Frequent postings are good and all, and they certainly are nice when they contain lots of exciting adventures and interesting observations, or, lacking that, some light-hearted and quippy witticisms, but lacking that, there’s something to be said for accumulating ideas and material and saving them until you actually have something to say. A couple quotes come to mind, one from the Hornblower movies: “Why must you speak, when you have nothing to say?” and another from the Talking Heads’ song Psycho Killer, “You’re talking a lot, but you’re not saying anything. When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed. Say something once, why say it again?” So it’s partially the influence of these quotes, which have wheedled their way into my psyche, that are provoking these days of silence. Of course, one of the reasons for having the Montaigne theme was to give me material so that I would never feel like I was saying something twice. (Wouldn’t want to provoke the wrath of the Psycho Killer.)
His most recent topic has been pedantry. Funny thing about the word pedantry: the mere mention of it makes one sound pedantic. Of course I don’t know if he intended any irony when he was penning this essay, maybe something was lost in translation. (Had irony even been invented yet?) In it he differentiates between knowledge and understanding and condemns the people who pursue knowledge so single-mindedly that they forget to employ it, sort of like the miserly Dickensian characters who accumulate money for its own sake and never dispense with a single cent in the aid of others. He quotes Cicero, “For wisdom is not only to be acquired, but to be utilized.” He also invokes the spirit of “quality over quantity” by saying, “We should rather examine, who is better learned, than who is more learned.” I was struck by this observation because it does seem that people compare their levels of knowledge like this, “She is very learned—more learned that I am,” (or they would if they felt compelled to use “learned” in this sense, which seems pretty rare these days). Once he contrasted “better” and “more” in this case, the fact that I never had thought of it this way seemed to be an excruciating oversight.
He also condemns these pedants who rely on their books for their knowledge—not only for acquiring it, but for storing it, in a certain sense. If you have it in the book and if you know where you can find it at a moment’s notice, then there is no need to truly know it . “I know one, who, when I question him what he knows, he presently calls for a book to show me, and dares not venture to tell me so much as that he has piles in his posteriors till first he has consulted his dictionary what piles and what posteriors are.” I wonder what he would say about the Google and Wikipedia phenomena. I know that I am one who is not hesitant to look up a nagging question on Google, but afterwards I don’t think I deceive myself into thinking that I truly know this fact…
I do have a rather large complaint about the essay, though. While he stresses the idea that “knowledge is not so absolutely necessary as judgment,” he does not give a satisfying argument about how to acquire this judgment or this wisdom. The closest thing we get is the encouragement to learn better instead of more. For now I will content myself with that. Now to put this new paradigm into effect à propos my French learning and my Parisian exploration.