Blindness to what is self-evident to us

A fascinating section from De doctrina cristiana 

 Now, no one is so egregiously silly as to ask, How do you know that a life of unchangeable wisdom is preferable to one of change?For that very truth about which he asks, how I know it? Is unchangeably fixed in the minds of all men, and presented to their common contemplation. And the man who does not see it is like a blind man in the sun, whom it profits nothing that the splendor of its light, so clear and so near, is poured into his very eye-balls. The man, on the other hand, who sees, but shrinks from this truth, is weak in his mental vision from dwelling long among the shadows of the flesh. And thus men are driven back from their native land by the contrary blasts of evil habits, and pursue lower and less valuable objects in preference to that which they own to be more excellent and more worthy.

And so Augustine gives an account of how something is both self-evident, even self-evident to us, and yet is not seen or is willfully overlooked. The self-evident thus has a condition placed on its evidence, and it appears to have a moral component to it. Augustine identifies two sorts of persons who fail to see what is self-evident to them:

1.) The “blind”

2.) Those who see but shrink from truth.

The first group are spoken of only through the metaphor of blindness which is never explained, but given that Augustine will draw conclusion that we need a moral purification to see the self-evident, he cannot be speaking of the uneducated or mentally deficient. It’s not a moral impediment that keeps a 18-month-old from seeing the superiority of unchangeable to changeable wisdom. These charges of “blindness” and “shrinking from truth” are therefore naming the same deficiency at different stages of corruption: the blindness is simply the final stage of the weakness of mental vision that is too attached to “the shadows of the flesh”.

Shadows of the flesh. The reference to Plato’s cave in unmistakable, though it is here tied to the Hebraism of “flesh”, i.e. man so far as his life is corruptible and pointless, characterized by the hebel or vanity of Ecclesiastes or the Psalms. In a single phrase, Augustine has fused together the dark view of the mass of humanity given in both the Republic and in the Wisdom books.  And it is in this context that it makes sense to speak of the blindness to the self-evident. We contemporary persons do not share this Platonic-Hebraic view of the context in which reason finds itself, but work from a more “optimistic” worldview. We still hang onto the Enlightenment ideal that if something is self-evident, or  even reasonable enough, that all sides will spontaneously accept it. This is why, inter alia, that we think a plurality of beliefs is evidence for plurality of truths, or why we think we can critique the natural law or theology by saying that if they were true they would be more persuasive (this argument is given a lot, especially by persons with very high-IQ’s), or why we think that education can consist in simply giving information in the absence of any attempt to form a good human being.   Neither Plato nor Koheleth would ever think that actually convincing someone is simply a matter of trying to find the right premise as leverage against their beliefs.

But where does this leave us? Sadly, it leaves some Joe Smith in the position of having the truth, and yet being surrounded by persons much more intelligent and influential than he is, all of whom are either ignoring him, or treating him as crazy, or perhaps even writing lengthy refutations of his beliefs that he cannot ever hope to know enough to refute. When the Psalms lament the prosperity of the wicked, one such prosperity is clearly intellectual, scholarly, and argumentative prosperity: As with a sword in my bones, mine enemies reproach me; while they say daily unto me, ‘Where is thy God’? (Ps. 42, cf. also 79, 115) This idea that I will always conquer if I have the truth, or that the success of the truth is simply a matter of finding the correct, updated formulation of it is as naive as thinking (along with the accusers of Job) that a belief in the true God will always preserve me from disease. We all see that it is wrong to think that sickness and disease are signs of separation from God, but we somehow think that different rules should apply on the intellectual plane, and that our connection to the intellectual truth should always preserve us from being crushed intellectually by our enemies. It doesn’t.  It is altogether possible, and even often the case, that the enemies that say daily to me ‘where is thy God’ have all read the scriptures in their original languages, have exhaustively cataloged the textual variations in it, have compiled a line of objections to revealed and natural theology that I could not hope to answer after twenty years of study, and who could make anything I believe look terribly naive and silly.

So again, where does this leave me? It does seem to require that if by “reason” I mean an intellectual power taken in opposition to a moral formation (which is usually how we take it), then reason is not capable of grounding itself since it cannot even see those things that are self-evident to it. Further, the “moral formation” we are speaking of is not indifferent to theism.


  1. thenyssan said,

    March 2, 2013 at 11:49 am

    I don’t mean to short-circuit a really awesome post (I love that section of DDC), but here goes.

    It leaves us needing a Church (intoned with a universe-shaking reverb).

  2. RP said,

    March 3, 2013 at 11:02 am

    Of one joe smith of long ago, a manual laborer (no PhD), who claimed some knowledge of the truth, they said, “He hath a devil and is mad.”

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