Monday, December 31, 2012

on knowing what we don't.

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly…”
—St. Paul, 1 Cor. 13:12
To say that we see ourselves in a mirror only dimly is to say that we don’t know ourselves as we are.  A mirror is supposed to show us what’s always already there, even when we’re not looking. But if the lighting is dim or the mirror tarnished, what we see when look into a mirror is a dim or tarnished view of ourselves.  What we see is indeed none other than ourselves, but we don’t see ourselves clearly.  I think this is right.  Only a fool, it seems, would say otherwise.  That is, only a fool could see in a mirror dimly and think that he’s seeing himself not dimly. 
But here’s my question:  How does St. Paul, or we, if we agree with him, know that we see in a mirror dimly?  Let’s suppose that the only way to see ourselves is to look upon a dimly lit or tarnished mirror.  If that were all we’ve ever seen, how would we know that the mirror is in fact dimly lit or tarnished?  We understand St. Paul’s metaphor clearly because we’ve looked into both clean and dirty mirrors.   But St. Paul’s point is that when it comes to knowing ourselves as we are, we’ve never had an unadulterated view of ourselves.  But if we’ve never had an unadulterated view of ourselves, how would we then know that the view we in fact have is adulterated?  The only way out, it seems, is that however dim our view of the mirror is, we nonetheless can see clearly that we don’t see clearly.
I’ll say it again.  Someway, somehow, though we see in a mirror, dimly, we see in a mirror, brightly, that we see in a mirror, dimly.   
What a magic mirror, I say!  For it at clearly shows that it is not.  

There once was an author who likened our condition to that of prisoners starring at shadows of themselves.  What’s worse is that the prisoners neither know that they are prisoners, nor do they think that the shadows are shadows.  Though they look at themselves, shadowy, they think that they look at themselves distinctly. 
We should ask: what does this author think his relationship to our condition is? If he knows he’s a prisoner and he knows he sees nothing but shadows, then he cannot be one of us.  But, magically, this author denies that he knows what he says he knows.  After describing our condition, our author has his protagonist say, “They’re like us.” 
Somehow, someway, our author knows that he does not know that he is a prisoner.  Somehow, someway, our author distinctly sees himself shadowy. 


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