Previous installment here
… But Joseph Knecht is not safe. Again, Waldzell resembles a monastic community: young men leave their homes, schools, and families to join it, foregoing marriage and career. Joseph has pledged his whole being to the scholarly world of Castalia; if that world is fundamentally frivolous and useless, the definitive choice of his life was a catastrophic mistake, and he is wasting his energies and his gifts. This is why, when Plinio can deflect an unanswerable argument with a witticism, Joseph has to go away and think hard about Plinio’s strongest claims. The stakes for him are very high — and not just for him: the young scholars gathered around to listen to these dialectical contests (which become increasingly popular) are depending on him to justify their own choices as well.
Thus, if Plinio thrives on these debates, Joseph is exhausted by them. He becomes ever more disciplined not just in his studies but also in meditation — the equivalent of prayer in this wholly secular monastery — because he knows that without the calm that arises from meditation he will break down altogether. But he comes close to breaking down anyway.
As I contemplate this section of The Glass Bead Game I find myself thinking of C. S. Lewis — more particularly, of some of the comments he made when, in the 1940s, he became a famous defender of the Christian faith. Speaking to priests and youth leaders on the topic of “Christian Apologetics,” he offered this warning: “I have found that nothing is more dangerous to one’s own faith than the work of an apologist. No doctrine of the Faith seems to me so spectral, so unreal as one that I have just successfully defended in a public debate. For a moment, you see, it has seemed to rest on oneself: as a result, when you go away from that debate, it seems no stronger than that weak pillar.”
Note that even success in argument is dangerous. Even if you leave your opponent speechless, you are probably aware that another, more skillful, opponent might have done the same to you. Indeed, if you are skilled in debate yourself, you may well know the strongest elements of your interlocutors’ positions better than they do; you may wipe your brow in relief when they fail to bring out their most powerful weapons. But you feel that relief because you also feel your own weaknesses, your limitations.
To be continued….