The Joy of Learning?

A great student question: am I defective because I like eating more than I like learning?

Let’s back up.

Compare two different kinds of goods: the noble good of truth and the necessary good of food.  As a rational animal I require both for the full flourishing that is happiness.  If I go without the first my life is debased; if I go without the second my life ends.

Because truth is a nobler good that perfects the higher part of my nature, it is rational to make sacrifices of lower goods to obtain it.  But make too many, and we act irrationally (and die).

Although food is a necessary good that maintains the animal part of my nature, to pursue it at the expense of higher goods like truth is irrational.  I would only be empowering a part, and a lower part at that, of my nature.

In one sense the higher powers of soul (locomotion, sensation, intellection) make me better at acquiring the lower goods like food.  Thanks to my rational nature, it’s far easier for me to find food and safety than it is for a gazelle.  I can build walls and go shopping!  In that sense, the higher powers can “serve” the lower powers.

But in a far more important sense, it is the lower powers that serve the higher.  I eat so that I can pursue the complete perfection of my nature, found ultimately in truth and goodness.  It’s less clear that animals work this way, where it seems that indeed their god is their belly.

The only sense I can make of eating being instrumental for the lion is to say that it is ordained to the propagation of the lion species.  This mirrors imperfectly the fact that truth and goodness for humans are just such a common good (and of course it mirrors perfectly that humans also eat to propagate the species).

The pleasures attached to goods are to make us desire them so that we will seek and acquire them.  Eating feels good so that we will eat; sex feels good so that we will reproduce.  The more important the good, the more potent the pleasure attached.

Now with all that said, the question: am I defective because I like eating more than I like learning?

I can see four ways to answer this question and I suspect they are all correct.  Philosophy is awesome!  Here’s the four in some kind of principled order:

1.       No. The seat of pleasure is the power of sensation, rooted in our animal nature.  The pleasures of eating and “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll” all correspond to material goods in service of material nature.  But truth is an immaterial good, leading us to expect either no or a different kind of pleasure associated with it.  Either we should not expect to find pleasure in truth, in learning, or we should expect to find a different kind.  This leads us to a fundamental distinction between pleasure and joy.  More on this…later.

2.       Yes, but it is not your fault.  One part of the doctrine of Original Sin is disintegration, the loss of cooperation among the various powers and faculties of the human soul.  For Adam and Eve, perhaps there was a material pleasure that corresponded with immaterial goods like truth and learning.  This is part of what Adam lost for us (thanks, Adam!), and part of why we need things like revelation, grace, redemption, etc.—to make us desire the higher goods once more.

3.       Sort of.  So far I’ve shifted your question to truth, but you originally asked about learning.  Learning is a process that, for us, requires work.  In the context of the 21st century American student, it involves being forced to sit in a desk for long stretches of time, wait to eat longer than one would otherwise prefer, and experience the pain of focus or concentration—all at a time in life when, from the perspective of evolutionary biology, you should be out killing your dinner.  Learning is hard.  So a third answer is to say that you actually have competing desires neutralizing your desire to know the truth.

4.       Yes.  No matter how true all of the above is, it is natural to man to know the truth and to desire to know the truth.  If you do not, you are missing a key ingredient in what it means to be human.  Perhaps this deficit is caused by the stage of development in which you find yourself.  Perhaps it is a defect in your upbringing or the culture in which you live.  Perhaps it is a desensitization brought about by vice.  All of the above are likely the case.  Once we know who and what we are, we should be able to see our obligation to work to correct this problem.

1-3 will always be operative but 4 is the real killer.  Give up on truth, kill off the nobler part of you in vice, and you find yourself in the realm of despair.  Only God can break through that terrible, awful deafness to what is good about yourself.

It is worth wondering why intense desires are associated with the fundamental goods instead of the nobler goods (for most people).  Some goods are too important to be left up to free, rational decision to pursue, and the pleasurable as such is not rational.  Those goods have a pleasure attached to them as a kind of override, to make sure that we will do them, analogous to the autonomic functions of the body.

If we had to decide to breathe or pump blood, we would die.  Most of you would just forget in the middle of the first hour of the day, but even the smart ones would die as soon as you fell asleep.  Vegetal goods?

Rational goods, by contrast, have a corresponding freedom attached to their acquisition.  Truth acquired by necessity?  Friendship?  Peace?  It’s not clear what any of these would be if they were not acquired in the same mode by which they exist in the first place.

Pleasurable goods occupy a space midway between these two extremes.  In the one direction they involve a kind of freedom—they stand outside of us, they come into the orbit of consciousness, we can fail to acquire them.  But in the other direction they can and often are sought subconsciously, acquired without rational deliberation or direction, and call upon desires in us that are capable of overriding the directing influence of reason.

That’s really just a fancier way of trying to articulate what it is that we lost in the fall (thanks, Adam!).  There is an inherent instability or tension between rational goods and pleasurable goods—or so it seems to us.  For our first parents that system worked in their favor and the pleasurable did not override the rational.  For us…not so much.  It’s quite a bit harder.

One last thought.  The question, “Am I defective?” must be given an affirmative answer.  We are.  We all are.  That’s part of the message of mercy in the Gospel, that God has seen our infirmity and the cry of our heart and not stood afar off but has raced to save, rushed to condescend, stooped to conquer our afflictions and heal us.

Don’t be afraid to give that answer an affirmative.  The refusal to say it, to think it, ever, for anyone, is one of the perverse marks of the Enemy that most afflicts us in our day. We all, like sheep, have gone astray. We all need saving.

That’s part of the good news.  The other part?  One day, by the grace of God, Truth will be truly desirable and we will be truly free.


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