The Rainbow Root of Ethical Piety

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Physicist and theologian Theodoric of Freiburg is credited as the first to use scientific method in experimentation properly in western Europe. His fourteenth century achievement, in part drawing on geometry, contributed to knowledge of reflection and refraction in the formation of rainbows.

Freiburg’s achievement was highlighted in our October installment on faith, reason, and the medieval conflict—the second in a monthly, year-long exploration led by Hugh Taft-Morales of James Burke’s The Day the Universe Changed. Burke immortalizes Freiburg’s experiment as the capstone event heralding a new way of thinking, one in which faith and reason would forever be challenged by study of the natural world from which general principles or laws could be formulated.

In the discussion that ensued after watching the video, Freiburg’s colorful scientific discovery surprisingly landed us in the very different subject matter of poetry. What came to mind was William Wordsworth’s classic poetic nugget:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky.
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

The “natural piety” with which Wordsworth wishes to guide his days references his strong belief that personal experience and self-exploration more than books or reductionist science are key to shaping an individual’s knowledge. Wordsworth – though a staunch admirer of science – once wrote that the truth sought by the scientist was “remote[,] unknown” and embraced “in solitude.” On the other hand, said Wordsworth, “the Poet…rejoices in the presence of truth as our visible friend and hourly companion.”

“Ethical piety” as defined by Felix Adler is resonant of Wordsworth’s “natural piety.” Adler notes that with ethical piety “the touch of grace is not expected from without.” Adler elaborates saying, “The fountain of divine power is unsealed by means of effort in the sense that the fundamental pressure toward ideal world relations exists within man…He knows that he errs and must err, and he knows, at the same time, that there is in him the tendency toward the infiniteness, and that this will lift him…This kind of humility is incompatible with arrogant disrespect toward secular knowledge, erudition, scientific power, and the like…”

The individual pursuit of knowledge through experience esteemed by Wordsworth resounds in Adler’s “ethical piety.” And Adler’s sentiments contain a poetry and like the “rainbow in the sky” have the power to make the heart leap up. His words regarding ethical piety illuminate Ethical Culture’s guiding belief of “deed before creed” and in doing so remind us that our intention to act thoughtfully and reflectively regarding what we do must be an “hourly companion.”

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