St. Justin Martyr

Light That Illuminates – Light That Blinds

We can measure light, to some extend control it, and for those of us blessed with sight, use it to see, to navigate through life and to shine upon things we love to behold. But its origin in the fearful cauldron of the sun should give us pause. It reminds us that fire, heat and light are also dangerous, like the flames stolen from heaven by the Titan Prometheus – both a boon and a bane to its human beneficiaries.

I wish, however, to focus on intellectual light, the sort of thing that happens when a light goes off in our head, or when we “see” the point of a joke and laugh, or when we celebrate cultural sophistication or even spiritual realization with the term “enlightenment.” And I am thinking about those who are spectacularly endowed with this kind of light, the ones Americans would hence call “brilliant” (the term is less luminous in Britain, meaning “great” or “wonderful,” but readers on both sides of the pond should see that the point I am making does indeed shine with meaning).

I read books and hear talks by many extraordinarily gifted minds. Something has become more and more evident over the years, and it has to do with intellectual light. Those powerfully gifted with great insight almost always display both sides of light – the boon and the bane. Their endowments allow them to see things the rest of us, less graced with brilliance, cannot see. Thus, we can learn from them. But the very intensity of the light that allows them to see with such penetration can also – I will say almost inevitably – blind them to matters outside the province of their particular specialty. They will either continue to hold forth with supposed authority on issues they know little about, or simply be blissfully unaware of a host of realities that would seriously compromise their tendency to extrapolate on the things they do understand.

Fortunately, the virtue of humility can reduce this danger considerably, and I am happy to say that there are some great thinkers who exhibit this safeguard to an extraordinary degree. But, regrettably, they are few and far between.

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