A Bit of Faust in All of Us

“There’s a bit of Faust in us all, believing as we do that the more we learn about something the closer we are to it.”

Flora Courtois

Some years ago, I had a friend who I imagined was so intellectually oriented that he was capable of losing his virginity merely by studying a biology textbook on reproduction.  Michael would have made a great Faust:  He was always thinking he could get closer to something by learning about it.  But isn’t it true, as Courtois suggests, there’s a bit of Faust in all of us?

The problem seems to be that all our learning, no matter how sophisticated, has at best the same relationship to reality that a map has to reality.  Learning, knowledge, ideas, thoughts are not the things they refer to.   Not anymore than a map is the territory it refers to.   Consequently, we cannot actually lose our virginity by studying about sex:  We only think we can.

You’d think such a point was obvious.  But there is something in human nature — something seemingly arising out of our DNA and inherent in us — that wants to think magically about the world.

In magical thinking, the map is the reality.  The symbol is the thing it symbolizes.  A voodoo doll, for instance, is the person the doll represents.  But more commonplace, our thoughts of something are the same as our experiences of something.

It easy to see how a voodoo doll is not the person that it represents.  But, for most of us, it is much more difficult to weed out all the ways in which we think — in which we assume — that our thoughts about things are the things we think about.

Knowing about enlightenment does nothing to enlighten a person.  Yet, magical thinking is so strong in us that we quite often believe a person who merely knows more about enlightenment than another person somehow must be closer to enlightenment than that other person.  That is like saying a person who has memorized a map of Paris experiences Paris more than a person who lives there but has not memorized a map of his city.  You can chant all day long that enlightenment is X or enlightenment is Y.   You might even be right.  But this will not enlighten you.  You won’t even be getting closer to enlightenment.

Or, at least, those are my thoughts on the matter.

7 thoughts on “A Bit of Faust in All of Us

  1. This reflection on magical thought is very interesting.

    In this perspective, how would you consider literature? Literature depicts life, but it is *not* life, exactly like a map represents places but it is *not* those places.

    This can be applied to Art. Art is an imitation of nature but it is *not* nature itself. A statue is not the person it represents. And yet, probably through magical thought, we believe that art is a little bit more than just a map. We have the impression – or the illusion – that art let us get more into things sometimes than things themselves.

    Could aesthetics be just a survival of magical thought in philosophy? Or there is something more?

    I, for example, I’m trying to get into the secrets of Sicilian culture through the novels of Sicilian writer Santo Piazzese. I’m only at the beginning of my search though.


  2. I find the draw of substituting magical naming for understanding a difficult one to resist. But. I can’t help feeling that whatever I think will probably be wrong. This is both comfort and source of amusement.
    Thinking is good fun but laughter is where it’s at. In a mad way there’s something enlightening about the idea of getting it on with a biology book. ROFL, I enjoyed that.
    Today I think laughter is the territory.


  3. @ Man of Roma: I think of the best literature as extremely sophisticated maps. Santo Piazzese’s novels, for instance, have the potential to be more accurate than, say, a philosophical essay on the same subject. Why? Because the novel as a medium is closer to how life happens than a philosophical essay. It is easier to express the nuances and subtleties of life in a novel than in an essay. But — to me — novels are still maps, just as symbolic thought itself is a map.


  4. Paul, you have just explained why voting laws and controls do not solve the problem they aim to solve, even though the politicians think they have solved it. Otherwiae they would add enforcers to see to it that said law does what it is meant to do…but they never do.
    A most egregious example: Dubya on that aircraft carrier in the Persian gulf proclaiming “Mission accomplished”.


  5. Intelligence and wisdom are often confused. One can read all of the 84,000 Buddhist Sutras and not become enlightened. When one practices even one act of compassion, one can gain the Buddha’s wisdom.


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