The desire for a better environment will always be an aspiration of persons who are maturing as human beings. Maturing persons are those growing in awareness, perception, consciousness. In a word, they are in a life-long search for Truth; they are, as we say, “possessed” of what Aristotle termed intelligent curiosity. This exclusively individual trait, if sufficiently cultivated, is, in my view, the only kind of cultural environment from which an improved society can ever flower.
One of the best descriptions of intelligent curiosity I have seen or heard or read is a painting, the “School of Athens,” done by Raphael before 1509 a.d. It is in the Vatican. But in better condition today than the original is a remarkable replica painted by Waller.1 Depicting about sixty characters—Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Ptolemy, Euclid, to name a few—the artist has captured that passionate spirit of inquiry which distinguished these people. When seen, studied, and apprehended, the impression remains to haunt and elevate the mind of the beholder.
It is my belief that this intelligent curiosity, on a scale found in the historic record only now and then, makes credible Edith Hamilton’s observation:
This full stature of greatness came to pass at a time when the mighty civilizations of the ancient world had perished and the shadow of “effortless barbarism” was dark upon the earth. In that black and fierce world a little centre of white-hot spiritual energy was at work. A new civilization had arisen in Athens, unlike all that had gone before.2
People are forever groping, as if in the dark, for some panacea that will insure a good society. Yet Raphael, looking backward 2,000 years, put his finger on an important key: intelligent curiosity! He perceived what so many of us miss, perhaps because he himself was an important figure of the Italian Renaissance, another “little centre of white-hot spiritual energy.” Conceivably, it takes an oversoul to recognize his kind, a Raphael to know a Socrates, an individual steeped in intelligent curiosity to discover that single and elusive path to a good society: intelligent curiosity.
“Ask and Ye Shall Receive”
A society of remarkable quality—for all its defects—got under way in this land of ours. The explanation? The phenomenon of our politico-economic ascendancy, the cause of which has had our best minds guessing for the past century—such achievements as dignity of the individual; man’s right to life, liberty, and to the fruits of his own labor; the freest market the world has ever known; a government substantially limited to securing these rights, invoking a common justice, and keeping the peace; an unprecedented burst of creative energy—these blessings suddenly tumble together, make sense, become intelligible in terms of this one spiritual assumption, the pursuit of truth—that is, intelligent curiosity!
For a confirmation of this point, merely reflect on your own reading of early American lives. Madison, Jay, and Hamilton were but three of the well-knowns among hundreds upon hundreds who, above all else, were passionately in search of what is right. If they weren’t literally heeding the Biblical injunction, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness,” they were at least paraphrasing it: “Seek ye first Truth, and rightly report and stand for what is perceived.” What about the promise “and these things shall be added unto you”? Never more than in America has mankind had such an affirmation of the rightness of this spiritual assumption.
Variation Leads to Progress
Is there anything mysterious about the assumption that the pursuit of truth is the genesis of a good society? Yes, of course. If the pencil your child uses had the intelligence to write its own story, it would repeat, “Only God can make a tree.” It would then add, “Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God can make me.” Then, could the pencil carry these assertions to their logical conclusion, it would pronounce, “Only God can make a good society.”
If one can accept the mysteries of life as the facts given, then a good society as the flower of intelligent curiosity falls within human comprehension: the little wisdoms, the tiny enlightenments that result from the individualistic pursuit of truth spontaneously and mysteriously configurate as do molecules to form protoplasm, or a tree, or whatever. They coalesce as do infinitesimal human creativities to make a pencil, or a jet plane, or any other product—provided they are free to flow!
Through Trial and Error
Do you mean, some will ask, that you would risk such a precious possession as human freedom, without which a good society is impossible, to men pursuing truth in their own random ways? Why, some men might mistakenly conclude that state socialism is consonant with truth. My own answer is that I shall trust freedom and expect a good society from no other arrangement or form of human activity. We should ever bear in mind two facts: (1) Individual freedom comes into consciousness as a prime human value only in the presence of light; the “dark ages” aptly characterizes its absence. And (2) light or enlightenment is generated only when the spirit of inquiry is turned on. Anyone who expects the emergence of the blessings of freedom without exposures to intense inquiry and light has, to say the least, misread history.
Intelligent curiosity must not be misconstrued. It is never to be associated with the kind of idle curiosity that kills cats and, most particularly, not with the kind financed by funds forcibly taken from others. This latter accounts for sputniks, moon shots, mis-education—freedom gives way to authoritarianism, light dims into darkness, the environment changes for the worse.
Intelligent curiosity is as individualistic as thought. It is as sensitive as intuition and requires meticulous husbandry; any prolonged inattention and it is gone forever, never to be recovered by the individual. Like any faculty, it atrophies if unused. Its hallmark is the incessantly probing mind, examining into what’s right and just. Its companion is integrity, for intelligent curiosity cannot and does not live with inaccurate reporting of what one’s conscience dictates as right. Freedom and a good society appear to be the fruits of intelligent curiosity and one wonders if they can ever be had without it.
Good methodology! How important it is! Indeed, I am convinced that if all of us were employing the right methods we would do away with most of our ideological controversy. For were everyone concentrating on self-improvement, there would be no meddlers among us. And without meddlers there could be no socialism. So let us try to clinch the argument for personal upgrading. . . .