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Jun 12, 2019

The Many Sides of Knowledge

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Sarah Barnette

Sarah Barnette is a scholar of English literature with an interest in Victorian literary ethics.

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The Many Sides of Knowledge

Can We Truly Understand the Feelings and Experiences of Others?

Spiral staircase, the Vatican

Imagine a young woman from a provincial town in England who has just married an elderly clergyman. They have been on their honeymoon in Rome for six weeks. It is the young woman’s first time in Europe, and after a lifetime of molding herself and her ideas of religion to an austere English Puritanism, with limited access to history books and almost no experience of art, she arrives in Rome and cannot make sense of its pomp or scale. She also cannot make sense of her husband, who often leaves her behind to conduct research in the Vatican Library. So, in chapter 20 of the Victorian realist novel Middlemarch (1871–1872), we find her crying alone in her room.

This woman, Dorothea, is a well-meaning and kind-hearted heroine. She marries the clergyman and scholar Edward Casaubon because she is in awe of his lifetime of research on a “Key to All Mythologies,” a religious history and comparative study of mythological origins. As her natural bent is philanthropic, she naively stylizes Casaubon as another Milton or Locke, without thinking about the realities of relationships and marriage. For her, with her vague notions of history, Milton and Locke are towering, majestic figures who have benefited humankind through their contributions to poetry and philosophy. She imagines before her wedding that assisting Casaubon in what she thinks of as his noble enterprise will fulfill her longing to bring what is good and beautiful to others, but she has difficulty appreciating the complex and nuanced range of emotional needs Casaubon must also have. Like her knowledge of the wider world, her ideas about married life and her husband are very limited.

Unknown to Dorothea, Casaubon in fact shrinks from any hint of criticism. He keeps his research close and is frequently offended by Dorothea’s offers to help him prepare his manuscripts for publication. He knows, even if he cannot freely admit it to himself, that he is unable to complete his project successfully because he is prejudiced against German scholarship. In Europe in the early-to-mid–nineteenth century—when this story is set—German resources on religion and mythology are recognized as the most advanced of the era, but German scholars have also inaugurated “higher criticism,” or the application of the historical-critical method to the Bible, and Casaubon stubbornly resists any non-theologically based study. He denies his limited perspective to himself and hides the complex range of his insecurities and self-doubts from his wife. Over time, she begins to feel shut away from both her husband and her cherished altruistic aspirations. Husband and wife become hedged in and separated by their individual partialities and preconceptions.

Both Dorothea and Casaubon are depicted as tragic figures, albeit in different ways: Casaubon because he is unable to cope with the scholarly advancements of his age and humbly confide in his wife, and Dorothea because she is too sheltered and idealistic to understand how to navigate her confused emotions about herself, her husband, marriage, and the world beyond her rural upbringing. Their tragedies should touch us keenly because they are not grandiose or romantic; they deal with the regular, day-to-day challenges we all potentially face in how we learn new things and communicate with ourselves and others.

The process of learning—gathering knowledge and acquiring certain skills, attitudes, and habits—shapes our personalities and in turn informs our treatment of others. This process is inextricably tied up with morality and the ethical nature of our behavior. In human experience, acquiring knowledge happens both consciously and unconsciously, and the result is always partial and limited. We each carry a unique set of preferences and prejudices with us wherever we go, which plays a part in our decisions. How, then, can we learn to become appropriately self- and other-aware as well as adequately cognizant about the world in which we live? How do we navigate the relationship that exists between knowledge, ourselves, goodness, and action? How, in short, do we avoid becoming enmired by our deficiencies, as did Dorothea and Casaubon? When the novelist George Eliot (pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans, 1819–1880) was writing, a new idea that had just come to Britain from Germany via one of her favorite writers helped her traverse this territory: many-sidedness.

Iphigenia In Tauris By V Serov 1893

Iphigenia in Tauris, 1893, Valentin Serov

The Sage of Weimar

The term many-sidedness entered English in the 1830s as a translation of the German word Vielseitigkeit, predominantly used in Germany to describe the multifaceted mind and objectivity of the literary figure and Sage of Weimar, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). Goethe, in many ways, is to Germany what Shakespeare is to England. He was an incredibly prolific and influential writer, composing innovative poetry and novels (we have him to thank for the Bildungsroman, or novel of education), biographies, scientific treatises, and dramas. Based in Weimar, he was an administrator and civil servant, a scientist, geologist, botanist, actor, and philosopher. He was considered a master of character sketches and observations about the natural world and had—as one of his friends described—a habit of “transform[ing] himself in imagination into the very thing [he examined] itself.”1 Well-known in Germany for his immense versatility, Goethe was reputed to have attempted some form of achievement in almost every field of thought, and when we look at his worldview, it is easy to see why he expended his energy in so many directions. He regarded the world holistically, believing that every piece or type of knowledge is part of a larger whole.

Practicing many-sidedness means practicing a kind of many-mindedness, moving between multiple points of view and seeing how far you can go in entering into the feelings and experiences of those who are very different from you.

This holistic approach meant that no subject was out of bounds. His commitment to holistic thinking motivated his curiosity and humility, his refrain from passing judgment, his desire for objectivity, and his respectful acceptance of difference among classes, cultures, languages, and religions. Goethe made connections wherever he went. In one story, while out walking near Venice, he came across the skull of a ram and immediately fell upon it to decipher some problem he had been considering in comparative anatomy. His holistic thinking also influenced his treatment of others. While hearing the scientist Franz Joseph Gall (1758–1828) describe his new theory of phrenology (the idea that the shape and size of your head can be measured to predict your mental traits), instead of being contemptuous and prejudiced against the speaker and his ideas, as were many of his contemporaries, Goethe was full of questions about the man’s methods and wanted to connect them with his own observations about dissection and psychology.2 Goethe’s aptitude for many-sidedness and for seeking out beneficial connections rather than harping on disagreements became his trademark, and he pleasantly and humorously embraced it, even acknowledging it in his collection of Maxims and Reflections (1833) with a jovial call: “Let us be many-sided! Turnips are good, but they are best mixed with chestnuts. And these two noble products of the earth grow far apart.”3

Goethe Stieler 1828

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Goethe’s practice of many-sidedness also heralded sympathetic treatment and acknowledgment of others, or what we would term empathy. Practicing many-sidedness means practicing a kind of many-mindedness, moving between multiple points of view and seeing how far you can go in entering into the feelings and experiences of those who are very different from you. In this respect, Goethe’s many-sidedness is perhaps best illustrated by his keen interest in non-Christian religions and different languages—particularly Islam and Arabic—which led to his composition of the West–Östlicher Divan (1814–1836), or West-Eastern Diwan. This massive collection of lyrical poems took decades to complete and was inspired by the Persian poet Hafez (1315–1390) as well as various Qur’anic āyāt. Goethe used to read translations of the Qur’an out loud to the Weimar elite, and he asked Oriental scholars to help him with Arabic when he found translations in German and French too confining. Although still imperfect in his understanding of Islam due to the limitations of the scholarship around him, Goethe ambitiously planned a drama, Mahomet, about the Prophet of Islam’s life. Here, Goethe’s many-sidedness shows less in his advanced learning and more in his decision to stay away from the stereotypical hallmarks of the European understandings of Islam that we find in, say, Voltaire’s Mahomet (1736), a portrait of the Prophet as an imposter. Goethe never completed his drama, but it did result in his famous poem-hymn “Mahomets Gesang” (1777), or “Song of Mahomet.” Goethe’s careful attention to and sympathetic appreciation of different viewpoints (even a perspective as maligned in Europe as Islam) inspired a generation of avant-garde thinkers. It provided, for example, a scholarly prototype of many-sidedness—as the practice of impartiality, tolerance, empathy, and respect—that helped lay the foundations for comparative religion as we know it.

All things considered, Goethe’s practice of many-sidedness made him eccentric in his day (as a middle-aged man, he even left his administrative post in Weimar without telling anyone and went to Italy for two years to learn about art), and the model he hands down entails continually developing your powers of outward observation and inward reflection, without regard for popular modes of thought or action. It also suggests that our opinions, no matter how sensible, should never calcify or fossilize; they should remain living and breathing through further observation, research, discussion, and friendly debate. In this way, we learn to exercise our imaginations in the service of others and—throughout it all—to keep up a (humble) willingness to correct our errors. Perhaps the best way to remember these things and to draw them into our daily lives and ways of thinking is to recognize that many-sidedness teaches a universal truth while addressing a universal human experience: knowledge is holistic, with “many sides”—some seen, some unseen—and it is the human condition to be limited in our perception of the whole. This philosophical foundation of many-sidedness fired the imagination of George Eliot, and, believing that these admissions carried their own special wisdom, she set to work.

Many-Sidedness in Middlemarch

As a newly minted word in Britain, many-sidedness came to imply intellectual development on all sides, wide-ranging sympathy and tolerance, earnest conduct, and a level of self-awareness that stimulated and worked in unison with other-awareness. It signified a humanist ideal of self-cultivation and open-mindedness, and George Eliot did her best to harness this in her fiction and to promote many-sidedness as an intellectual and moral ideal for her readers. Because Eliot began her writing career as a translator of German texts, she knew a lot more about Goethe and his works than did the average British reader. German literature was not very popular in Britain during Eliot’s lifetime—partly because it was difficult to translate into English and partly because it was associated too closely with “higher” biblical criticism (Casaubon’s prejudice against German scholarship was something the average British reader shared)—so Eliot had her work cut out for her. She started by writing articles that advocated German literature in general and Goethe and his versatility and sympathy in particular, but she also found that using many-sidedness as a method or technique in her fiction was an effective way to advocate its intellectual practicality and moral necessity.

Middlemarch is a case in point. A realist novel, it promotes the ideal of Victorian moral realism—to see and feel as others see and feel—and so it is already predicated on an empathetic impulse. In Eliot’s day, “realism” in writing meant an emphasis on truth telling, specificity, careful observation, and moral responsibility. Its bent was investigative, alongside being concerned with how to treat others. Tellingly, the subtitle of Eliot’s novel is A Study of Provincial Life, as if she wants her readers to think of it as a scientific or ethnographic treatise as well as an imaginative literary work. Much of contemporary fiction has a similar investigative impulse tied to morality. The American author Marilynne Robinson has been compared with George Eliot because of her level of attention to detail and moral seriousness, and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (1999) has been associated directly with Middlemarch because of its large cast of characters and lessons on respecting alterity and difference. Putting things under a microscope to take a closer (scientific) look is a motif, or theme, in Middlemarch, and Eliot ties this in with the holistic message of many-sidedness—that to get a more accurate view of things, we must alternate between examining the parts and the whole, or as is said in the novel, “A man’s mind must be continually expanding and shrinking between the whole human horizon and the horizon of an object-glass.”4

George Eliot By Samuel Laurence

Portrait of George Eliot by Samuel Laurence, circa 1860

Well-known for its wide cast of characters and for the voice of its omniscient narrator, Middlemarch reads as a rhythmic movement between microscopic and macroscopic views. For first-time readers, the novel is something like a merry-go-round, with the perspective constantly shifting. We begin the story with Dorothea and initially follow her thoughts and feelings as she meets Casaubon, but we are then whisked away and made to focus on the intimate hopes (and mistakes) of another thirty-odd characters up and down the social strata of the town. Even a short list of characters feels extensive. The doctor Tertius Lydgate, for instance, idealistically hopes to put the latest European advancements in medicine to good use, but he has not considered that rural townspeople in England will not want new ideas from the Continent. Sir James Chettam is a respectable landowner, full of admiration for Dorothea, but he fails as her suitor because he mistakes Dorothea’s motivations for marriage. Fred Vincy is a young and financially reckless man who has been brought up to expect a large inheritance from his uncle Mr. Featherstone; he is good and earnest in his love for his childhood friend Mary Garth but acts as if his bad habits with money are not his fault. Camden Farebrother is a poor vicar who also loves Mary Garth; the church (and a little gambling) is his profession out of necessity to care for his mother, an unmarried aunt, and his spinster sister, but he would much rather have been a naturalist and gone into science. Celia Brooke is Dorothea’s sister and has none of Dorothea’s idealism or religiosity; she is very matter-of-fact, but after she has a baby, her whole world begins and ends with him. Rosamond Vincy, Fred’s sister, is beautiful, vain, and stubborn; at least one character’s life in the novel is ruined as a direct result of her self-centeredness.

The town of Middlemarch unites these characters and others, but at first Eliot’s arrangement of them feels random. Yet, the more we see them in relation to each other, both as interwoven parts of the same social fabric and as individual agents whose knowledge and choices affect one another, for good or ill, the more the pattern of many-sidedness emerges. Because Dorothea thought Casaubon would answer her desire to live a charitable life, Sir James has to make the difficult decision to marry Dorothea’s sister, Celia, instead; the vicar Farebrother is eventually able to comfortably support his female relatives without recourse to gambling, but only after Dorothea entrusts him with the parish on Casaubon’s estate; the wealthy Mr. Featherstone is vindictive and petty as he lies dying, and he plays a mean-spirited game of rewriting his will again and again so that ultimately Fred does not inherit the fortune he expected; Lydgate, whose mental health and medical practice suffer from his marriage to Rosamond Vincy, is partially rescued and restored by the kindnesses of his friend Farebrother and Dorothea’s sympathetic interest; Fred is able to find his way to Mary Garth and financial security, but only because Farebrother and Mary Garth’s father give him the right opportunities. Lives cut across lives again and again, and with the omniscient narrator to guide us in and out of each character’s consciousness, the link between what we know and how we act becomes increasingly obvious, such as we find exemplified in Dorothea’s and Casaubon’s gratings upon each other.

Einseitig and Modern Life

We do not have an omniscient narrator walking with us through life to make the link between our knowledge and actions as clear and apparent as it becomes in the town of Middlemarch or to help us understand exactly what types and levels of knowledge animate the people who cut across our own lives. But we can work to know our minds, to round out our knowledge and interests and habits of self-reflection as a way to safeguard ourselves against unnecessarily hurting others. We all have this power—it stems not only from advancing ourselves through wide-ranging interests and learning to be more habitually empathetic but also from seeing (and confessing) our limitations.

Seeing (and then striving to correct) our limitations is not often seen as a strength in modern society. While many-sidedness implies expansion—continual self-cultivation and the broadening of our moral and intellectual horizons—our modern lifestyle and institutions are very good at the opposite, delimiting and inhibiting our views and our personal development. Our divided political discourse and single-issue voting practices, for instance, prevent us from engaging holistically with opposing political views and with individual candidacies. Too often, we keep one eye closed to the wider range of far-reaching (around the world and into the future) policy decisions our politicians make—regarding the economy, education, war—and focus solely on the one or two issues we hold dear. We keep one eye closed, too, to the supply chains and disposal fates of our commodities: food, apparels, electronics, furniture, vehicles. Anything we purchase has a tag of some kind telling us either when or where it was made, but we are rarely handed information on how and under what conditions something was made or how it can be cleanly disposed of when no longer useful. In our modern economy, businesses are driven by profit and not much else, resulting in situations such as the 2008 financial crisis and (most recently) the opioid crisis in the United States. Even in education, heavy emphasis is placed on the specialization of knowledge. Experts often speak only to themselves, in jargon-filled echo chambers that curtail public engagement and inhibit interdisciplinary initiatives. Almost everywhere we look, modern life—and the modern self—suffers from “silo syndrome” (or “tunnel vision”) within its specialized branches, departments, and disciplines.5

In German, there is a word used in contradistinction to many-sidedness: einseitigkeit, or one-sidedness. While vielseitig indicates an elevated perspective, einseitig implies partiality and limited vision. This, unfortunately, is the term we are far more likely to be living out on a day-to-day basis. It characterizes our habit of looking at the world with only one eye open. But of course, if you walk around with only one eye open, you are sure to lose your depth perception and bump into things. Similarly, a one-sided approach to knowledge—of ourselves, of others, and of the world we share—leads to losing sight of the complex realities around us. Realities—social, political, industrial, and climate-related—are collapsed into a two-dimensional existence and, once rendered flat, are cropped and framed like a photograph carefully curated to suit the onlooker’s preexisting worldview.

“Less Assumption of Entire Knowingness”

We easily slip into one-sidedness; contrariwise, many-sidedness, practiced to perfection, is a lofty ideal. Striving to be many-sided to any extent is challenging; it requires intellectual, emotional, and at times even physical effort. But the least we can do is humbly recognize and admit our limitations. George Eliot herself was impressively many-sided, much like Goethe. She was a polyglot and polymath and wrote poetry and essays as well as novels. She was well up on current events. Matters of economy, politics, policy making, education, and technology are all brought before her readers in one form or another. And yet with all of her learning, she wrote early in her career, “I only wish I could write something that would contribute to heighten men’s reverence before the secrets of each other’s souls, that there might be less assumption of entire knowingness.”6 Understanding that hurtful behavior can come from assuming we know too much just as easily as it can come from knowing too little, Eliot wrote her novels as displays of what a heightened, superhuman level of other-awareness might really look like. Simultaneously, she held up a mirror to the myopia that in fact characterizes our human condition. We cannot see into the minds of others, or see ourselves in completely correct proportions, but these limitations are not a hindrance to moral conduct. For, as well as a way of properly managing the knowledge we can access, many-sidedness is a method for responding to the knowledge we cannot—with sensitivity, curiosity, and humility.


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