“Many Know Much but Do Not Know Themselves”: Self-Knowledge, Humility, and Perfection in the Medieval Affective Contemplative Tradition

Proceedings of the Society for Medieval Logic and Metaphysics 14 (Consciousness and Self-Knowledge):89-106 (2018)
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Today, philosophers interested in self-knowledge usually look to the scholastic tradition, where the topic is addressed in a systematic and familiar way. Contemporary conceptions of what medieval figures thought about self-knowledge thus skew toward the epistemological. In so doing, however, they often fail to capture the crucial ethical and theological importance that self-knowledge possesses throughout the Middle Ages. Human beings are not transparent to themselves: in particular, knowing oneself in the way needed for moral progress requires hard and rigorous work. Yet, medieval contemplatives insist, without this work we will never attain our final end. In this paper, I trace the connection drawn in this tradition between self-knowledge, humility, and self-fulfillment, arguing in section 1 that the humility that results from introspection needs to be understood in the context of contemplative expectations for eventual perfection. Self-knowledge is key for developing the relationship with God that leads to mystical union, but (as I show in section 2) in the affective tradition of the 13th-14th centuries, which emphasizes the role of emotion and the body, such union with God tends to restore rather than annihilate us. In fact, I argue in section 3, the outcome of such union even in this life is often knowledge that benefits not only the individual who experiences it but also their broader community.

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Christina VanDyke
Barnard College


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