Wittgenstein Wednesday: April 10, 2019


Each morning you have to break through the dead rubble afresh so as to reach the living warm seed. 

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1929), Culture and Value, 2

Seeds, if they’re going to accomplish anything, must remain buried, hidden, unseen. It is not the seed we notice, it’s the blossoming flower, the ripened fruit, the full head of grain. We can, of course, ingest the seed itself as nourishment, but the satiety we feel from eating a seed is temporary. Hunger soon returns. What if that seed was all the nourishment we had left? Then what?

If we bury the seed, hide it in the ground where it cannot be seen, we save it for later. But we may forget where we put it. We may forget all about it. Until, that is, it sprouts and grows.

It is a bit of natural irony that a seed, fully grown into a flower, a fruit, a grain must then die a death that releases many more seeds. A dead seed grows exponentially.

It’s reflections like these that lead to countless, deep, and meaningful human stories, mythologies, and religions.

“I tell you the truth. A grain of wheat must fall to the ground and die. Then it makes many seeds. But if it never dies, it remains only a single seed” (John 12:24, ICB).

Ideas can be like seeds. I don’t mean in the sense that ideas must be planted in good soil, watered, fertilized, and tended to grow into healthy stalks. Rather, ideas blossom and ripen and spread more ideas than just the original thing. I’ve talked to many people in my life who cannot seem to understand why we keep talking about the same philosophy, theology, and mythology after so many generations, after so much science, after so much technology. But in each generation, those philosophies, theologies, and mythologies blossom and grow in the human mind and release new seeds that are planted in the soil of new generations that blossom and grow, die and (one hopes) land on new, fertile soil.

How is it that human beings can keep telling new stories? Haven’t we told all the stories there are to tell? There are many stories and many seeds. The old generates the new. Our libraries are full of ideas stored away like seeds in a seed vault just waiting to be planted, to die and grow and replenish the earth.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells a parable about a man who sows seeds. Some of those seeds land on rocky ground, quickly spring up in the shallow soil, and just as quickly get scorched by the sun because their roots are as shallow as the soil on which they landed. He goes on to explain that the parable represents people who, upon hearing the truth, quickly accept it. But the truth quickly withers within them because they “have no root in themselves” (Mark 4:1-17).

The ideas of the past — those philosophies, theologies, and mythologies — are the fertile, deep, nourishing soil that will allow roots to grow deeply, quenching the thirst of the blossom by drawing from an almost unlimited source. But we must, as Wittgenstein says, constantly wake up to remove the rubble to find the seed, to allow the seed to grow, to allow the roots to take hold.

There’s a lot of rubble in our world. And the world, for its part and in many ways, wants us to believe the rubble — the rocky soil — is sufficient for growth, for blossoming, for dying, and for spreading new seeds. But I’m not convinced. I think it’s imperative for us today to do some deep tilling of the ground, to find a place where we can put down roots. If we don’t, we won’t blossom. And if we don’t blossom we won’t spread any new seeds. And when we die, our culture, values, and ideas will die with us.

The wise man is wise because he understands his ignorance and is grieved over it.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 71, verse 3 (Goddard & Borel 1919 translation)

Thus says the Lord:
“Stand by the roads, and look,
    and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way is; and walk in it,
    and find rest for your souls.”

Jeremiah 6:16, English Standard Version

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