Intellectual Modesty


Following Aristotle (See Book VI of the Nichomachean Ethics), a distinction can be made between moral and intellectual virtues, or between virtues of character and virtues of the intellect. For Aristotle intellectual virtues concern the (complex) faculty by which truth is discerned, while virtues of character relate to activities directed towards the Good. Aristotle further divides the intellectual virtues into those concerned with theoretical reason (sophia, episteme and nous), with practical reason (phronesis), and with the arts and crafts (techne). Granted, caution is warranted in making distinctions of this kind, as mental and moral faculties are not so easily separated, but are intimately involved with each other. The distinction in this case is formal, a matter of distinct principles, rather than something fully separable in fact.

In considering intellectual virtues, as in the virtues of character, the principle of moderation should rule. The extremes are excessive skepticism and credulity. The mean between these extremes we may call intellectual modesty. The principle of intellectual modesty recognizes the imperfection of human intellectual faculties. We can grasp truths, but only imperfectly and fallibly. Our capacity to express and understand truth is also heavily limited by natural language, which is thoroughly ambiguous and analogical. Intellectual modesty requires us to be aware of the limits of our knowledge, a difficult challenge given our deep-seated tendency to over estimate what we know

Propositions do not stand alone. Any belief is part of a wider system or theory. We may have only a limited understanding of the wider theory or theories on which a particular proposition depends. This is one reason for modesty. A second reason for modesty is that theories themselves are not absolutes. Rather, theories are akin to models or maps that are suited for some purposes, but not for all purposes. Further, usefulness is not a sufficient criterion for truth. This principle, that theories are maps or models, applies to practical affairs, to the sciences and certainly to religion. Religions are like maps leading to the spiritual heart, the true center. Regarding a theory as the Truth itself, is akin to mistaking a map for the place mapped.

To practice intellectual modesty requires us to learn not to be possessive of our beliefs. We can become identified with beliefs, imagining what we believe is who we truly are. Attachment to beliefs, to specific formulas claiming to encompass Truth, is the activity of the selfish ego (ahamkara), not the true Self (Atman). Intellectual modesty is an antidote to this intellectual selfishness. To practice modesty we remember that what we think we know is always fallible and always revisable. We practice the art of listening when interacting with others. We interpret what others say in the most charitable and reasonable way, seeking the truth in the other’s point of view. Rather than asserting what we think is true, we can ask questions, as Socrates taught. Above all, we can learn silence (Skt. Mauna मौन). The sages have always taught that Truth, beyond theories, is properly revealed only in the deepest silence.

From the Filianic Scriptures (Celestial Union Edition)

The Sermon on the Apple Seed

29 Seek not for certainty in anything beyond the seed of truth.

39 that there can be no certainty beyond the seed of truth, therefore you may speak of likelihood only;

40 that you shall let your speculation be in harmony with the seed of truth, for speculation that is dissonant does not give knowledge, but leads to the abyss of those that have rejected truth;

The Temple of the Heart

1 Know your own heart and make examination thereof; for if you know not your own heart, there can be no true knowledge of anything.

The Holy Mythos

5:13. When the voice of the archangel ceased, a silence fell that was the first true silence since the beginning of the world, and the last that shall be until its end


Cross-posted from:

Illustration is the kanji Shinkou, one of the five Confucian tenets, meaning faith or sincerity.

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