The Art of Inquiry: Bewilderment and the virtues

Excerpt from the end of Chapter 2 and the beginning of Chapter 3 of The Art of Inquiry. Enjoy.


2.6. Bewilderment, Redux

So far, our itinerary has taken us a good ways: from our basic commitments (alive to X, fraught about Y) to a confrontation with our thinking in general to a space of possibilities. On the one hand, our plans have been thrown into the wind and we seem without direction. On the other hand, we know what didn’t work, have some clue as to why it didn’t work, and are now so hungry that we want to discover something better.

There is a nice quote from Samuel Johnson about the meaning of bewilderment. To be bewildered, he writes in Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary, is to “lose in pathless places, to confound for want of a plain road.” The bewildered person, having been led astray, is lost, turned about, and disoriented, generally lacking a good sense of his bearings. By letting his basic commitments to be drawn into question, he has lost his place in the world. What is of great value? To what can one assign significance? What sign points the way forward?

The truth of bewilderment is an acknowledgement of the great complexity of the modern world. Fewer paths than ever are laid out in front of those of us living in the developed nations; the future seems as illegible as ever; regardless of how important our work is, it may founder for any number of reasons. Bewilderment allows us to face up to uncertainty in the proper spirit: namely, the spirit of honesty. What will be required of us in order to live through this time of confusion will be to cultivate the virtues of openness, courage, and patience.

Interlude 2: Living Meanwhile–The Time of the Virtues

Provisional definitions

Virtues are easier to live than they are to define. Still, we can provide some provisional definitions. We can say that being virtuous is performing an action over and over again in the right way (manner) for the right reason (justification) for the right end (final cause). Or we can say that a virtue is a ‘semi-permanent’ disposition of the good soul. Or we can say that it is a habit underwritten by reason. Or, lastly, we can define virtue as the identity of doing what is best with doing what we want. (E.g., being kind is the best thing to do and in the same breath I want also to be kind.)

Whatever their differences may be, these definitions share the characteristic of manner, way, fashion, and appropriateness. A virtuous man does not simply offer a guest tea. He does so in the right manner. A compassionate woman smiles at the hurt one and puts her hand on him with lightness and strength. There is thus a felt quality to a virtue that can only be experienced ‘from within.’

A second characteristic should be not be passed over. This is that a virtue is learned through the right kind of exercise. The philosopher who cultivates patience has exercised being patient when he is observing a young dallying child while tying his shoe; when he is scheduled to meet a friend who is running behind; when he is learning a new craft and has not yet got the hang of it; etc. It seems there is no dearth of occasions or circumstances in which patience can be exercised in just the right way and, in consequence, strengthened and supported.

The third characteristic is that virtues, once learned well enough, become ‘second nature.’ It is not as though I look at a drowning child, deliberate long about the best course of action, and then decide to jump into the water. Quite the contrary, I see him drowning and I immediately jump in after him. This is true of the virtuous man: he acts like water, not unthinkingly so much as undeliberately. If need be, he can adduce reasons for acting thus and so post facto.