For this blog, I’m sorry to see Jeremy go (though as a viewer it was fun to watch a dramatic blindside). Jeremy often had interesting things to say, and he’s once again a big part of my blog entry. Mike noted that Jeremy has a lot of depth, yet would also do just about anything to win the final prize. Which reminded me of an argument made by some philosophers:
Wise people are not always pure people.
This is the theory that some people become wise because they understand life from the inside. Which means sometimes doing bad things. Things that have hurt others or themselves. As the songwriter/poet Leonard Cohen wrote: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
In contrast, Plato claims in Republic that only those who have always been pure of heart can be truly wise: “A vicious person would never know himself or a virtuous one, whereas a naturally virtuous person, when educated, will in time acquire knowledge of both virtue and vice. And it is someone like that who becomes wise, in my view, and not the bad person.” For Plato, if a bad soul cannot even learn what is best for itself, how can it learn what is best for others?
Plato thought that virtue was mostly equivalent to being rational while vice was non-rational. In his early years, the philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche disagreed (though he changed his mind somewhat later). The young Nietzsche claimed there were different types of wisdom, generally represented by the Greek gods Dionysus and Apollo. This is a simplification (your indignant emails are welcome), but Dionysus largely represented non-rational knowledge while Apollo largely represented rational knowledge. Nietzsche felt that both Dionysian and Apollonian knowledge had great worth and strength, but that Dionysian knowledge was the lodestone. The Apollonian was a rational way of interpreting and coping with the unbearable power of the Dionysian. The Apollonian was not a cowardly ignorance. It was necessary because human minds were only able to experience raw Dionysian knowledge for very brief periods, if at all. However, to continue being genuine, Apollonian thinking needed to stay aware that it was fueled by the Dionysian.
Nietzsche thought that both virtue and vice were Apollonian. They were both rational ways to view the world, even though they’re usually portrayed in opposition to each other. Nietzsche felt the Dionysian was “beyond good and evil”, and a healthier version of Apollonian thought would recognize this. Hermann Hesse also explored this idea in novels like Narcissus and Goldmund. In that book, two friends are both searching for meaningful lives but take very different paths: one follows a life of art and sin, while the other follows the austere life of a monk.
Today, much of American society seems to at least outwardly admit that exploring vice is also a possible path to wisdom. If you find yourself doing shameful things (and almost all of us do shameful things sometimes), do you want to hear preaching by someone who has never felt your shame? Or do you want to hear someone who has gone through the same crucible and survived? Sober alcoholics often say that one of the few things that really helps them stay sober is talking to other alcoholics about their struggles, not being admonished by non-alcoholics.
This might seem obvious, but how many people actually act on this belief consistently? It’s relatively easy to see wisdom when people do bad things that we relate with. But this willingness often stops when people do bad things that we don’t relate with. The philosopher John Stuart Mill was correct when he wrote: “Most people have a considerable amount of indulgence toward all acts of which they feel a possible source within themselves, reserving their rigor for those which, though perhaps really less bad, they cannot in any way understand how it is possible to commit.”
For example, wealthy people might recognize wisdom in fellow wealthy people who used to do shameful things because of the strong temptations of wealth – yet not recognize the wisdom that can come from doing shameful things because of the pressure of poverty. And vice versa. Men and women often recognize wisdom in fellow members of their gender who have hurt loved ones, but are unwilling to see wisdom when the genders are reversed. Democrats and Republicans do this to each other, as do people from different nationalities, religions, races, etc. We tend to paint the offenders as being unworthy of consideration, no matter how many other ways they might contribute to society.
Of course, this definitely doesn’t mean that all people who do bad things are wise. In fact, in my experience most people who do bad things are not wise. As an example from Survivor, Russell Hantz did a lot of shitty things, yet rarely seemed to demonstrate that he had gained much wisdom from them. For instance, he didn’t seem to learn from his repeated failure to win the big prize, chalking it up to the failings of his fellow players instead of facing the reality that his own character brought him down.