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University Sermon on the sin of pride, November 23rd 2014, the Provost

 

University Sermon on the Sin of Pride”

preached by Provost Jonathan Bate in Worcester College Chapel,

23 November 2014

 

The preacher of the University sermon on the Sin of Pride is given a selection

of texts upon which to expatiate. I have chosen, you will be relieved to hear,

the shortest of them, the second half of the first verse of your second reading:

“Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.”

In Book VII of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the affable archangel

Raphael delivers a lecture – a sermon – to Adam, on the subject of the revolt

of Satan in heaven and God’s creation of the world. Adam asks some

questions about astronomy and metaphysics – the business, much debated

by philosophers, theologians and natural scientists, of what moved the prime

mover, how the creator was created. Raphael encourages him not to push too

far. He has been commissioned from above to answer Adam’s desire for

knowledge but to keep it within bounds. To go beyond bound would be to

trespass into the dangerous territory of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus.

‘Beyond abstain / To ask, nor let thine own inventions hope / Things not

revealed’. Human knowledge must have limits. There are certain areas where

the language of reason and inquiry is inadequate, inappropriate. As a later

philosopher from Milton’s university – the other one, not ours – put it, whereof

one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. (Thus Wittgenstein, in the

seventh proposition of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.)

” Enough is left besides to search and know, reiterates Milton’s

archangel:”

 

“But knowledge is as food, and needs no less

Her temperance over appetite, to know

In measure what the mind may well contain,

Oppresses else with surfeit, and soon turns

wisdom to folly, and nourishment to wind.”

 

Milton is allowing himself a pun here, a bit of a joke: if you eat to much you

may become flatulent; if you are too indulgent in your appetite for learning,

you may end with an analogous intellectual afflatus, a lot of academic hot air.

Moderation in all things, he is saying: with surfeit comes sickness.

This sequence in Paradise Lost subtly alludes to our verse in St Paul’s

letters to the Corinthians: the idea of knowledge puffing up. It perhaps helps

to explain the oddity of this chapter of the epistle, which begins with the

question of knowledge and then proceeds to some rather detailed musings

about diet.

It was a passage that drew the attention not only of John Milton but

also, a generation before, of Sir Francis Bacon (like me, another Cambridge

man, I am afraid). What interested Bacon was Paul’s repeated imagery of the

worshipping of idols. What is the proper balance, he asked, between the

Advancement of Knowledge and the Sin of Pride? You will recall his great

meditation on the four idols, in his 1620 Novum Organum Scientiarum (‘new

method of science’), that foundation text of modern academic method

(inductive reasoning as opposed to presumption from a priori principles).

 

The idols and false notions which are now in possession of the human

understanding, and have taken deep root therein, not only so beset

men’s minds that truth can hardly find entrance, but even after entrance

is obtained, they will again in the very instauration of the sciences meet

and trouble us, unless men being forewarned of the danger fortify

themselves as far as may be against their assaults.

There are four classes of Idols which beset men’s minds. To these

for distinction’s sake I have assigned names, calling the first class Idols

of the Tribe; the second, Idols of the Cave; the third, Idols of the Market

Place; the fourth, Idols of the Theatre.

The formation of ideas and axioms by true induction is no doubt

the proper remedy to be applied for the keeping off and clearing away

of idols. To point them out, however, is of great use; for the doctrine of

Idols is to the interpretation of nature what the doctrine of the refutation

of sophisms is to common logic.

 

Idols of the Theatre: the limitations imposed by particular systems of thought,

traditions, customs of belief.

Idols of the Marketplace: the limitations imposed by the insufficiencies

of human language. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Idols of the Cave: the limitations resulting from the quirks of every

individual mind.

Idols of the Tribe: the limitations of all human knowledge, bound as we

are by our senses (“by far the greatest hindrance and aberration of the

human understanding proceeds from the dullness, incompetency, and

deceptions of the senses; in that things which strike the sense outweigh

things which do not immediately strike it, though they be more important”) and

equally bound as we are by the pattern-making of our brains (“The human

understanding is of its own nature prone to abstractions and gives a

substance and reality to things which are fleeting”).

It is pride to suppose that in our quest for knowledge we can transcend

the limitations imposed by these idols.

 

So Bacon and Milton can tell the modern university much about the need to

accept limit in the quest for research novelty, can warn us of how Knowledge

Puffeth Up. As for the contrasting clause in the rhetorical chiasmus, we do not

need seventeenth-century scientists, poets or divines to tell us that charity

edifieth. This university and this college, all our colleges, are charities. We

came into being through charitable enterprise, through philanthropy on which

we still depend. Here at Worcester, once the home of Benedictine monks who

had taken vows of poverty, and always a place of poor scholars, lacking the

resources of our grander neighbours, we continue to rely upon – not the

kindness of strangers – but the charity of friends, in particular of our

philanthropic Old Members who in the Tercentenary Year of our re-foundation

are building a new endowment to see us through the storms of the next three

centuries, in which the world of knowledge will change beyond all our

imaginings.

 

But the particular verse says that Charity edifieth. Edify, as in edifice, a

building. The Greek text reads ἡ γνῶσις φυσιοῖ, ἡ δὲ ἀγάπη οἰκοδομεῖ.

Oikodomei: “(the act of) building, building up; metaphorically edifying,

edification; the act of one who promotes another’s growth in wisdom, piety,

happiness, holiness.” The metaphor comes, of course, from oikos, that

resonant word meaning a home, a dwelling-place, a household, a community,

the word from which we get economy and ecology – the nomos and logos, the

laws and the words, of the oikos. To teach and to learn with charity and

humility is to build a college and a university into a home, a dwelling-place, a

household, a community.

 

I am constantly impressed, meeting our students today, at how many of

them wish to put the knowledge they have gained here in Oxford to use that

is truly charitable: in public service, in the third sector, in development and

the developing world, in the quest to make our world a better dwelling-place,

whether through the alleviation of poverty and inequality or the addressing of

climate change and ecological crisis. They are a special generation, of whom

we should be proud in a good way.

And that’s a thing to remember. There is a thin dividing-line between

the celebration of excellence, the quest for the best (the Greek ideal of

Ἀρίστων), and the arrogance of pride. As someone who has witnessed

wonderful students passing through other universities in which I have taught –

Liverpool, Warwick, the University of California Los Angeles – I am sometimes

troubled by the thought that Oxford can be guilty of the sin of pride, or worse,

of a complacent assumption that our history and our reputation are enough,

that we can still be among the best without embracing some of the

innovations of our peers. Is it a sin of corporate pride to disdain the MOOC –

the massive open online course, available for free to the entire world – that is

now part of the charitable mission, the outreach, of Harvard, Stanford and

MIT? Are we puffing ourselves in a belief that Oxford will always be the best

place to gain knowledge?

What should our attitude be to our teaching and learning? We should

not, our text tell us, be like Milton’s Satan, “Blown up with high conceits

engendering pride.” We should instead approach knowledge with the kind of

humility that Eve shows towards Adam. Times have changed and we no

longer wish for submission on the part of females, far far from it, but an

approach to knowledge that doth not puff up might very well have a tone such

as this: “And by her yielded, by him best received, / Yielded with coy

submission, modest pride, / And sweet, reluctant, amorous delay.”