where man’s developed intellect is apparent is in his distancing of arrogance and self-centeredness.  When an individual does not internalize moral wisdom he is arrogant and boastful, dismissive of those he deems to be beneath him.  However, when man properly chooses to live an elevated moral existence his perceptions of reality are sharper.  He is able to view his achievements in a proper light and realizes that his abilities do not entitle him, but rather obligate him to improve the world around him.  Such a man maintains a healthy level of self-confidence as he strikes a balance between pride and humility. 

In summation, we see that man’s elevated capability is his intellect and he must utilize it in pursuit of truth.  However, it is not enough to simply utilize his intellect for study and the acquisition of knowledge.  Beyond this, man must also use his free will to make life-affecting decisions based on his acquired knowledge.  Man’s elevated mind does not simply empower him to acquire knowledge, but also charges him to make decisions and live in accordance with his acquired knowledge.  He must not only distinguishing between right and wrong, but also choose right from wrong.  It is not enough for him to clarify moral truths, he must also live by moral truths.  Man must not suffice with engaging in elevated thought, but must also live an elevated life.

[1] To clarify: Man, as an inherently elevated creation is largely defined by his mind.  His unique intellectual faculties enable abstract thinking, provide a number of uniquely human intelligences, such as emotional and moral intelligence, and equip man with free will.  We are now adding that using his free will must also make life decisions that are in consonance with his acquired wisdom. 

[2] “Who is wise, he that can see that which will transpire [lit: be born]” (Avos 2, 9).  The Talmud in tractate Moed Katan 5a specifically praises one who constantly considers and calculates his ways, stating that such a person deserves God’s salvation.  R. Saadiah Gaon (10th century, Iraq) writes in Emunos ve-Deos, Section 10 that this foresight is a defining characteristic of mankind.

[3] Manners and etiquette certainly depend on one’s society and its accepted norms.  What is deemed appropriate in one culture can be viewed as ill-mannered in another.  Yet, man’s intellect first equips him with the sensitivity to a mannered life and enables him to perceive what the society he finds himself in considers proper.  He then is able to use his intellect to determine if and how he should align his behavior with those ideals.   

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