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Crede ut Intelligas: Love, Belief, Sight and Poetic Knowledge

Seeing is believing. Or so the maxim goes. But the senses can fail you too, as anyone who’s ever dreamed dreams knows. He who doubts the creation cannot himself be a creator. This is why Descartes could never have been a poet. Even if he had been visited by the muse, most likely the results would’ve been poor; for one cannot pen verses in the dark. This is also why there will never be an unbelieving, atheistic Shakespeare. Nor can there ever be a godless Homer. Atheism is incapable of great art.

Caritas and credulitas make the greatest poets. These virtues are what allowed Emily Dickinson, for instance, to proclaim her surety of heavenly things. “I never saw a moor,” she says, “I never saw the sea. / Yet I know how the heather looks, / And what a wave must be.” The poem itself raises the question, how do you know England exists, if you’ve never been there? Only a materialist would sincerely ask such a thing, and the same question is often applied to heaven and to the things of God. But with Dickinson much madness is divinest sense. She was clearly no materialist, which is why she is the greatest lyrical poet America will ever see. Dickinson knew that a belief in England was no different than a belief in heaven. Though she “never spoke with God” or “visited in heaven,” she’s yet still “certain of the spot, / As if the chart were given.” How can this be? How can she really know of such things? The answer depends, of course, upon our definition of knowledge.

Most antique languages have many words for loving and knowing. Latin, for instance, gives us scio and cognosco. When Adam “knew” Eve it was not in scio but cognosco. And when Paul speaks his great hymn to love in I Corinthians 13, it should not surprise us that he relates love and knowledge. Paul notes first that “love believes all things” (caritas…omnia credit). “Love, says Ovid, “is a credulous thing.”[1] Only by first believing in things, is one able to love them, and finally to know them. Our knowledge of God does not begin with the scientific method. And though our knowledge now is imperfect, we shall fully know even as we are known. Nunc cognosco ex parte tunc autem cognoscam sicut et cognitus sum. Such a distinction means our knowledge is not confined to the physical and material things of the world. In Luke 12, Jesus warns against materialism: “life is more than meat, and the body is more than raiment” (v. 23). Our purpose is to be “rich towards God.” And while we do indeed store up treasure in heaven, we can also store up the “richness” of heavenly knowledge here and now. Perhaps this was Jesus’ point all along. We are not consumers only. A higher knowledge is possible, for Solomon tell us that in all our getting and spending, “get understanding.” This heavenly knowledge, which Augustine calls “wisdom,” is the real treasure more costly than fine gold. This is why Christ says that a man’s life is greater than the abundance of his material possessions (Luke 12:15), because knowledge itself does not consist in the abundance of possessions. It is meta-physical. What separates man from the beasts is his capacity for contemplative activity, his ability to apprehend a poetic knowledge which was lost to us in Adam’s fall. In his dissertation, The Classical Trivium, Marshal MacLuhan notes,

Adam possessed metaphysical knowledge in a very high degree. To him the whole of nature was a book which he could read with ease. He lost his ability to read this language of nature as a result of his fall…The business of art is, however, to recover the knowledge of that language which once man held by nature. (16)

Caritas and credulitas are essential therefore to knowledge, and this poetic knowledge is essential to art. Science (scientiae) is earthly, but poetry heavenly. The muses seldom visit the laboratory. There is a reason why the poet invoked the goddess-daughters of Zeus and Memory. But how can we have access to that heavenly kind of knowledge?

“Dost thou wish to understand?” says St. Augustine, “Crede.” Crede ut intelligam. This imperative enjoins not only our theological assent but also our creative ability. In his Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Augustine further explains how one is able to see truth with the wider aperture of faith:

For God has said by the prophet: “Except ye believe, ye shall not understand.” To the same purpose what the Lord here also added as He went on—“If any man is willing to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak from myself.” What is the meaning of this, “If any man be willing to do His will”? But I had said, if any man believe; and I gave this counsel: If thou hast not understood, said I, believe. For understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that thou mayest understand… (Tractate XXIX, emphasis mine)

Augustine wisely distills the words of Christ into a grammar of human knowing: “If a man is willing…he shall know.” Credulitas must precede all instruction. We can neither know things nor create things without belief, which gives light to the imagination and the simplex intellectus. The imagination requires light. By definition one cannot see an image without light. Thus, belief is the flame that lights the mind, as understanding is the reward of faith.

The eye is lamp of the body, says Christ, for the outward eye of the body lights the inward eye of the soul. St. Augustine, who also gives us the woeful story of his friend’s addiction to the Roman games, was very sensitive to this fact, for when Alypius gazed upon murder in the arena, “he suffered a more grievous wound in his soul the wound…the gladiator had received in the body” (Confessions VI.8.13). There is a deeper and more terrible vision than what our material sight can perceive. Just as true sight depends on sufficient light, so the imagination for its vision also depends upon the moral purity of the soul. There can be no world without the Light of the World, and it is no accident that the Logos is also the Lux Mundi, as John is quick to tell us. For the earth was formless and void until the fiat lux of God sang the cosmos into being that was heavy with the glory of God’s own Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. Thus, the creative act is entirely predicated on the light grasped not only by the physical eye but by the oculus mentis as well. To create anything requires some capacity for sight beyond mere physical realities, and the inner eye affords to the soul glimpses of future glory in creation, “calling those things which are not as though they were.” The light that transcends the material universe, Lewis tells us, is “intellectual light” (DS 97). Thus, for the poet the maxim is reversed: believing is seeing.

[1] Credula res amor est, Metamorphoses, VII. 82

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