At the cosmic level we were all born yesterday. Homo sapiens are Johnny-come-lately to planet Earth; one day every organism alive today will be as extinct as the dodo. Yet, the time frames, such as the Earth’s 4.6 billion years of existence, are beyond our comprehension. The universe isn’t comparable to your great-grandmother’s sense of tradition, after all. Human culture is incommensurate with time if we take time seriously for what it appears to be.
Three billion years ago the “great oxidation” wiped out almost everything on earth as ocean plants began to exhale the corrosive and toxic, yet now to us seemingly-vital and life-giving, oxygen molecule. Indeed, the increased abundance of CO2 today may ironically someday furnish a new world for a future planet Earth. Life is far beyond what we can measure and that’s both its mystery and its curse; it’s no wonder that the whims of our inspiration at AU can be difficult to predict and stimulate. We think we know what we know because we measure it and leave out the remainder, even as what’s immeasurable or beyond our comprehension is often, ironically, what counts the most.
Who we are today on our AU footpath shines with potential, but we don’t, and can’t, know exactly where our private journey will lead or who we shall be when we arrive. It’s like drawing a dream or painting a song; incommensurate realities run up against the hot pavement of uncertainty when conditions are just right. No single medium or method can capture the whole of our reality. As such, a hot, late-summer’s day can either be an obstacle to progress or an opportunity for re-evaluation or something in between.
So how might we measure our progress, particularly on a day where it seems like editing an essay or memorizing key terms is carrying us no closer to a sterling apprehension of our course’s key learning objectives? What we need when facing any daunting task is a broad view of ourselves and our life’s mission—that we might gain some stoic serenity and harbour a positive perspective. We’re here at AU to learn, but that doesn’t mean we have to take a paper cutter to all that we see. Analysis is a Greek word meaning to cut again, but, as anyone frustrated by the complexities of origami, calculus, or grammar knows, if you cut or fold or think about something enough it can become impossible to get where you want to go. Sometimes a change in the essential framework of our thought is just what we need.
Augustine of Hippo’s Moment
To really glean comprehension of the interminable nature of our studies on a hot day when time seems to stand still perhaps requires us to consider two forms of truth. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE)’s key work, titled De Civitate Dei Contra Paganos, gave comfort to Romans horrified at the recent sack of their city by heathen hordes. Augustine noted that much lies beyond the senses and their earthly institutions. He illustrated this by contrasting the empirical, sensory, truths of “scientia” with the contemplative, intellectual, wisdom known as “sapientia.” Scientia and sapientia produce truths incommensurate with one another.
Sapientia is where we’re at whenever our studies transcend schedules, days, and ordinary life. Augustine calls sapientia “wisdom derived from the contemplation of eternal truth”. The nature of our AU studies is not one of rigidity. After all, life gets in the way of many a planned study day (or morning, or evening, or quickie 20-minute self-administered pop quiz).
Our learning journey may even be eternal in nature; to be sure, it can’t be reduced to the papers we write or diplomas we receive. To do so would be to engage in “what the philosopher Gilbert Ryle called a ‘category mistake’ – roughly speaking, a bit like calling a whale a fish.” (Pies R. 2020) A better analogy between scientia and sapientia might be to compare building a house with lumber and concrete with making a home with love and compassion.
When productivity feels impossible or beyond us, that may be because it is. Augustine would agree because of the nature of divinity; for him, God created both time and space and thus transcends them both. And if there ever was a time when forgiveness was divine it’s when we come poetically to terms with our lack of productivity on the hottest of summer days!
Our desire for success at AU doesn’t only rest on our need for a meaningful and enriched intellectual existence. Fundamentally, we are seeking to create and involve meaning in all our life as part of our choice to enrol at AU. The deep longing for purpose is foundational to the search for all forms of knowledge. Underneath all that we do, say, and feel is an essential drive for meaning and understanding. Likewise, boundaries between work and play, or pleasure and labour, are as artificial as the blue light emanating from our laptop during midnight cram sessions.
Remembering the labile nature of life’s creative impetus helps us to avoid the drudgery and embrace the magic of our existence and our lives in general. Too much scientia may drag us down on a hot day when productivity just isn’t happening and, well, we all know that if we don’t apply ourselves we’ll flunk out of distance education faster than a garter snake down a waterslide.
But hey, we can all be whimsical at heart on a hot summer’s day so let’s enjoy ourselves! As Augustine wrote, “therefore virtue is better, which is content with no human judgment save that of one’s own conscience” (Augustine). A panacea for summer’s study struggles thus can be to lightheartedly lay down our writing pens and rest our typing fingertips to indulge whatever aspect of our creative essence we’ve not noticed in awhile.
Augustine. (circa 413-26 CE). Excerpts From Augustine’s City of God. GeraldSchlabach.net. Retrieved from http://www.geraldschlabach.net/city-of-god/#1.30.
Pies, R. (2020). ‘Einstein and The Rebbe’. Philosophy Now: A Magazine of Ideas. Retrieved from https://philosophynow.org/issues/138/Einstein_and_The_Rebbe.
Schirrmeister, B.E. (2013). ‘Great Oxidation Event: More Oxygen Though Multicellularity’. ScienceDaily: University of Zurich. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130117084856.htm