I sometimes get to the end of a page or a paragraph and have the niggling feeling that there is nothing more to be said, that everything worthwhile has been written – not necessarily by me, but over many centuries – and everything which follows is mere repetition. Perhaps there really is nothing new under the sun, but that doesn’t mean nothing left to write about. We take the same ideas as our forefathers, as those who taught right at the beginning, and twist and turn them until a new concept has been achieved, until the idea has a new shine to it, and we can present it even to those who already knew. There are, though, fewer and fewer in our world who ‘know’, who take the trouble to learn, to explore, to gather. At other times I sit with a blank piece of paper in front of me and wonder where to begin, there is so much which could be said, or which needs to be said that it is almost impossible to find the right words to express the magnitude of thought.
The hidden well-spring of your soul must needs arise and run murmuring to the sea; and the treasure of your infinite depths would be revealed to your eyes.
Of course, such words can only be expressed to the right person: there are many who cannot understand description; who do not see the daily experiences of life as being of the slightest interest; who are so wrapped up in themselves – in a narcissistic sense – that life has no meaning to them except as a mirror of their outer selves. What is important, to them, is what other people see; what they are able to portray about themselves through playacting, disguise and charade. What is of great interest, though, is that which is within: the inner character; the id; the soul of a person. And it is this which can only be found through exploration; through the use of words without shields; through the beginning of changing a blank sheet of paper, a blank page in the book of life, into something containing a small form of personal knowledge, of wisdom.
I wonder how many people would read this far in a letter from someone they do not know when it begins in such a manner. I suspect most would have thrown these pages away by now, because they do not know how to answer such a complicated question, where no real question has been posed in a sense that they can understand. I suspect that the quotation from Khalil Gibran would throw them too, as would a quotation from anyone else: who quotes poetry or prose in their letters these days? One hundred and thirty years ago, when the Grand Tour was still a thing, when letter writing was still considered one of the attributes of a good education, most certainly. And today? Today we seem to be fixated on our smart phones, on the status updates from other people on presenting ourselves as something we are not to people we do not really know. Society looks outwards rather than inwards; it has become a mass of shallow, uneducated beings living within a small cocoon of insignificance from which they can see, and indeed seek, no escape.
Imagine people as it were in an underground dwelling like a cave…
I wonder whether you are familiar with Plato’s allegory of the cave and the position of different levels of society in that cave; the tale referring, of course, to the level of wisdom or knowledge each person has or seeks. Not many have read Republic but many have perhaps heard of the cave used by Socrates as a means of expressing the level of understanding, of knowledge, of learning and belief in society, not necessarily in connection with Socrates or Plato, but in other contexts. The reading of classical texts is not part of our modern education; in fact, I feel there is little offered by schools today which provides any incentive to read such works, more they are inclined to scare young people away from literature, philosophy, history and other areas of great interest. Only subjects suitable for the future career, for earning a living, to stop young adults from being a burden on society once they leave school or college, and then only half-heartedly.
For me, education today is similar to the cave: children and young adults have a series of images projected upon a wall in front of their eyes. They are prevented, by the needs of their curriculum, from looking to left, right or behind them. There is no need for anyone to learn outside of the exact details taught them; whether those details are correct or not makes little difference, they are the requirement for a successful grade at the end of a school year. By not being allowed to move within the strict lines of what they are being taught, children and young adults lose the ability to think for themselves: they are slaves to what they have been taught; slaves to the system if you will; slaves to the prejudices of the person at the podium, the teacher in front of a whiteboard, the lecturer, the State which produces the curriculum. The finest example of how wide educational standards differ one from another can be seen in the United States, where a comparison of the subjects taught and their content between Texas and New York – as random examples – is stunning.
The teacher […] does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind
The end result is that many, once they have left the education system, simply turn their backs on any form of learning, right down to reading books. Sub-standard and quickly read newspaper reports – online or gutter press prints – become their staple diet, and the idea of holding a book in their hands again sends shivers down their spine. Information is that taken piecemeal from the daily news on television, and greatly affected by political leanings. An internet search provides them with a quick answer to almost anything, when needed, and then often from the first best site which appears on the results list. Everything is geared to success: financial; work; family; beauty; two cars in the garage, a white picket fence and Mom’s apple pie at the weekend. Two cars which can hardly be afforded, a picket fence made of plastic, and Mom’s favourite pie comes from the store. No one has time to cook, or to read, because it’s all about making money to pay for the house, to pay for college, to cover the debts, and then relaxing in front of the television and soap operas which show how ideal life is, and that every problem can be overcome.
I sometimes wonder whether we – as a generalised society – have forgotten the pleasure of thinking for ourselves and of learning. The challenges in life are not to increase the bottom line profits for someone else, but to increase the pleasures of our own lives, and that not by simply having more money, a larger television and a more expensive house out in the suburbs. The challenges for me include reading a book which makes me stop and think; which makes me re-evaluate my opinion; which makes me seek out other works to either confirm, deny or increase the desire to find my own conclusions. It includes standing in front of a work of art and considering it for myself, leaving aside what all the professional critics have said: do I like it? Does this work of art speak to me?
Seek not the depths of your knowledge with staff or sounding line.
There is no end to what we can learn: our lives are not long enough to cover every eventuality. We may die wise in one small, specialised area, and absolute idiots when it comes to even basic knowledge of another.
It would appear, and you may well agree with me here, that the ancient Greek philosophers must bear much of the blame for our current educational standards, as well as taking some of the glory even if that glory is no longer to be given. It was Protagoras who began selling education in an easy form; open to anyone who could pay his fees and with a set format so that, in a short space of time, students could claim to be on the same level as their teacher. And it was Socrates who fought against this ease of learning, against the conclusions being taught without the thought processes leading up to these conclusions. It was Socrates who debated Protagoras and revealed his teacher as being hollow, without foundation, a prime example of wisdom without the necessity of in depth learning. And even this wonderful debate leaves questions open, which an avid student would eagerly follow in times past; going on to read or study Meno and the question of whether virtue can be taught.
Modern educationalists have taken the course Protagoras suggested, teaching the answers rather than leading their students to seek those answers through their own studies. Modern religion is much the same: almost every religion offers the answer to whatever the question may have been, and only one answer. The answer is always that this one religion is right and has found the path which you must follow, without question, to find eternal light. No debate: this is the way.
Debate, though, is what we need. If we cannot listen and discuss with people who have taken a different path, who have different experiences, have seen a side of life we cannot experience, how will we learn? How will we know what the truth is – be it wisdom or Light – if we have not seen all the possibilities? Perhaps something that we have within us though our own researches, could bring this Light, this level of knowledge and wisdom to someone else.
And it drinks me while I drink it.
Many years ago I came across a professor at one of the New York universities who proudly proclaimed that she did not read a certain periodical because it had a different view to her own. This, I thought, is someone who should be teaching students to go out and look for themselves; to learn by seeing and considering. How can a professor claim to be capable of teaching, if they are not capable of learning? How can anyone learn if they do not have or take the opportunity to see all sides, if they do not have or take the chances to consider all possibilities, to take whichever path lies before them through their own free choice and, should it be the wrong one, come back and try another? My question has never been answered, possibly because it challenged a set way of thinking in this person, or undermined her belief that she, and only she, had seen the right way and was following it against all odds. You cannot challenge a stone wall to debate, you can only knock it down patiently, brick by brick, with solid argument, and then rebuild it in such a manner that it can never be finished, must always be considered, re-designed, shored up with new arguments, new facts.
Pity that the stags cannot teach swiftness to the turtles.
And, at the same time, pity the turtles, that cannot teach patience to the stags. We can all rush to an answer, and the answer may well be right in the end, but that does not mean we have learned anything along the way, and it is the learning which is often of far more importance than the final result. You cannot build a house without foundations.
I tend to read more than some people would think is good for a person, and have my own small library of about seven thousand titles. I spend a good deal of time with books, but also travelling here and there to explore, trying to find people who are willing to talk, to answer questions, to put their side of things on the table and allow it to be dissected. It is not as easy as one might imagine: plenty are willing to lay out their thoughts and opinions, but few are quite so willing to discuss, fewer still to listen to an alternative explanation. You can see it in their eyes: the fire while they tell; the dullness while they appear to listen. And that, my friend, is one reason why I have turned to letter writing. Here a person can lay out their thoughts and experiences on paper without fear of interruption, without having to see the total lack of interest in anyone else’s face. Here can be dissected and discussed, even if it is one-sided; and here can be debated, if the other is brave enough, open enough, patient. One thing that I have learned in life which no one can argue against: patience really is a virtue. If you rush in, you’re going to trip, or misstep, or miss something entirely. If you go in slowly, you might still trip or bang your head, but you’ve a better chance of seeing an obstacle coming and preparing yourself. I enjoy the scrapes and bruises of life, but want to have something to show for the experience once they’ve faded.