In his early work On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche has the rather uncommon worry that people can learn too much, that too much knowledge is a bad thing. According to Nietzsche, through an excess of knowledge “the instincts of a people are impaired and the maturing of the individual no less than of the whole is prevented” (trans. Peter Preuss).
Whether there is any value in this worry of Nietzsche’s depends upon how one understands it. In one sense, we should welcome the idea of people’s instincts being impaired from time to time, because people sometimes have very bad, destructive instincts–as Christians, we understand this to be part of the wound humanity inherited from Adam and Eve, what we commonly call Original Sin. We can no longer fully trust these instincts with which we are born–a fact that not just Christians, but all decent people, should recognize.
Yet there is another, better way of understanding Nietzsche’s worry about the effect of knowledge on us–not necessarily better in terms of an accurate scholarly presentation of Nietzsche, but better in terms of the truth. It is that human beings are not, and are not meant to try to be, “all head, no heart.” Properly formed instincts, desires, and inclinations are essential parts of a whole and healthy human life. The same point has been expressed by the Christian author C.S. Lewis in his work The Abolition of Man: human beings are not better for being “men without chests,” humans without properly formed emotions and instincts that support our rational decisions.
Indeed, the importance of both intellect and instinct is an old thought in the Western intellectual tradition, at least as old as Plato and Aristotle. In the Republic, Plato describes the just man, the perfected human being as one in whom a “spirited part” of his soul comes to the aid of the rational part of the soul in guiding and cultivating our lower instincts and appetites. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle’s moral virtues do not just involve thinking the right things, but rather also feeling and wanting the right things. The virtue of courage, for example, does not just involve doing heroic things, but rather also feeling the appropriate amounts of fear and confidence, and thus being able to react instinctively in the dangerous situation that calls for courageous action.
Were I Nietzsche, I would point all this out in dramatic attempt to present Christianity as an absurd paradox, a way of life that at once denies the goodness of man’s instincts and then condemns man for lacking them. But I’m not Nietzsche. And more importantly, that is not the situation in Christianity. For the Christian does have some instincts that he can trust. In the Catholic Church, we know them by the name “The Gifts of the Holy Spirit.”
There are some aspects of the Catholic faith that we just don’t hear a lot about here in America, unless one is part of an extremely vibrant parish or a religious community. In my judgment, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit would fall into this category. The Gifts are in no way a hidden secret–“deep doctrine” as the Mormons like to say when you ask them uncomfortable questions–but rather just an aspect of the faith that does not “get a lot of press” in homilies or parish bulletins. Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about them:
1830 The moral life of Christians is sustained by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These are permanent dispositions which make man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
1831 The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. They belong in their fullness to Christ, Son of David. They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations.
As Scott P. Richert rightly notices in his About.com guide to Catholicism, that part about the Gifts belonging to Christ is important. These are, in other words, the instincts of Christ, which he then shares with his disciples as part of the promise of God to give the Christian a “new heart” (Ezekiel 36:26). Having these Gifts, as Richert points out, enables the Christian to “respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit as if by instinct, the way Christ himself would.”
Perhaps these Gifts don’t “get a lot of press” because they are a reality the truly faithful, practicing Christian will experience on his own. Part of the Christian life involves receiving such mysterious promptings. The touch of the Spirit is so light that you don’t even notice at the time. It is only after the fact that you wonder “How did I know how to explain that aspect of the faith in that way?” or “Why did I feel that curious misgiving about that situation?” or “How did I know he needed an encouraging word from me at just that moment?” You realize, then, that other “instincts” are at work in you besides the ones you spend so much time resisting–provided, of course, that you really are a faithful, practicing Christian, what we call in Catholicism “being in the state of grace.”
In regard to instincts such as these, Nietzsche’s worry is unfounded: knowledge is no obstacle. Rather, they guide one to apply one’s knowledge in the right ways, to the right things, at the right times.