Knowing as Love
I’ve been thinking about a quote on the topic of love by Thomas Merton today. What has made it interesting is that I’ve been thinking about it in light of the writing I’ve been doing elsewhere on the topic of knowing. Merton tells us that love is only perfected in being both received and released.
“The gift of love is the gift of the power and the capacity to love, and, therefore, to give love with full effect is also to receive it. So, love can only be kept by being given away, and it can only be given perfectly when it is also received.” No Man Is an Island, 4.
In my writing on knowing I’ve been drawing on Paul Tillich’s conception of knowledge as “reunion” of the separated. On this point he says that “Knowing is a form of union. In every act of knowledge the knower and that which is known are united; the gap between subject an object is overcome.” ST I, 94.
What is interesting is that he goes on to elaborate the ways that cognition operates by way of a basic tension between mental postures detachment and receiving. Do you see the connection with Merton’s quote?
Both love and knowledge can fail due to a non-paradoxical reliance on only one element of this basic tension.
When knowing is merely detached it becomes lifeless and insignificant. In this technical and analytical distance, the question of “what’s the point?” is never answered, nor could it be, since any answer would be ever subjected to further critical analysis. Therefore, nothing new is ever received. All becomes merely theoretical.
On the other hand, when knowing becomes exclusively receiving, it passionately unites itself with anything that presents itself as interesting with no regard for the fact that reality often diverges from appearances. In its emotionally driven quest for truth, truth is in fact lost in the constant reception of representations (for those of you who receive email forwards from excitable relatives, you know what I’m talking about).
Examples of this tension and its failure fill the history of human thought, from ancient mythology to contemporary film, from the most crude inscriptions of ancient wisdom to the most refined scientific techniques. Both love and knowing fail by way of failing this central paradox.
If we refuse to give love away, we lose the capacity to receive it.
If we refuse to receive love, we lose the capacity to release it.
If we refuse to let our knowledge be free, we lose the capacity to receive it.
If we refuse to receive knowledge, we lose the capacity to free it.
At this point I hope it is becoming clear that what I am suggesting is that knowledge is a form of love. As such, their dynamics mirror each other. And for this reason we can even go so far as to replace the terms in Merton’s original quote, and perhaps by doing so expand our conception of rationality.
“The gift of knowledge is the gift of the power and the capacity to know, and, therefore, to impart knowledge with full effect is also to receive it. So, knowledge can only be kept by being given away, and it can only be given perfectly when it is also received.”