Each day that you spend on earth ought to be an adventure in thinking, where every hour, as Wordsworth wrote, ‘brings palpable access of knowledge.’
Thinking is the disease, more thinking is the cure.
If vain opinions and flattering hopes were taken out of our minds, Bacon says, they would turn to ‘poor shrunken things, unpleasing to themselves.’ If we cleared them, we might find out what cheap junk they were cluttered with.
Thinkers such as Schopenhauer who deride the cult of progress still don’t doubt that the light is advancing, since they are confident that their own dogmas will soon have eclipsed those of their rivals.
Some sages, such as Confucius, Emerson or Thoreau, provide a bracing course in mental and moral hygiene but few new concepts. They are more a tonic than an aliment. They refresh us rather than feed us. But we have now grown so morbid, that we mistrust sound intellects till we have traced the spot where they ail. Goethe irks us as a person in rosy health affronts an invalid.
1 Thinking about thinking
There is no one method. We need a whole spectrum of them, to suit each tenor of mind, question, faculty and style. And there is no technique that can teach you how to reason. The best it might do is show you how to mend the ideas that you have found out by chance or by unguided persistence. Descartes’s Discourse on Method demonstrates that there is none.
When writers try to unpack how they make their fictions, they make one of the most implausible of their fictions. When they try to expound the procedures of a daring mind, they demurely set out their own. But when they try to set out their own, don’t they get them quite wrong?
The hardest thing to think about is thinking itself. It’s more difficult to grasp how you do an easy task than it is to do a difficult one, and, as Wilde wrote, ‘it is much harder to talk about a thing than to do it.’ Napoleon can’t tell you how to win a war. ‘I have fought sixty battles,’ he said, ‘and I have learned no more than I already knew after the first.’ Descartes, who meditated more incisively than anyone on how to think, announced that if you accede only to what you know to be right then you won’t go awry. Coleridge’s bland recipe of ‘best words in best order’ would turn out uninspired verse. Do we ever think more dully than when we analyze genius, or more stolidly than when we speculate on the impassioned mind?
2 Courage and rivalry
We refuse to part with views which we have not pondered enough to make our own. We are willing to go to great trouble to fight systems of thought which we are too slack to make sense of.
Some people may give up their peace of mind in order to seek out the truth, but far more give it up to keep their illusions. They will glibly bet their souls on a creed which they have not gone to the trouble of understanding. They’re prepared to die for their prejudices, but they won’t live for their principles. Why are they so willing to kill or be killed for tenets which they were too lazy to examine? ‘People,’ Russel remarked, ‘would sooner die than think. In fact, they do.’ Defoe said that there were a hundred thousand englishmen poised to make war on popery, who were not sure if it was a man or a horse. Those who lay down their lives for a cause don’t prove a thing, not even that they believe in it or know what it is. But a creed may not be untrue even if millions die for it, though its adherents assume that they prove it true if they can make more of its adversaries die.
Like and unlike, associates and attackers, emulation and opposition, all goad and fire you to think. ‘Our antagonist is our helper,’ as Burke said.
We all desire to know, but few of us desire to know more than the rest of the world knows. Most of us have no wish to learn anything fresh. We just want to hear more of the sorts of things with which we have long been acquainted. ‘People don’t want to read anything except that with which they are already familiar,’ as Goethe said. ‘What they want is what they know.’ Most of our searching deflects us from discovering truths that are worth knowing. It immerses us in trifles, gabble and gossip. When you’re thinking for your life, you need more than mere idle or professional curiosity to drive you. Yet most of our curiosity is merely professional or idle. What we long for is to hear some snippet of information that we can use for our own ends or else some tattling chatter to regale our tired minds. How could we spot the truth, when our eyes are on the watch for the least hook of advantage? Curiosity, like greed, always wants more, but just more of the same. Most of us gawk about like sightseers, and scoot through what all the world is well aware of. Independent minds scout like adventurers, to blaze their way to thoughts that no one else has yet dreamt of. Were they merely inquisitive, they could have learnt far more quickly what the rest of us have been taught, rather than labouring so long to reach a few unforeseen truths of their own. In the time that it took them to track these down, they could have gleaned great sheaves of known facts. The dreariest globetrotter has ranged and seen more than the most intrepid discoverer.
Most children’s curiosity, like their cruelty, is just their unoccupied and aimless boredom on the lookout for some new sport to titillate them.
It’s rivalry and not curiosity that finds its way to the richest lodes.
Our inquisitiveness leads us conventionally out of the right way and on to the trail of trivia, news and small talk. We are as credulous as we are curious. We had far rather retell common fallacies than find out uncommon truths.
A thought has to hide a little, to show that it will repay the finding.
4 Cowards know best
The sole cowardice for which thinkers can be blamed is a failure to think as far as they ought. And if they do this, it’s not from pusillanimity but from haste to reach a conclusion and claim their reward.
We are all plummeting down a chasm. Thinkers are those few who can still muse on what they see as they spiral downward.
We are not afraid to think, though we may claim to be, so that we don’t have to do it or so that we can boast of our daring if we do. But in order to reflect, it’s not bravery that you require but restraint. To reach the truth, you don’t need to beat down daunting obstacles, you just need to withstand the world tempting you to chase after its cheap allurements. Fear doesn’t hold us back from thinking, greed goads us on to do things that pay better. It’s our itching lust for the rest of life’s good things that keeps us from uncovering the truth. I have nothing to fear from truth, but what do I have to gain from it? Few of us think, not because we dread what it will get us, but because we crave what we know it won’t, that is, profit and amusement. We don’t want to hear the truth. It would get in the way of us having more fun or making more money. The one sort of thinking that we do is scheming how to come at what we want.
I don’t think, not because I’m afraid of what I might find, but because I want so many other things so much. And I lie, not from trepidation but from the lust for gain. And if I tell the truth, it’s not by overcoming my fretfulness, but by embracing pride.
Your cowardliness will teach you more than your courage could have done. For a thinker, to live fearfully might be the next best thing to living dangerously. Timorous people sound life much more deeply. They die so many times before their death, that they see more of life than the courageous. They’re all the time peering through the window of their disquiet on the watch for what might be approaching to scare them. Some of them have been backed so far into a corner by their panic, that they have to turn and face the truth. They shiver through in a minute more revealing moods than the stalwart do in a month. They scan the rest of life with such nervous penetration, since they dare not look it in the face. They have seen the truth up close, and it’s pure luck that it doesn’t kill them.
Guilt imagines all things, and fright observes all things. Guilt and fear dig up the truth, and pride shapes for it a form, which craft refines in complaisance to the inherited canons of taste.
How brave you have to be to front your failure and mediocrity. And how much nerve you need in order to go on living once you have done so.
Faint-hearted people, such as Hobbes, love to wield the cold steel of truth. With its protection they feel as if they were dauntless and unafraid. They take revenge on the world which has kept them so intimidated by venturing to make sense of it.
5 Thinkers renovate prejudices
Philosophers have forged the most inventive and quirky theories, which have served only to bolster the archaic totems of their tribe, and to universalize its customs as a general system. In christendom most of them, like Descartes, Leibniz, Berkeley or Hegel, spun their diverse fabrics of speculative thought which by some miraculous congruence all proved that the christian faith is the true one. And nowadays, though it’s clear that equality is a baseless fantasy, they all found their rigorous reflections on this lazy and acceptable prejudice as if it were an authenticated fact. Even the most original builders end by renovating the dilapidated tropes of their time and place, and if they do more, that is still all that we want from them.
6 Dangerous truths
Have intellectuals ever been so craven, or so proud of their pluck? They chirp that they roam like nomads or exiles, when they are just cosily mobile careerists, a clique of tenured dissidents. How many cautious and inoffensive dons feel that they are dynamite. ‘A roofer,’ as Sartre wrote, ‘takes more risks than an intellectual.’
World-improvers argue that art ought to subvert prejudices, but only the ones of which they disapprove. And they praise it for being disconcerting, but just so long as it’s their fusty opponents that it disconcerts.
The thinkers of the enlightenment promoted a naive credence in perfectibility, a facile psychology, an impertinent universalism, an unreasonable faith in reason. They were drunk with their hopes for the future, disdainfully disavowed the past, fomented rebellions which raised up bloodstained despots, and championed a humanism which will bring ruin on the human race and all living things. Humanism would have us believe that we are exceptional in our nature and central to the purpose of the universe. No wonder that we are all now humanists, infatuated as we are with our own sacred station. It is the apotheosis of a species alienated from the earth and intoxicated by its own omnipotence. The god that it bows down to is a self-adoring and suicidal deity. We are as pitiless as gods, and just as doomed.
Enlightenment, rather than inaugurating the kingdom of autonomy and ends, has reduced the world to a tyranny of heteronomy and means.
Since the age of reason we have had to rely for our saving wisdom on our holy or unholy fools, the prophets of perversity, such as Maistre or Baudelaire, Blake or Yeats, Dostoyevsky or Céline, D. H. Lawrence or Rimbaud. Yeats made the Psalms to Nietzsche’s new Torah.
How this bright globe began to go dark, when our benighted race grew enlightened. We use our reason to light the way for our greed. So the enlightenment, which rose like a dawn, has now blazed into a noon of rapacious mayhem. Having suffused the earth with such a gleam, how could we see that it is an emanation of hell fire? ‘To light the streets by setting fire to houses,’ Lichtenberg wrote, ‘is a bad form of illumination.’
8 Common sense
We call common sense whichever of our herd’s prefabricated notions we happen to concur with. Einstein defined it as ‘the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen,’ as conscience is the stash of moral claptrap that we pick up by age eighteen. Once mocked by faith, common sense is now confuted by science, which advances by deposing it and installing unlikely imagination in its seat. ‘This will be found discordant with all experience,’ as Euler said of one of his demonstrations, ‘yet it is true.’ Common sense paves the world with flat platitudes, so that we can walk round in it and not trip up on its lush unevenness. It is the common enemy both of science and of art. Aristotle was its most accomplished exponent, and so for two thousand years he lay like a dead hand on all intellectual life.
Common sense when sensible is not common, and when common is not sensible. Half our truisms are not so much as half true, but all of our commonplaces are irretrievably commonplace.
Common sense is baffled by the perverseness of the heart and by the weirdness of the world of matter. Use it to scan the world outside or within you, and you won’t make much of what you find.
9 The speed of thinking
It takes us so long to get to know a thing, because we have to spend so much time first learning what sorts of things might be worth learning and then learning how to learn them.
Few of us think, yet we all hug our obsessions and convictions. We are in such a rush to make up our minds, why would we slow down to reflect?
We ought to think as urgently as if we were to die today, and as patiently as if we were sure to live for all time. Our audacity goes to waste if it is not kept in order by patience, and our patience goes to waste if it is not spurred on by our audacity. A seeker must ruminate like a cow and pounce like a tiger. You reach the truth by daring and delay, and the best perseverance waits so long, that it gains ends quite at odds with the ones that it first hoped for. How many teeming ideas you may breed in the interim from when the brain takes thought till the point at which the pen starts to work.
Half of talent consists in perseverance. But you won’t have the heart to persevere if you don’t have the talent for the work.
Truth, if we ever do see it, is a blurred smudge which we glimpse in our peripheral vision while we’re rocketing on to grab what we don’t really want.
You conceive an idea in a brief flash of rapture, carry it round in a long pregnancy, give birth to it in a quick struggle, and then have to spend years licking it into shape. You may incubate your thoughts unconsciously, but you must hatch them deliberately.
A good inspiration shows you a new thought, a great one shows you a new way of thinking.
Ponderous minds preen themselves on their thoroughness. Slapdash minds preen themselves on their quickness. Those who write at a plodding pace are proud of their fastidiousness. Those who write in haste are proud of their fluency.
Streams are not shallow because they run so fast, though they may run fast because they are shallow.
10 Blessed boredom
Only a creature that has the capacity to think can be bored. But one that is free to think should never be bored. And yet most of us would be intolerably bored if we were left with nothing to do but think.
Boredom and passivity lour like the sultry sky that preludes the lightning-bolt of inspiration. But we have now dreamt up countless diversions to skirt the tedium which might have precipitated thinking. Instantaneous strokes of inspiration need long spans of vacant waiting in which to gather their force. You have to stick to a steady diet of dry inactivity, if you want to think world-shattering thoughts. ‘To do great work,’ Butler wrote, ‘a man must be very idle as well as very industrious.’ A great artist or thinker must bear with being bored, and a great work of art must dare to be boring. We know great minds and their products by how soon they start to fatigue us. We don’t find them hard, but simply bland and foreign to all our interests.
11 Fortunate obstructions
A constructive mind is imperilled more by the incentives that are held out to it than by the impediments that stand in its way. Hindrances toughen and extend it, remuneration would shrink and slacken it. Golden prizes call forth tinsel virtues. The opportunities that come to us turn us from our real work. The world tempts the least talent with such rich bribes, that even the greatest are now willing to sell their best gifts to win them.
How delicate a fine intellect is, and yet how robustly it thrives in the stoniest soil.
How many times you have to get everything wrong, so that you can at last get a few small things right. When you lose your way and retrace your steps, you gain such unlooked-for vistas, that you bless your errors.
Thinkers, like explorers, inch forward haltingly, get lost time and again, double back, and lose half their posse. At length they reach a newfound land of strange ideas which they never hoped to see. And what they leave for us is not the unruly realism of a log-book, but a map, a thing much more tidy, artificial and abstract. Then at their heels come the critics and savants, who pave a broad and level way, so that we can all commute back and forth to where they got with so much sweat. ‘Improvement makes strait roads,’ Blake says, ‘but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius.’
The largest truths are hard to find but easy to grasp. And some are still more difficult to believe than they are to discover. They mystify us less by their complexity than by their profuse suggestiveness.
It’s not we who make our way to great truths. They hunt us down and find us out.
Pioneers have a knack for making fresh and fruitful blunders. Their wanderings will teach you more than a subaltern seeker’s truths. Fine insights avail, even when they err. Dull facts would still be dry and flavourless, were they ever so true. ‘Great men’s errors are to be venerated as more fertile than little men’s truths,’ as Nietzsche wrote.
It takes a fecund mind to spin a rich system out of a few initial misconceptions.
Our deficiencies enlarge us. Our flaws may save us from squandering our best gifts. Our cowardice keeps us from coveting the tin trophies which our dauntlessness might have won for us. Pride may stay us from misspending our talents on small aims. Our self-deceptions free us from scattering our force on worthless undertakings by daring us to hope that we might be made for grand ones. They bar us from the concessions and compromises that our advantage would foist on us by blurring our eyes to it. The Lord knew that, in order to tempt us to eat of the tree of knowledge, all he had to do was disallow it.
12 The stuff of thinking
Only the immature live their mental lives through the intermediary of ideas. These are the hard cash of the intellect. A thinker, like a great speculator, works with a currency that is ampler and more abstract.
Romantic writers aim to make you feel. Realistic writers aim to make you see. The best rouse you to imagine. But they use a means other than ideas to do so. Most novels of ideas, such as those of Mann or Bellow, are novels of second-hand and second-class ideas. Shaw was an intellectual shopkeeper, retailing coarse copies of continental dainties to the english suburban trading class.
If a work of fiction has views, then its author has not thought deeply enough.
13 Passionate detachment
Selfishness may spur you on to seek out the truth, though it will hold you back from discovering it. Impartiality may guide you in the right way to think. But it is rivalry that will launch you on the path. How much I fail to see, because I’m not looking for it. And how little I find, since I stick to the same predetermined track. How could you hope to make a great breakthrough, if you don’t have a purpose for making it? But if you do have a purpose, you won’t depart from the narrow passageway that it marks out for you.
Self acts like a magnet, disrupting the delicate compass of the intellect and attracting all our thinking to it.
Genius feels thoughts, good sense merely thinks them. A powerful mind feels ideas as if they were passions, and transcribes its passions into ideas. Montesquieu remarked that the percipient take to their hearts what the dull merely grasp with their brains. By the deployment of what Wordsworth styled ‘feeling intellect,’ they imagine the experiences that the rest of us have to live through. Yet they burn through the ideas that we merely think, and they are tinglingly awake to the trials through which we sleepwalk. They take in things as if they were close at hand, but can judge them as if they were miles away. They dream audacious dreams, yet still reason with all rigour.
Passion gives light to some, but it darkens others. It may urge you to search for the truth, but it makes you feel sure that you have already found it.
Thoughts are made like rocks, some by the pressure of a long despair, some by the transformation of sediments laid down an age ago, and some in a sudden eruption of ecstasy, ‘the fine delight that fathers thought,’ as Hopkins phrased it.
To make sense of a phenomenon, you have to back off just far enough from it so as to misperceive it plausibly. Keep too far, and your eyes can’t make it out. Come too close, and you won’t misjudge and oversimplify it in a beguiling way.
Artists use their pulsing desires as decoys to fix their attentiveness. By making art they don’t sublimate their sexual energy but keep it on the boil, so that they can make more art. ‘The lust of the goat,’ as Blake states, ‘is the bounty of God.’
You discipline your heart by resisting temptation. But you widen your mind by giving way to it.
Solitude confines and concentrates your gifts, society broadens but dissipates them. Other people rouse you to be brighter and more false.
Curiosity craves colleagues, the reflective mind is content to retire into quiet isolation. It bathes in a vast sea of loneliness. It needs companionship as a dolphin needs air, but sparingly. The poet is, as Shelley wrote, ‘a nightingale who sits alone in darkness, and sings to cheer its own solitude.’
Society, like suffering, furnishes you with all the stuff that you would need in order to think, but it hinders you from constructing anything with it. To do that you have to stay contentedly on your own. Solitude is a darkroom that you enter to develop the photograph of the world that you took in society.
Thinking can only be a solitary activity, and yet few of us do it alone. Our heads hum with the bawling voices of the tumultuous world. What light could I gain from my seclusion, when I fritter it away in such lustreless company? A plodding mind stays with others, even when it’s on its own. But a rare and audacious intellect goes its own way, even when it’s with a crowd. For a crystal soul like Dickinson’s, friendship felt at once too intense and too insipid, and so she shut the door.
Deprivation makes us spiteful, and it’s our spite that keeps us on the watch. So the spur that alerts us makes us unjust to what we see.
You come to know a thing by desiring it, by acquiring it, by losing it, or by missing it. When you long for what you don’t have, don’t you learn all there is to know of it, apart from how palely you will care for it once you’ve got it in your hands?
You learn because you lack. Plenty gives you confidence, but privation makes you hunger. And confidence may train you to grow modest, light and quiet. But hunger goads you to excess, intrepidity and desperation, and it’s these that will guide you to the truth.
Some know the world through copious acquaintance, and some through deprivation. ‘It would have starved a gnat,’ Dickinson wrote, ‘to live so small as I.’ These view it as through a camera obscura. A tiny pin slit lets in the wide show. A poet to whom nothing has happened is still older than the pharaohs. ‘I have more memories,’ Baudelaire said, ‘than if I had lived for a thousand years.’ The best minds make most of what they have least. ‘One may know the world without stepping out of doors,’ as Lao Tzu says. ‘One may see the way of heaven without looking through the window.’ Kafka vows that it will roll in exultation in front of you. Some of the most profound reasoners, such as Kant or Nietzsche, had a scant familiarity with the world, as some of the most prosperous lands are the most lacking in resources, while others are, like Africa, made poor by their natural wealth.
16 Out of the dark
How could you make out what is real or deep, till your eyes have got used to the murk of unsuccess and aloneness? Dusk brings out the subtle shades for those whose lives go dark before they close. You have to wrestle for years with the angel of your failure, till it will bless you.
Misery acquaints you with strange bedfellows, and one of the strangest of these is truth.
There will never be a machine so distraught that it will feel the urge to form a work of art or a thought of its own, though it may easily be programmed to turn out endless iterations of kitsch.
Sadness files the intellect to a finer and finer tip till at length it blunts it. Like a monsoon, it first refreshes it, then swamps it, and in the end rots it.
Overstatement can spice the blandest truths. A platitude, like rancid meat, must be pungently seasoned to make it palatable. ‘The mixture of a lie,’ Bacon says, ‘doth ever add pleasure.’ Thinkers bring moribund views back to life by exaggerating them, and so they’re reborn as more interesting untruths.
We can believe anything if it’s stretched far enough, even the truth.
A sprightly mind can trace its way to the plain truth by reading too much into the quotidian things that cross its path. Thoreau circumnavigated the globe by canoeing round Walden Pond. He got to know all the inequity of the state by spending one night in the county jailhouse.
The cosmos is many not one, dynamic not static, corporeal and not a spirit, contingent not necessary, discontinuous not unitary, amoral and numb to what is just, godless but numinous. The world is ceaselessly becoming. Not one thing stands still. All is flux, change, strife and commotion.
Scientists don’t study nature because they are overawed by its rainbow multiformity. Their aim is to shrink it to a small number of reductive laws of their own discovering. And they call nature beautiful because it yields them beautiful equations. The purpose of science is, as Einstein put it, ‘to make the chaotic diversity of sense experience correspond to a logically uniform system of thought.’
Wonderment is the consequence and not the cause of our discoveries. It is not the seed of knowledge, as Bacon claimed, but its fruit. We don’t learn because we wonder, we wonder by dint of what we have learnt. Born blasé, we come by slow steps to be startled. Children are not prone to wonder. All the world is too new to them.
The starry cosmos and uncharted space grow more strange and uncanny the more we get to know of it, though we marvel at it less and less. Our minds have the capacity to solve its most involved mysteries, and yet are too harried by their own low compulsions to be much in awe of them. We are, in Dickinson’s phrase, limited guests in this incredible lodging. How inadequate our use to the infinite gift. We are so cheaply amazed, yet so reluctantly awed. Having framed this world of wonders, the Lord made our hearts dry and small, so that they wouldn’t burst in awe.
Is there any puzzle too large to baffle the human mind, or too small to engross it?
We are more wonderstruck by the images of things than by the things themselves. We are awed not by the stars but by the names we assign to them, not by the cosmos but by the theorems that we use to construe it, not by its subtle laws but by the overpowering machines that we use to probe it.
Genius is the exception that is able to piece out the rule. A great theorist, such as Newton, is the first to draft an overarching law, the instances of which men and women had been witnessing day by day for thousands of years. ‘Great ideas,’ as Johnson wrote, ‘are always general.’
The mind climbs to its acme by the scaffold of abstraction. The best writing builds on unsupported speculation. ‘Man,’ Valéry says, ‘fabricates by abstracting.’
Most of my ideas are inevitable approximations, which I keep till I fix them in their final precise untruth. Some misleading shortcuts may lead you to the truth as unswervingly as others lead you from it. You have to use the simplifications of yesterday if you’re to form the thoughts of tomorrow. But quibblers and purists insist on a misplaced precision, since they lack the finesse to see how many sides a question might have. They grope for the key, but in their bat-eyed fumbling have not yet found the door.
We postulate general laws from specific precedents which strike us just because they jar with general laws.
The laborious way is in fact the lazy way. The hard way is to work less and to think more.
We have to keep on compiling a painstaking kit of minute particulars and facts, since we lack the patience to ascertain the few basic theses which would make sense of them and make our study of them needless. Dismissive of principles, we are entranced by details and trivia. We gnaw on the dry rind of fact, and fling away the juicy pulp of truth.
The best way to catch real thoughts is to lay out in writing a sprinkling of decoy ones, and you can ambush mindfulness by allowing your mind to ramble. Thinking is a studied vagrancy, and distraction is the devil’s providence. What the years will teach you are the innumerable small lessons that you glean while you’re waiting for your one grand awakening, which will never come.
20 The idiocy of anecdote
I place more trust in my experiences than in my reasons, since my experiences are more my own. When asked to adduce a pertinent reason, we prefer to cite a personalized illustration. ‘Common minds,’ Macrobius notes, ‘are more struck by examples than by arguments.’ We are repelled by cold reason, but soothed and amused by bubbly anecdotes. We prefer to be fooled by stories than fatigued and disillusioned by the truth. Anecdote, as Heidegger said, is the adversary of rationality, and that’s enough to make us so fond of it. We love stories, because they are intimate yet shared, entertain but don’t enlighten, sparkle with droll circumstances, and gratify our itch for what is new and titillating, while conforming to the old tropes which comfort us. Reason would unpleasantly clear our minds of the sludge and debris that they’ve banked up. So we use anecdotes to keep replenishing them. They divert us but don’t strain our minds. The worst story draws us in more compellingly than the best idea. Most of us would prefer to cling to particular falsehoods than find a general truth. Christians love their faith for its fables more than for its edicts. They like to be told how Peter sheared an ear, but take no heed of the injunctions to turn the other cheek and resist not evil. The trivial, the personal and the anecdotal trumps the serious, deep and transcendental.
Our minds are at once stolid and inattentive, vacant but humming, vague yet congested with workaday details. We stop short at the accredited similitude, neither graphically exact nor instructively abstract. Most of the things we believe are at once too nebulous and too specific to deserve the name of ideas.
Average people reel off anecdotes and opinions, intellectuals cobble ideas and systems, but a true seeker must dare to imagine.
We want to see all our tired old tropes reworked in bright new stories. What people want, as Goethe said, is ‘a new way of putting what they are used to.’
One experience alone is needful for a thinker, and that is simply to think.
Intuition is wise before its time, experience learns to be provident only after the event. ‘How much I’ve lived,’ Pessoa exclaimed, ‘without having lived.’
Who can trace grand thoughts back to the experiences from which they spring? Who can find the source of the big cataracts?
We fall into inconsistency, whether we think a great deal, or fail to think at all. We think too scantily to make our thoughts cohere, or else we think so much that they form a tangled knot of contradictions. Others are bound to contradict themselves, because they don’t think enough. But if I contradict myself, it’s because I have so many thoughts that they can’t help jostling one another. I glory in both my mulish consistency and my brainless self-contradictions.
Those who can’t hold two coherent truths in their head at the one time don’t find it hard to hold a hundred brawling errors.
Some people can keep up the same slant on an issue only by continually shifting the grounds on which it rests. Those who hanker to seem consistent are all the time controverting their own opinions, since they have thought too sluggishly to grasp what they entail.
We don’t take the trouble to scrutinize our views, and so they stay the same through time but are in conflict with each other. We change on a whim, yet we drone on with the same thoughts over and over. And though we have such a small range of opinions, they still clash with one another.
There are Don Juans of the intellect, irremediably promiscuous, who have caught inconsistency like syphilis, though most of them stay mental virgins through years of such whoring.
We are serial dogmatists, immovable but unsteady, entrenched with the same stubbornness in a dozen attitudes in turn. We are amenable to changing our mind, except when someone gives us an incontrovertible argument to do so. We won’t yield to evidence, but we will yield to what is worse. Reason, like right, has no heft in a case, till force and authority make it superrogatory.
My ideas are as fixed as my moods are fitful, and they are as tractable as my drives are tenacious.
To be consistent is inconsistent with being human. And yet most inconsistent people are mere farragoes of incoherent platitudes. ‘We don’t show greatness by being at one extreme,’ as Pascal says, ‘but by touching both simultaneously and straddling the gap in between.’ A strong will must be undivided, but a strong intellect is forked and mobile.
A writer or book garners its strength from the force and tension of its contradictions.
Thinking is an exercise not in self-expression but in self-alienation. A thinker can never be quite sincere. Each is double and divided, split between the observer and the observed. If you want to breed fresh thoughts, you have to make yourself quite unlike all actual selves, your own included. Bold imaginers are as much out of harmony with themselves as they are with others. They stimulate you by disagreeing with you or else by disagreeing with themselves.
As rhythm and imagery are to verse, so parallelism and paradox are to prose, a principle of musical symmetry and a principle of conceptual difference, dissimilarity of meaning and similarity of sound. Thus the Bible, Johnson or Wilde.
A witty paradox belies what it seems to assume, a profound one belies what our received views assume.
A strong thought must make war on its own presuppositions. But most paradoxes merely stage mock combats.
Some paradoxes open your eyes to unsuspected panoramas, but don’t most of them just salt your rancid platitudes as tart perversities?
False schooling moulds us for a life of well-paid and serviceable futility. True education unfits us for the world. It brings in no return, is for leisure not for work, for the few not for the mass, for self-cultivation not for the state. And so of course there is no longer any true education.
The education of children ought to aim at strengthening the faculties in which they naturally excel, which is to say, their formal imagination and their capacity for memorizing. So they ought to be taught languages, mathematics, music and arts. But we pretend that they can make intelligent judgments on subjects which require wide experience and learning, such as philosophy, history, literature and the social sciences.
Education is the activity which is designed to turn us into rational animals. But nothing is more absurd than to design a system of education according to the dictates of reason.
The aim of mass schooling is not to train people to think but to equip them to do their job without the need to.
A religious education is invaluable in instructing you how to lie with a clear conscience.
The state trains up the young by corrupting them in the ways sanctioned by fashion.
Parents coach their sons and daughters not to lie about small things or to tell the truth about large ones. We need irresponsible fictions to show us how to do the reverse.
When you are taught a fact by someone else, all you learn is that one fact. Find out a truth by your own endeavours, and you guess ten more and maybe a hundred. Dullards have to be taught, a quick mind learns, a deep one makes its own discoveries.
All education is sophistical, since it enables us to act as if we knew what we don’t know.
A teacher learns the wrong lesson twice, first as a docile and emulous pupil, then as a smug performer. And some have no time to learn, because they are so impatient to instruct. Few of us can bear to let pass an invitation to show off how little we know.
Teachers are eager to hand on the lessons that they’ve learnt, since they have no better use for them.
How stupid we become by educating ourselves for others.
Teachers are content to serve as a road to be trampled by the feet of their students. Yet they presume that they know the goal to which to guide them.
A few writers, such as Montaigne, Shakespeare, Nietzsche or Yeats, might provide you with a complete education, but you need a complete education before you can reap much good from them.
Rigid people learn a few small points so well when they’re young, that they lose the flexibility to learn much else thereafter. How many things you need to keep in mind, and how many things you need to shut your eyes to or unlearn, if you aim to smell out more of the truth.
The natural repugnance which most people feel for poetry lies dormant in their souls till it is woken by their schooling.
Most people are force-fed a few plums of poetry at school, and the mere thought of it makes them sick for the rest of their lives.
A university is no more fit to foster fresh ideas than a factory is to make art. Academics are the bureaucrats of the intellect. They collate and curate and sort and marshal facts, but lack the audacity to imagine large new truths.
Scholars are the undertakers and morticians of a culture, whose task it is to give it a decent burial.
You can gauge the vigorousness of a culture from the dilapidation of its colleges. If they are sound and thronged, it will be sclerotic and emaciated. You can be sure that it has lost its sap and juice, if its schools and universities are rich and flourishing. Alexandria is the antipodes of the imagination.
The most delimited topic has room for enough puzzles to obsess the most dexterous mind and to conceal that they are not worth deciphering. We are fixated on such meagre riddles, but we shut our minds to signal truths.
News is trivia that everyone is interested in, scholarship is trivia that no one is interested in.
A pedant’s mind painstakingly sifts facts, and lets in none but the most minute.
To take things literally is not to take them in their most direct and vivid sense but in their most vapid and conventional one.
Scholarship is the premature senility of a sprightly mind, which has grown repetitive, myopic, dried-up and hoarding.
Scholarship is one of the most diligent and laboursome forms of mental laziness.
Some sticklers split hairs because they know so much about a small area, and some because they know a mere smattering. Those who know nothing love to point out how little others know.
Both doggedness and dabbling come to the same thing in the end, namely a flat and dry formalism.
Most people feel that they have delved far enough into a topic when they have picked up a few facile details or truisms which they can swap with knowing complacency.
Smug pedants presume that they are sedulous perfectionists.
Some people become formalists because they have no sense of form. They note the punctuation of a sentence, but are blind to its deep pattern.
A specialist has drab views on one subject, a polymath has drab views on several.
We now look up to scholars as if they had made real discoveries and to critics as if they had found a deep wisdom. We take their desiccated and esoteric commentaries for a new gnosticism. Would literature now seem alive, if its carcass weren’t wriggling with so many industrious critical maggots? But a worm in the guts of a lion feels as pleased with its lot as the king of beasts.
The scholarly strain their ingenuity to dig out in a piece of art those features that give conclusive proof of their own ingenuity.
An unschooled reader feels far more reverence for laborious erudition than for mere original thought.
Critics betray art with the Judas kiss of interpretation. The sole worth of a work of art is the reception of its imaginative fire and the answering it with an equal flame. It is not the decipherment of a message. That is the straw to which a pedagogue would dry it. Anything that we say of a work of art is a waste of breath. It is not there to be explained, deciphered, classified or contextualized. It is to be felt as a coup of imagination.
The only illuminating criticism is implicit in the form of great creative works. But we are far too deep to be able to read that.
Words wait patiently in the living tomb of a book for a reader to dream them back to life.
You can grasp a new concept only if you have thought up to the brink of it on your own. It’s a bridge that you have to beat your path to by your own efforts before you can traverse it. You benefit from some books because you’re prepared for them, and from others because you never will be.
You learn nothing from the best books until you’re ready for them. But it’s they that have to do half the readying.
In each second-rank work I recognize my own best thoughts. They come back to me with a certain alienated mediocrity. Some readers go to books in order to find their own hackneyed notions heightened into shoddy eloquence and set out as a ramshackle programme. When they say that one is well written, they just mean that it gives fluent vent to their own stodgy outlook.
You can’t read well if you have not thought, but how could you think well if you have not read well? You learn to reflect by reading, and then you learn to read by reflecting.
Meditation advances far more ploddingly and far more rapidly than reading. It may take an age to trace your way to a new idea. But once you have it, it will give you the key to unlock a vast range of riddles, which no amount of reading would have done.
You add to your knowledge by what you read, but you multiply it by how you think. Read to gain breadth, reflect to go deep.
Some people get no ideas except when they hold a book in their hands, and some except when they hold a pen in their hands. But most writers are so busy writing that they have no time to think, as most readers are too busy reading to have time to think. We read to be spared the exertion of thinking. The writer will think for us, or neither thinks at all.
It’s intelligent people, who might have been able to think, who read so that they won’t have to. The observant read those writers whom they trust to think for them, and the dull read those whom they can count on not to. Some people read in order to have their prejudices reinforced, but most don’t read for any purpose as serious as that.
How widely we read, and how narrowly we think. ‘We live,’ as Wilde said, ‘in an age that reads too much to be wise.’ But we have now ceased to read, so why are we still as empty-headed as ever?
‘People in general do not willingly read,’ as Johnson points out, ‘if they can have anything else to amuse them.’ Most would prefer any entertainment to reading a book. And if they must read, they would far rather read a bad book than a good one and a good one than a great one. But a book that’s easy reading is not worth the effort. And a book that is not worth reading at least twice will not be worth reading at all, though these are the only books that anyone wants to read.
How could we learn anything, when we read such bad books? And yet we are such bad readers, how would we learn anything, even if we were to read good ones?
There is no method to reading, except to read none but the best with unhurried and pensive reverence. ‘Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.’ But we’d rather scroll through second-rate stuff in a careless and distracted hurry.
Some readers, like termites, swallow a stack of books, and shred them to a mere mound of sawdust. ‘To read without reflecting,’ as Burke said, ‘is like eating without digesting.’ We like books that we can bolt without chewing. We ask no more of them than that they should ask nothing of us. Yet in the long run we give the most to those who demand the most of us. And we love stories, since they rush us on from one episode to the next with no need to think, expecting to be surprised by some new twist, and we want to live in the same way.
Some authors seem to think that people read too much and too widely, and that they ought to confine their reading to their own books and a few other classics, and spend the rest of their time reflecting on these.
You no more grasp the meaning of a sentence by attending to the meaning of each word in it than you grasp the meaning of a word by spelling out each of its letters.