24 October 2014

On Prophecy

In his essay “Natural History of Intellect,” Ralph Waldo Emerson argues for the priority of the truth-seeking of the individual over the truth-known of the prophet. Emerson says that the trained mind-that which has undertaken a course on philosophy, (and I recognize the idealist dismissal of the body here)-”will need no priest. And if he finds at first with some alarm how impossible it is to accept many things which the hot or the mild sectarian may insist on his believing, he will be armed by his insight and brave to meet all inconvenience and all resistance it may cost him.” Arguing for the primacy of the power of the individual-on self-reliance and on thought-Emerson disparages the self-aggrandizement and obfuscations that derive from the rhetorics of so-called scholars. He asks, “ . . . was there ever a prophet burdened with a message to the people who did not cloud our gratitude by a strange confounding in his own mind of private folly with his public wisdom.” By which I think Emerson wonders whether within the prophets words doesn’t there always lie some confusion between an idiosyncratic moment with a public movement. That is, doesn’t the philosopher/prophet in order to justify his own position turn the exception into his rule; or doesn’t the prophet confuse his own private thought with that which the public must accept as knowledge.
Now, Emerson doesn’t contrast “this besetting sin of sedentary men” to the wisdom of a public. Indeed, though in the public sphere the “overweening self-conceit” is suppressed, in that former arena only the popular is acceptable “for the entertainment of all . . . Great is the dazzle but the gain is small.” As in all of the comment and analysis on the news channels, and despite the thousands of words in critical commentary in the newspapers and journals, “ . . . here they play the game of conversation, as they play billiards, for pastime and credit.”
How well he seems to define the current practices of discourse in the United States.
I am led to Sanhedrin 89a and the Rabbis’ discussion of I Kings: 2-38. Ahab, the King of Israel, has asked the prophets to foretell whether he should go into battle and be triumphant, and in response four hundred prophets answer in the affirmative. Except for Michaiah, whom Ahab detests “because he never prophesies anything good for me, but only misfortune.” True to form, Michaiah does foretell defeat and Zedekiah, one of the majority prophets, slaps Michaiah and scolds him for assuming authority as true prophet despite the words of the other four hundred! And Ahab sends Michaiah to prison. Alas, Michaiah was correct and Ahab is killed in battle.
Now the Rabbis wonder: how can anyone fault Zedekiah when he had himself been deceived by the spirit of Naboth whom Ahab had had executed so that he might acquire his coveted vineyard. And Rabbi Johanan says that Zedekiah “should have scrutinized (the forecasts of the assembled prophets), even as R. Isaac said, “The same communication is revealed to many prophets, yet no two prophets prophecy in the identical phraseology.” It is argued that Zedekiah should have been suspicious that every prophet used exactly the same words, but a Rabbi suggests that maybe Zedekiah didn’t know of this criterion regarding difference. Alas, King Jehosophat (the very same one who jumps) seemed to be so aware: the Rabbis attribute to him this warning, “I have a tradition from my grandfather’s house that the same communication is revealed to many prophets, but no two prophesy in the identical phraseology.”
Thus it must be that truth is never contained in the words, and therefore, we must keep talking and never to assume ownership of truth. No two prophets prophesy in the same words! Emerson, too, warns against false prophets. “Yes, it is a great vice in all countries, the sacrifice of scholars to be courtiers and diners-out, to talk for the amusement of those who wish to be amused, though the stars of heaven must be plucked down and packed into rockets to this end!” And hence proceeds the anti-intellectualism in American society in the denigration of study. It is not action alone but action informed that concerns. “Yet, what we really want,” declares Emerson, “is not a haste to act, but a certain piety toward the source of action and knowledge.” Study as prayer.


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