by James C. Clar
Credo ut intelligam.Anselm, Proslogion
Zoticus sat at the desk in his study. He was surrounded by armillary spheres, intricately wrought alembics and retorts as well as by a seemingly disorderly profusion of scrolls and codices in a variety of languages both ancient and arcane. One particular tract, which he had managed to translate with some difficulty from the Arabic, had proved especially fruitful. The breakthrough which he had managed to achieve as a result was the culmination of a lifetime of research and experimentation.
But how to disseminate the information and knowledge he had so laboriously acquired? His was a skeptical age and his work was looked upon with everything from condescension and amusement on the one hand, to outright disdain and even hostility on the other. What was more, Zoticus was old. In spite of what he had learned, his own days were numbered. He was desperate to find someone to whom he could bequeath his wisdom and who would be both willing and able to carry on his work. Apprentices like that were few and far between at any time and in any place, but here and now they were particularly, acutely scarce. The old man sighed and rubbed his temples.
There had been that young man last year. Zoticus had so hoped that he would persevere. Within weeks, however, the novice – despite his aptitude and keen mind – had succumbed to the poison of doubt. He had demanded “proof.” Proof of what, Zoticus had wanted to ask? But he knew that such an approach would have been futile. The youth insisted that he needed to “know” so that he might believe. The secret, as Zoticus himself had ascertained, was that one must first believe and only then might one truly come to “know.” Zoticus was convinced that one either understood that esoteric truism intuitively or one did not. And if one did not, there was no means that had yet been invented to alter such an individual’s outlook or hermeneutic.
Zoticus’ epistemological musings were interrupted by a forceful knocking at his door. He rose stiffly and shuffled slowly into the hallway. A draught of cold air intruded and the oil lamps began to flutter as he opened the outer door. Before him stood what he could only assume was another candidate. This young man, however, was carrying a dead owl. Zoticus had seen far too much in his long life to be shocked or even surprised. Owls, of course, were mystical animals associated with inner wisdom, transformation and intuition. If nothing else, he was intrigued.
“I will forsake all … my family, my friends, and my career to become your apprentice,” Zoticus’ visitor stated without preamble. “First, however, you must prove that what is rumored about you is true,”
The determined young man issued an ultimatum. “Raise this bird to life and I will stay.”
Zoticus couldn’t help himself. He stroked his long white beard and, despite the supplicants’ obvious gravity, the old man began to laugh. “Another one,” he muttered as he shook his head in frustration and dismay.
As Zoticus was shutting the door the startled and bemused would-be apprentice hurled the dead raptor at the old master’s feet in frustration. Unfazed, the elderly scholar closed the door completely and threw the latch. He bent and picked up the owl’s lifeless body and carried it gently, reverently back to his desk. Setting it down, he softly intoned an ancient formula with great conviction and authority. Almost at once, the animal’s hooded eyes began to flutter.
James C. Clar is a teacher and writer who divides his time between Upstate New York and Honolulu, Hawaii. His short fiction, book reviews, author interviews and articles have appeared in print as well as online. Most recently his work may be found on Antipodean SciFi, The Collidescope and Half-Hour-To-Kill.
My story plays in a fanciful way with some of the following ideas.
A. Especially of late, my students struggle with the idea that “faith” and “belief” may be considered modes of knowing. When asked how we come to know, they answer: direct experience, indirect experience and logic/reason. Such knowledge, they argue, can be proven. By that they mean proven by empirical or logical means. I then ask them, how do you know your parents or significant others, let’s say, love you? Can you ‘prove’ it? We can cite evidence to support our belief that we are loved, but we simply cannot prove it in a strictly empirical fashion. Yet we base many of the most important decisions of our lives on such ‘knowledge’.
B. To what degree do we shape the world in which we live with our belief? Does our belief in some way come before our knowledge of the world and therefore is it a prerequisite to such knowledge? If so, how objective is the knowledge that we acquire, really?
C. Finally, the story touches on the power of words, of language, to create and influence the world in which we live. Many ancient cultures believed resoundingly in the generative, creative power of words. Fiat Lux!