Monday, February 20, 2012

Future Hopes, Present Experience, and the Wisdom of the Past

A reflection on Henry Bugbee's Inward Morning, his entry dated Friday, September 5.

Bugbee writes: "Of experience...we may hope for understanding in our own time, and in this we do not seem to have the edge on preceding generations of men."

Science grows from one generation to another.  What we know is more advanced than what previous generations knew.  But precisely because of this, we are alienated from what science will know, what it aims to know when it reaches its goal.  Science uses experience, it swims in the medium of experience on a long-distance swim.  We are like generations of migratory butterflies, none of us making the whole journey, but each of us making part of it so that the next generation may fly further.  Standing on one another's shoulders we become the giants upon whose shoulders our intellectual descendants may stand.

At first blush, experience seems less worth knowing, since it is subjective, unquantifiable, subject to the winds of time and the diurnal tides of the chemistry of our blood.  But experience is immediate.  No generation is privileged; every generation receives the same share.  Here our knowledge is not a deposit that we hope will gain interest for our children; it is something in our hands and for us now.  The wisdom of the past does not advance the next generation so much as clarify our own.

Bugbee again: "It is not a question of our beginning from where they leave off and going on to supersede them. We are fortunate if we can become communicant in our own way with what they have to say." 

Tradition has roots that mean handed-down.  Bugbee reminds me, gives me words to articulate, why it is worth continuing to try to read ancient wisdom.  He reminds me why, when I could have chosen to work in science, it is not a bad choice to work as a teacher, priest, curator, historian, poet, librarian - a custodian of the narratives of experience.  Science aims forward beyond our lives; but experience is here now, where we live.  Is it such a bad thing to live here and now?