Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Lessons of the masters

The French expression, maître à penser, has no English equivalent. A 'thinking master' is what I have always wanted and never found. Perhaps wisdom is unstable and only exists fleetingly in an action here or a thought there. A strange thing, the desire for discipleship (to be a disciple - not to have them). It may reveal deep psychological flaws, but I think not. In my case it reflects simply a combination of a desire to know and a certain laziness. (Why should I do all the work?)

Some years ago, George Steiner gave a series of lectures (which became a book*) on the topic of masters and disciples. Most of the relationships he describes end badly, by the way, not unlike love affairs.

The lessons I have learned from my hoped-for masters have pretty well all been negative, and the thinkers I have flirted with have all been seriously flawed in one way or another. Arts and humanities-oriented writers and scholars are too often ignorant or (worse) scornful of scientific knowledge. Scientists and mathematicians, on the other hand, are often amazingly uncritical in non-scientific areas, and especially in social and political contexts.

It is not surprising, perhaps, that politics works as it does, catering to the lowest common denominator, that legislators lack vision or that government debt is spiraling out of control in so many jurisdictions.

But I continue to be amazed when intellectuals - as happens all too often - align themselves with religions or discredited ideologies - the desire for discipleship trumping the desire for truth.

* Lessons of the masters (Harvard University Press, 2003).