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Is true knowledge valuable?

What are the goals of personal development? What do people who are interested in personal development want?

In a way Personal Development has replaced religion or supplements religion for some people so they may be interested in the spirit. They might ask:

Who am I really?

What should I be doing on Earth?

What happens to me when I die?

On the other hand, some people involved in personal development seem solely interested in mundane matters such as:

how to communicate better,

how to improve self confidence,

how to get rich,

how to get better relationships, and

how to be happy.

Some organisations promise superhuman abilities. Let us look at these and analyse them. For example, levitation, the ability to float in the air without any support, against the normal laws of science. Or the ability to read other's minds. Or the ability to make things appear magically. Etc.

I believe that some mystics claim to be able to produce diamonds out of thin air. I think Sai Baba's supporters claim he can do this. This could be a useful ability. You could pay the rent several years in advance with these magically produced diamonds! And imagine this as a party trick. You wouldn't have to bother with the mundane skills of self confidence or how to communicate well, if you knew this trick!

Whether by slight-of-hand or by true magic, mystics do these tricks to impress their followers and encourage others to join their group. They might attract us because we want to learn these tricks. And we hope that by joining their group we would learn how to make diamonds out of thin air. Alternatively, we might think that we would have something to learn about true wisdom from someone who could do this trick. We might even consider this person a god, and decide to subjugate ourselves to them and obey their every command, however irrational, on the premise that this guru knows what is right.

Yet does it make sense to be attracted to such people even if they do practise true magic?

I think the answer is no.

Mere self-subjugation to a superior being (or any being) doesn't seem right. The philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who was a committed Christian, said that even if the Arch Angel Gabriel appeared to him and command him to do something, then even if Kant knew that this was indeed the Arch Angel, he would still require the Arch Angel to prove the morality of what he had commanded. It is a pity that those who have followed the many modern day Jesus's, sometimes to their death, did not follow this principle. This may have avoided these tragedies.

Almost all cult and religious founders in history have shown more interest in getting their hands into the female disciples' underclothes or into the male disciples' pocket books, than in their disciples' spiritual development. Or both. Or vice versa. I do not evaluate this negatively and find it somewhat amusing. It appears a simple fact. However, it means that the guru has not encouraged self confidence and personal responsibility in his followers. It questions his or her degree of true knowledge. The Beatles, for example, left one teacher in disgust after he made a pass at Mia Farrow. They did not do this because they considered themselves great moralists. They probably perceived the guru as lacking communication skills and as being more interested in satisfying his basic desires than helping others achieve some personal development. The guru lost his credibility.

Even if the guru could genuinely practice magical skills, would this be a reason to join him or her in order to gain knowledge?

I think the answer is no.

Let's evaluate this on the mundane level. Suppose someone plaid winning golf and we wanted to be an expert golfer ourselves, would it be rational to seek him out as a teacher, just because he plaid expert golf? How does the fact that he or she is an expert golfer imply they can teach golf? It doesn't. If we were to seek a teacher to improve our golf, we would be wiser to find someone who had a proven record of successfully teaching others. This person may play winning golf or might play average golf. We would ask: does he teach others to play expert golf? The skills of teaching golf and playing golf are not the same. Often we notice experts teaching one thing and doing something quite different! They have little idea what makes them an expert! They can do, but they do not know what they do or how they do it. And they cannot teach it.

If we wanted to learn from such an expert we would watch them carefully, and question them about their thinking. We might be able to notice what they do much better than they can!

Even if we forget the above, and accept that the expert could teach us golf, we would not expect that he or she could teach us football, let alone teach us the meaning of life!

Why should a practitioner of the true magic fare any better? Why should we believe that they could teach us true knowledge? I don't think we have any reason to believe that they could just because they do magical tricks.

Hearing about someone who can perform magical tricks, should not lead us to believe that they can teach us to do magic tricks. Even if they can do this, we would have no reason to believe they have true knowledge, no more than we would expect the expert golfer to be able to teach us football, or tell us the meaning of life.

We might even have good reason to believe the guru performing magical tricks does not have the true knowledge. If you lured me to join your group by practising magical tricks, then I would come into your group with thoughts of making diamonds, or floating in the air, or of being popular at a party doing that trick, rather than seeking true knowledge. Because this would tend to encourage the gullible or the worldly seekers, then the guru would attract the wrong people. This would indicate an error in his practising true knowledge. It might imply that he doesn't have it. It probably does.

Let's look at some more mundane goals of personal development and ask if they are valuable.

Suppose you wanted to gain excellent communication skills. The ability to persuade anyone to do anything! The power to influence beyond your present imagination! Would this in itself be a useful skill?

Two and a half thousand years ago in Ancient Greece, as now, teachers claimed to teach excellent communication skills. Gorgias claimed to teach his students how to win any case in court, persuade any mob - even gain great power in their city. When he arrived at a city, he created quite a stir and many came to learn his skills. The philosopher Socrates met him for a discussion and asked him to name his profession. Gorgias called it the greatest of all professions. In the end, Socrates proved that the skill valueless without true knowledge. What point has the ability to persuade anyone of anything when you don't know the truth? How do you know what to persuade them, or yourself to do or think, if you do not know true knowledge? When asked what he thought the skill was, Socrates said it was, 'Arse licking.' (The Greek word is usually translated euphemistically as 'flattery'.) 'What about if you stood in court, facing the death penalty,' one of them asked Socrates, 'Wouldn't you want someone like Gorgias to defend you?' Socrates said, 'No.'

As fate would have it Socrates stood in court charged with corrupting the youth. He defended himself, instead of using a 'flatter' and the court found him guilty, and executed him.

At about the same time, the beautiful model, Phryn, faced the same charges of corruption. She struck lucky because as a woman, so she could not defend herself in the Greek courts. She had to employ a lawyer. During the trial, her Gorgias-trained lawyer suddenly reached out and snatched her chiton, tearing it off. As she stood naked before the gentlemen of the jury, her lawyer asked, 'Can such beauty as this be corrupt?' The gentlemen of the jury thought not, and she was released!

Irrationality triumphed over reason!

Yet Socrates' belief still stands: that without true knowledge, powerful persuasion becomes pointless. The ability to create belief appears valuable, but without true knowledge, it becomes dangerous.

What, though, is true knowledge?

I think that true knowledge is knowledge about the mind. True knowledge enables us to rise above our irrationalities and overcome our fears and anxieties so that we can think and behave without compulsively seeking some good and without avoiding some fear. We can live and think more freely and we can manifest our native abilities. Unlike Socrates, I value the mundane skills, and like Socrates, I consider meaningful self-development requires true knowledge.

Impartial observer seem more accurate and reliable than one of the parties in a dispute, where these are individuals, groups, or parts of our own minds. When strong passions do not distract us and irrational fears do not make us avoid issues, then we can consider all the facts and think clearly. We can unify our experiences. However, true knowledge equates to non-verbal knowledge.

If you looking at a mountain and I ask you to describe the mountain, when you use words your understanding or perception of the mountain changes. You add something to it from the associations of the words and you avoid really looking at the mountain now you have the words. For example, I have referred to worldly things as mundane. But mundane can mean dull. If someone took my use of mundane to be dull, then they would have misunderstood my words. Words, however, can have a more subtle effect. When we try to describe true knowledge with words, as we do when we wish to communicate, we detract somewhat from the true knowledge. Although we have to use words to describe true knowledge, true knowledge is not the same as words. We often confuse true knowledge with the words used to express it.

Fortunately, we can avoid doing this by remembering the difference between the words and the true knowledge and using the words as guides to experiencing or doing the true knowledge.

Truths are activities or experiences that we clearly perceive or understand. We can only do and experience when we have freed ourselves from compulsive fear and desire. When we have freed ourselves from the carrot and the stick, we have achieved both true knowledge and many of the mundane skills too.

Please note I am not claiming that strong passions - fear and desire - are bad. I am referring to compulsive passions.


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Most Recent Revision: 20-Mar-99.
Copyright 1998, 1999 Ken Ward,
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