When the Question Is the Answer
Moishe the Beadle, in Elie Wiesel’s Night, says that
…every question possesse[s] a power that [is] lost in the answer …
It’s a tremendous line. When it comes to things like virtue, wisdom, peace, faith, and humility, the first real step toward any of them is realizing that no answer to their implicit question is ever adequate. What is virtue? What must I do to be wise? How can I attain peace? In what am I to have faith? How do I know if I am truly humble? The subjection of every answer to further questioning can itself be a sign of the state that is sought.1
Take, for example, just virtue. It turns out, virtue is just not the sort of thing that is well contained in an answer. As a settled answer it becomes law, and law, with its determinate nature, can only cover so much ground. The dynamic element of life always keeps law from ever attaining the status of virtue (legalism is no virtue). So, in a sense, there is no “answer.” But there is the question, and if we reflect on it, we might become aware that, when it comes to certain things, the question is itself the answer. After all, it was Socrates’ strenuous denial that he possessed wisdom that leads us to recognize his wisdom.
In virtue, faith, peace, wisdom, and humility, what is at issue is the precariousness of our life. The path to achieving any of them is to realize that they can’t be acheived by overcoming our precariousness. Rather, for their emergence in our life, our precariousness must first be accepted.2
In this way we develop the ability to live in the power of our questions rather than the weakness of any presumed answer.
1. This post emerged from a response to a thoughtful email sent to me by a friend of mine (who wishes to remain nameless).
2. I have Marvin Shaw to thank for helping to clarify what problem is addressed by this paradoxical motion. Marvin C. Shaw, The Paradox of Intention: Reaching the Goal by Giving up the Attempt to Reach It (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1988).