Friday, 22 April 2011

The Deep and the Shallow

Have a read of this…

A mother had, for their education and betterment, given her children Aesop’s fables to read.  Very soon, however, they brought the book back to her, and the eldest, who was very knowing and precocious, said: ‘This is not a book for us!  It’s much too childish and silly.  We’ve got past thinking that foxes, wolves and ravens can talk: we’re too grown up for such nonsense!’ – Who cannot see in this hopeful lad the future enlightened Rationalists? (from Essays and Aphorisms, by Arthur Schopenhauer)

…and tell me: who were you thinking of when you quickly jogged through these sentences?

The book is full of wonderful things.[i]  It likes the professional amateur:

Dilettantes!  Dilettantes! – this is the derogatory cry those who apply themselves to art or science for the sake of gain raise against those who pursue it for love of it and pleasure in it.  This derogation rests on their vulgar conviction that no one would take up a thing seriously unless prompted to it by want, hunger, or some other kind of greediness.  The public has the same outlook and consequently holds the same opinion, which is the origin of its universal respect for ‘the professional’ and its mistrust of the dilettante.  The truth, however, is that to the dilettante the thing is the end, while to the professional as such it is the means; and only he who is directly interested in a thing, and occupies himself with it from love of it, will pursue it with entire seriousness.  It is from such as these, and not from wage earners, that the greatest things have come.

Schopenhauer was writing before the full impact of the universities on the sciences and arts.  Even in the 19th century many of the great thinkers were still outside the academy: Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer himself.  One century later that could not be said; although it is possible they have yet to be discovered, though this seems unlikely.

Today to be a great thinker is almost certainly to be an academic.  Though sadly they are not synonymous.  Many academics, as I have occasionally noted, are not even thinkers of the third rank; assuming they think at all.   Ernest Gellner once wrote that the university is full of people who pretend to understand the things they don’t.  Fifty years later the situation is probably worse; with Literary Theory increasing the possibilities of incomprehension and fakery. 

This makes it hard for the educated general public, who want to stay informed, and who want to go beyond the monotonous simplicities of the daily news.  For how are we to know the profound from the shallow; when everyone now appears to swim in the same waters…  How are we, walking as we do only occasionally past the impressive frontages of these modern aquariums, to discover the dilettantes who dive down deep inside? 

Aren’t questions easy?  The answers are hard work.

[i] The book is also strangely unsatisfactory too: marvellous and a little flat.  Full of fine writing and brilliant metaphors, and penetrating observations, it has also covers, in many places, a familiar ground – expressing, but in a far more acute way, thoughts and ideas we already have.  We learn a lot, but perhaps not enough.

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