Innocence is wisdom, and corruption is folly, NOT the other way around.
A corrupt age views innocence as an essential absence; that is to say, as a state of being “not guilty.” Since all ages are corrupt, to varying degrees, we never quite apprehend innocence for what it truly is: a positive presence.
Philosophy, after all, teaches that man’s telos is the Good; if this is so, then the condition of innocence can’t simply be dismissively consigned to the silly naivety of childhood, while “knowledge” and “wisdom” get to be associated with an individual’s embracing of the corruption that invariably attends maturity, thus demonstrating his complicity with that which spoils his innocence.
In truth innocence is wisdom, and corruption is folly, NOT the other way around.
Yet we, heirs to a highly corrupt age, tend to see things in precisely the opposite manner. Since innocence is erroneously regarded as a void, rather than a substance, we foolishly view those whom we perceive as innocent aslacking something that we have, instead of correctly viewing them as having something that we lack.
Thus, our attitude towards innocence is usually one of mingled envy and condescension. We envy those who are innocent, because we wish we could return to a time when life was “so simple” as to afford an innocent outlook for ourselves; now that we have lost our innocence, however, we regard things as having grown ever so much more “complicated” for us.
Our categorizing of the innocent as patent simpletons, in turn, casts ourcondescension into broad relief. With this same backhanded compliment (“Things are more complicated for us, unlike all those naïve suckers who have the luxury of being innocent”), we absurdly come to see our corruption as some sort of self-sacrificial virtue, rather than as a culpable vice we have chosen to embrace; we perversely cast ourselves—i.e., the corrupt—as the truly valuable ones, while the innocent are somehow conceived of as deadweight, ignorant as they are of what we haughtily presume to be “reality.”
It is, however, highly fitting that we sigh with awe in the presence of innocence, because innocence was our birthright, prior to our tumble into darkness. Goodness was what we were made for, before our nature turned twisted. One of art’s functions is to remind us of that which has fled from us, and to call us not to forget the integrity of our original design.
A song that expertly captures the flavor of innocence is Buddy Holly’s “Everyday.” It is hard to explain exactly how this marvelous tune communicates this familiar, yet hauntingly winsome quality, but its effect on the senses is manifold; in stereo, as it were. “Everyday” doesn’t just convey the resolute perspective of an innocent soul caught up in love. Instead, everything about the song—from the spare yet somehow lush instrumentation, to the self-consciously goofy trademark Holly-hiccuping vocals, to the starry-eyed lyrics—positively shimmers with innocence. The best way to apprehend this phenomenon is simply to listen.
Why does hearing this tune rarely fail to make my eyes well up with tears? And how do I even begin to explain such a reaction? Given that the song’s narrator is filled the joy of eager anticipation, why does “Everyday” provoke such a severe strain of wistful melancholy in the listener?
Part of what explains this emotional resonance is, I suspect, rooted in the very fact that the song is about future hope, not present circumstances. The speaker—whose ever-smiling countenance is conspicuous from his mere enunciation—is certain that good things are coming to him. They’re coming “faster than a roller coaster,” in fact. Love “will surely come (his) way.” (Not maybe, but “surely”!) But we realize that the bliss he is so optimistically forecasting hasn’t yet proven to materialize, merely that he thinks that the signs are good (“Everyday it’s gettin’ closer…”). We wonder, then, if this guy might just be a dupe or a sucker, and our concern over this possibility seizes us with a sense of poignancy.
But it is more than just a doubt in the expressed hope, I think, that causes the listener to feel moved by the words of the speaker. It is also, and more crucially, the ardent and profound earnestness with which the speaker stakes his claim, testifying to his purity of heart. We aren’t merely fearful that he’s setting himself up to fail; more importantly, we are put to shame by the unflagging intensity of his devotion.
One is reminded of the distinction drawn by Soren Kierkegaard between the “knight of infinite resignation” and the “knight of faith.” The former is one who relinquishes worldly desires, recognizing that all is vanity; his gesture is essentially an impulse of sorrowful negation, almost of hopelessness. The “knight of faith,” however, in the words of St. Paul, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” His faith, propelled by his innocence, bears him up, and keeps him free from the sin of despair.
These are the essential characteristics of innocence: power, not vulnerability; strength, not weakness. Innocence, and all that it portends, is the one thing needful, and we have lost it. Can we get it back? In our heart of hearts we hope so, hoping against hope all the while. Will love like that surely come our way?