Friday 25 March 2011

Authority and apprenticeship


Authority is linked with the idea of apprenticeship: both are methods getting people further than they could get from their own personal experience.

One human alone can have a certain amount of experience and, according to their ability and the amount of time they spend, can get to such-and-such a level of knowledge during their life.

(This 'knowledge' might be a skill like woodworking or playing a musical instrument, a profession like medicine or scientific research, philosophy, or a religious/ spiritual discipline.)

But unless there is a method of passing on at-least some of this knowledge, each individual person would have-to start from scratch and build their knowledge from the ground up.

Authority and apprenticeship are the tried-and-tested - probably the only - ways of passing on knowledge.


So to learn knowledge, a skill, the method is to become apprentice to a local master, and that master should have sufficient knowledge to recognise greater masters, and these greater masters recognize the 'authorities' of timeless, foundational knowledge.

This is 'tradition'.

Within a discipline the priority is to ensure that this traditional knowledge is not lost, that it is kept alive in active discourse; so that its real meaning, its proper interpretation can remain accessible.

Once the thread of tradition has been broken, it cannot be repaired; because the remaining written discourse is open to a variety of interpretations; so there are (essentially) an infinite number of wrong ways to interpret it, among which the one correct way cannot be recovered.


Each recognized authority should:

1. Be compatible with all other authorities, is assumed to be compatible at some deep level (although perhaps this is not yet clear). Even when apparently there is conflict in the tradition this is assumed to be temporary, and awaits an authority who can resolve this conflict.

2. Bring to the tradition something distinctive, the authority's own particular contribution to tradition.


Authorities are ranked according to their profundity (the scope of their implications) - this will broadly be correlated with the ancient-ness of authorities, since the founders usually have the greatest influence and prestige.

Exceptions arise in so far as the very first pioneer generations can typically only rely on their direct and personal experience, whereas the next generation can build on their work. So Plato and Aristotle have higher prestige than the 'pre-Socratics' upon whose insights they built.

Another exception occurs when a later authority is able (for the first time) to harmonize apparently contradictory elements in the existing tradition, to attain a new synthesis which is more fertile.

So Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was able to harmonize the earlier Aristotle and Augustine (philosophy and theology), while Gregory Palamas  (1296–1359) harmonized Orthodox theology with the mystical tradition of solitary asceticism.

And later authorities may become a window through which earlier authorities are viewed; perhaps by something as straightforward as a clear and sufficiently simple summary - suitable for a later era, which provides a focus and allocates relative importance to previous authorities.


Different traditions develop differently according to the behaviour and selection of authorities.

Later authorities may be primarily conservative, aiming to maintain the tradition alive without change, with its essentials unaltered.

Or, later authorities may be progressive: seeking to correct and extend previous authorities, while maintain the scope and bounds of the tradition. 

Or, later authorities may be fissile: breaking previous fusions and harmonizations into smaller islands of more specific authority - thereby spawning new traditions each with only a sub-set of the original authorities.


Or, traditions may move between these categories from conservative to progressive to fissile. But once a step has been completed, it cannot be reversed - at least not by human efforts (only temporary blips of one or two generations into progressivism or fission can be reversed due to the overlapping of generations, and by drawing upon the older generations).

Because there are an infinite number of ways to misunderstand tradition, but only few and finite ways correctly to understand it; so once the thread is broken and a tradition is lost, it is gone forever.

And then we are thrown-back onto mere individual personal experience built from the ground-up; until a new authority arises to begin a new tradition.



SonofMoses said...

Thankyou. I found your account of authority in tradition very succinct, clear, and thought provoking.
There are a few observations I would make.
First, there is a further reason why the most ancient expression (or, as you intimate with Plato, the moment of full fruition in an evolving line) of a tradition is so precious, important and authoratitive. It is because that first full ‘moment’ of vision is freshest and most powerful, viewed as it is from an innocence and (perhaps divine) inspiration which can never quite be repeated.
One sees this in any action one undertakes where something new has to be engaged upon. One is graced with a clear knowledge at the beginning which may be lost later unless one refers back to the initial impulse.
Similarly in Renaissance architecture there is the purity of the fourteenth century Florentine masters, perhaps taken somewhere grander but certainly not purer in Michelangelo, and then again formulated brilliantly but somewhat mechanically by Palladio.
Again the moment of perfection of classical music embodied in Monteverdi is never quite regained, even in Bach or Mozart.
The second consideration, which may even seem subversive of ancient tradition, is the need at times for a new tradition to be initiated because the ancient vision, hallowed as it deservedly may be, has become too encrusted or worn too thin through the desecrations of time.
I personally feel that we live at such a pregnant ‘moment’ when we need to be awake to, and expectant of, the arrival of a new impulse. Except, maybe, for the rare individual, such as Kalb and others with their Catholicism, and perhaps yourself with the Orthodox tradition (both examples of a faith which I fully respect and admire), the old religious forms can no longer, I believe, capture the heart of contemporary mankind.
This does not mean that Christ is no longer relevant, just that I believe a completely fresh understanding of his role and teaching is needed for a new age. But it would have to be born from a depth of understanding completely absent from most attempts to make Christianity relevant.

SonofMoses said...

Correction: I should have written 'fifteenth' century masters

Bruce Charlton said...

@SoM - thanks for this. I sort of agree that this would be what would be required, but I don't thnk it is possible: or at any rate I don't think it will happen.

"the old religious forms can no longer, I believe, capture the heart of contemporary mankind."

You are probably correct - but if so, then *that* is more or less *that*!

a Finn said...

SonofMoses: "the old religious forms can no longer, I believe, capture the heart of contemporary mankind."

- Quite the contrary. Despite the massive bureaucratic education in Finland, the percentage of literal creationists are increasing in Finland, and 20% of parliament member contendors are such. This despite the fact, that the original prophets and writers of Bible spoke mostly in metaphors, and didn't intend the texts to be interpreted literally. This can be seen e.g. in deliberate introduction of small differences and "mistakes" in texts to show that they are not directly from God, but relayed through the imperfection of people. But this is a good uneducated start; much better than nothing. Start has to be started from somewhere.

Dirichlet said...

I tend to agree with the Finn on this. (Post)modernity has wiped off man's understanding of the transcendental. This re-paganization of the West led to a rediscovery of Christianity in its many "hard" forms among certain groups in society, as can be exemplified by the growing numbers of literal-creationist Protestants, Traditionalist Catholics and converts to Eastern Orthodoxy.

Most striking is the fact that this is happening in places like Finland and Britain, hotbeds of secularism.

SonofMoses said...

Bruce, I don’t know if you received the post below when I sent it this morning.
There was something about the operation that made me doubt this. If you did receive it and decided not to post it on the site, that would be entirely up to you and you may have decided that it was not suitable for some reason. That is entirely your prerogative. Nonetheless I resend it in case it never reached you

*that* is more or less *that*! - May this not be your own form of nihilism?
Is not the Ultimate Source of All able to create universes out of nothing, just as His Son created food for the multitudes out of a few loaves and fishes?
And why cannot He and His Son frame civilizations likewise?
And cannot They likewise proclaim new teachings and Scriptures as and when needed?
And is not that need heavy upon us? Indeed, most of your noble writings exist to brilliantly illustrate just this paucity in our culture.
And will He leave His people to starve, eating stones where they would fain find bread?
And therefore has He given us these three things, Faith, Hope and Charity.
Excuse the antique mode, but is there no truth in the above?
I believe He has spoken in places outside the orthodox churches, and that such utterances perhaps are the seeds of a new church. Surely he knows how much astray the churches have now wandered?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dirichlet - "the growing numbers of literal-creationist Protestants, Traditionalist Catholics and converts to Eastern Orthodoxy"

I doubt whether there are growing numbers in these groups, but if there are, I do not find the converts replacing the losses.

(There is the problem of differentiating between believers and those who use Christianity as psychotherapy or social support or pursue an external, secular and political agenda.)

(I think that there are very few converts to Eastern Orthodoxy; but the evangelicals are doing relatively well I believe.)

But insofar as you are right, I find it encouraging in the sense that these people are suffering some measure of social rejection and hardship for their faith. There certainly are limitations and hazards too, but it is something.

@SoM - no I hadn't received this comment, but I am pleased to post it now.

I agree with you that in the sense you describe anything is possible, and it is a legitimate source of hope.

But surely, first, to begin this (or to *allow* it to begin - I don't mean to imply a cause and effect operation), there must be a repentence a turning towards Christ, and asking for help?

How might this arise? The answer would be, I think, the *example* of Saints and martyrs (and not chat among intellectuals, which can at best only prepare for this).

Of course our society is very low indeed in its level of holiness, and seems a stony ground for Saints and martyrs.

Individual Sainthood seem not to burst into existence, but to be a product of many years of spiritual struggle and development, which can go-off-the-rails into spiritual pride when there is no 'supervision' (spiritual apprentice-master relationship) - so most Saints are teh product of Ages of Faith.

But maybe a Saint could be 'sent'? Then comes the problem of discernment; how to discern real Holy saints from the much more numerous fake Anti-Christ figures who 'ape' a partial Christianity in pursuit of evil/ prideful goals?...

SonofMoses said...

Thankyou for your response.
Could it be that you base your answer on traditional theological assumptions which perhaps no longer apply?
I think we agree that the situation we face is one of more or less complete breakdown of tradition, and that there are powerful forces ensuring that whatever still remains will soon be stamped out.
Nonetheless, I believe that deep among the husks of fallen traditions, now being broken down like fallen trees by the forest lowlife, a new dispensation of faith may be emerging like a young shoot from the chaos.
You speak of repentance, Saints and martyrs, prayer and petition. On that basis we are indeed a lost generation.
But, far from the glare of conventional media, I see the development of a new faith seeking the ‘Christ within’.
No longer looking back to previous eras of blind obedience and submission to hierarchy and external deity, this new understanding reaches towards a more inward reality, previously only glimpsed by revered spiritual athletes through extraordinary feats of privation and austerity in places like Athos.
Could it be that these efforts were undertaken by the few, as part of a plan to prepare the way of the Lord for us weaker vessels, that these were the first steps in a process of weaning humanity from spiritual childhood towards a state of freer and more self-reliant adulthood in our relationship with Deity?
Of course we have in no way ‘deserved’ this, but when did true Christianity ever base its claims on human desert?
I have hardly hinted at what is in my heart, but I can already feel you bristling against these ideas and preparing devastating counter-arguments. I long to hear them.

a Finn said...


- When I said "uneducated" I mean uneducated about Bible, not necessarily otherwise. There could be many reasons for accepting literal creationist view despite contrary knowledge:

* Ordinary people don't care about when and how exactly the world was created. It doesn't have any effect on their daily functions and work. The threshold of accepting is low.

* It is the latest Christian fashion from America.

* Counterintuitive beliefs could serve as an expensive signals of members in a congregation.


And these are mixed with the said ignorance about Bible.

There are of course much more Christians than mere literal creationists in Finland, but despite their flaws, literal creationists tend to be more devout than e.g liberal state church Christians. Some of the creationists belong to commercialized marketing churches, and they must be subtracted from the genuinely devout Christians.

Still the genuinely devout Christians are a good start, and they might learn more about Bible and Christianity in the future. They learn eagerly about Christianity.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SoM - my concerns are the dangers of wishful thinking and spiritual pride = pride = the master sin.

As you may gather, I tend to be guided, bottom line, by Fr Seraphim Rose - so far as I can understand him. The topic you describe is covered in Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future.

The other perspective is the prophecies of end times, which I take it are correct albeit difficult to interpret (so, again, I must be guided by those more advanced on the path) and without any time-line or date.

You might look at these essays:

- there is some overlap, but it is worthwhile if it reduces the likelihood of misunderstanding.

As far as I can see, what you describe was *not* prophesied - but a similar idea is there (I think) concerning the problem of the 'Antichrist' phenomenon (of evil successfully apeing good, and deceiving most Christians).

If this happened, it seems to me (but what do I know?) that Christians would indeed be thrown back upon their own individual resources, and the true Church would become purely a 'secret' thing of the heart.

But, if it is true; the dangers of pride and self-deception in this kind of view are obvious and hard to avoid.

SonofMoses said...

What a conversation stopper!