One of the favourite insults used against me by Germans, those who do not know me and have never had the opportunity to work alongside me, is that, before speaking to them again, before having anything to do with them, I should learn their language. This is not because I cannot read, write and speak the language, I am fluent, but because it is the only insult many feel safe enough in bringing out against foreigners who, in an intellectual way, they feel threaten them. It is also one of the few insults where it could be said it is not really an insult and, therefore, can provoke no outcry or demand for an apology. I have heard it a few times, and I have even challenged one of those who used it against me to show his abilities in a foreign language, and list his achievements from the last twenty years, to see whether they can hold up against mine. The use of language, especially of a language to which a person is not born but comes much later in life, does not say anything about their education, their intellectual abilities, their standing in life or as a person. I am sure that we could challenge any person considered an intellectual in a language other than their mother tongue and find fault, as much as we can easily find fault, mostly through laziness, with those who were born in certain countries, but have never taken the time to process, to learn their own mother tongue.
Not just for this reason, but for many others, I have never felt it necessary to criticise someone who writes to me, or speaks to me, about their language. Misspellings happen to us all, and I am often frustrated to find a simple mistake in one of my letters, or in an essay or article I have written – after the whole has been sent out – which should never have been allowed to get through, but which I simply over saw or didn’t understand as a mistake at the time. What is important to me is that the person I am speaking or writing with can be understood, and that they can understand me, and that we can communicate at whatever level is necessary to get our message across, to be able to continue an interesting and fruitful conversation with one another. Not everyone is capable of understanding this, and it leads to many unnecessary problems in life, but those who are not capable of understanding, of taking the time to comprehend, are probably those with the lesser intellect anyway, and those who would likely give up on an intelligent, deep and meaningful conversation before anyone else.
I am bolstered in these thoughts, as luck would have it, by my reactions to a book I began reading two days ago by Rachel Hewitt: A Revolution of Feeling: The Decade that Forged the Modern Mind which I came across a short while ago. As you can imagine from the title, it is a fairly specialist work, aimed more towards those interested in philosophy, British history and society than anything else. It covers the last decade of the eighteenth century when, as you know, language had not yet been set hard and fast with specific spellings for certain words, and specific meanings or interpretations being assigned to them. Dictionaries and Encyclopaedias were still a relatively new idea in the Western world, even though they had been around for over two thousand years. The first modern-day versions appeared after 1728, the most famous one began in about 1751 and the encyclopaedia moist people recognise immediately, the Encyclopaedia Britannica appeared in Edinburgh between 1768 and 1771. In most books of this sort, and Hewitt is only one of an exceptionally long line of people to take the writings and thoughts of intellectuals from centuries of thinking for her work, the language taken from older works is either corrected, or accepted as being in a form most can understand. A word which has a slightly different spelling to that which we use today is easy enough to understand, and it is common knowledge amongst people reading this form of writing that the language used then is different to that which is used today. And if things are corrected, if modern spelling is used, then an author makes a note of this fact in a Translator’s Note or an Editorial Note at the beginning, so that there are no misunderstandings.
When you begin reading, though, and get thrown by an editorial policy which has not been defined at the beginning of the book, and does not seem to have any concrete form throughout the text, then it is something else. For this work I see that some words are given in their original form, misspelling accepted without any comment. Then comes another section, close by, where a word is corrected by having the modern spelling put in brackets afterwards, even though the original is as easy to comprehend as the modern. And then a very inconsistent use of [sic] to signify a mistake, sometimes there, sometimes not, and often in a place where it is absolutely unnecessary or, even worse, is also followed by a correction in brackets. So I see agreable [sic], wish[e]d, and Aegypt being given: the first this annoying Latin note, the second an unnecessary correction without explanation, and the third accepted with no correction at all. This is an example of where an apology should be written for bad spelling, or for a lack of a decent editorial policy, but not, as you do with your letter, because the language is a foreign one.
I write to many people whose first language is not English: people in Russia, Brazil and Indonesia, as well as in the United States of America. What is important in those letters? It is certainly not the spelling, nor the correct structure of a sentence, nor that hand writing is neat and tidy and follows the lines on a page. What is important to me is the communication, that the idea being expressed comes across to me, and that I can reply to it with my thoughts and feelings and hit the right note having understood the original as it was meant to be.
Of course, it takes time before a person can see at which level their correspondent writes, and which level their education is and, far more important, how open they are to new ideas as much as being prepared to sit down and spend time thinking about what has been written. I have not come across anyone yet who has not been able to understand, when given time to consider. At first glance it is possible that some things written, whether by me or anyone else, it makes little difference, are impossible to understand, but that is only the first impression. As the author Amor Towles says in both of his excellent books:
Give me a second chance to create a first impression.
Sometimes reading through a work, be it a book or a letter, can bring light to the subject and a spark into a person’s mind which they didn’t know was there. And what does this spark do? It ignites a fire which enlivens the mind and brings out all the thoughts and considerations a person didn’t know were there, didn’t know they had, but had picked up through a lifetime of experiences, through life itself. And Ismael, as you know, continues to write to me, and will continue to gain a reply, whether he has had help understanding something or not; I find his letters interesting and worth my time.
Self education is the best form of education you can find, providing you do not go out there with a set idea about what you want to learn and how. There are enough people in the world who have an idea, which they consider to be the destination of their learning, and they merely seek the justification for their opinions. Leaving out all that is adverse, all that disagrees with a theory or takes the student in a slightly different direction, is no education at all. You give the example of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle for your own journey into philosophy, and these three give a prime example of how education should work: they talk, they discuss, they are pupils, following a line down the years, of one another, but they do not agree with everything their teacher, their mentor has said or written. The best student is one who takes information and works through that information for themselves, and who is not afraid to take knowledge and experiences from a source which would normally encompass thoughts and desires against their own way of life. You cannot learn if you do not also see the other side, if you do not take the contrary into consideration. You cannot discuss unless you also listen.
You’d be amazed how many people disagree with me on this, and yet it is a tenet of the original thinkers who created what we know today as philosophy. They welcomed such discussions, and happily, if we are to believe Plato, sat for hours in gardens, or in open squares in the city, or in the theatres, and discussed their thoughts, the problems of the day, the philosophical questions which still intrigue us to this day. For me every single debate or discussion is a learning experience, not necessarily to enforce my own way of thinking, nor to change my opinions based on the ideas of another person, but to exercise the power of the brain to work out, for myself more than anything else, what I believe in. And if someone comes up with a viable argument which overturns one of my ideas, what is wrong with that? Had I not been there, had I not been prepared to listen, to discuss, then the chances are I would still have this false thought, this false opinion in my mind, and base my actions upon it. And, for me, it makes no difference what the philosophers have said, what has been written, what is accepted and what still open for discussion: if you do not accept the principle that a discussion or debate is a two-way conversation – or more when there are other possibilities to be considered – where people should listen as much as speak, then you’re not in the right place, and are wasting your precious, limited time. And mine which, as I am sure anyone can appreciate, is more important to me!
Education begins at school, we are told, but it most certainly does not end there. For me, a school is there to create the atmosphere to learn, to lay the foundations for a good education. If I leave that institution with a few pieces of paper at the end of however many years I am required to attend, that is good, but it should never stop there. The paperwork is not the most important aspect of life, as any true employer will tell a student looking for their first job, it is merely proof that someone has managed a small part of what is possible. real education begins at home, because social attitudes and the manner in which we work with, cooperate with, socialize with other people is of great importance. And true education continues in the home after we have left school or college, when we begin to delve further into the basic subjects we have been shown, and branch out from the set way given into the paths of all the other possibilities in life.
That wonderful book Sophie’s World has brought so many new people toward philosophical ideas who might never have given their lives and surrounding s a thought before, that it should be held up as a prime example of what educational writing is all about. We don’t need facts and figures thrown at us all the time, but hints and pointers so that, our curiosity raised, we go looking for the information ourselves. It is all very well knowing that Plato wrote The Republic, and that there are socialist as well as capitalist thoughts contained within it and, of course, the cave allegory, but we go much further when we take these initial ideas from Plato, as his followers did, and explore them further for ourselves. I can talk about the cave, about the shadows on the wall thrown by light behind people chained down, about turning and moving from the false towards the real and then turn to another allegory or tale from within the same work, and lose people as a result. By that, I mean people have heard the allegory of the cave in one form or another, but not necessarily the ideas Plato propounded about the different levels of education, about social levels or a caste system, about who would be eligible for what in his almost utopian society. Utopian for his times, of course, and regarded as Marxist or Communist in our times; although people have also not read Marx who wrote that people should be paid in accordance with the work they do and that goods are only worth the labour which has been invested in them.
From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.
We have, though, a set opinion on what Karl Marx wrote, as we do on parts of Plato, Aristotle and all the other philosophers, and only reading a work in full can alleviate the misunderstandings. He has engraved on his grave:
The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.
We can never express what we have experienced in this world, not in a manner so that other people can see what we have seen, feel what we have felt, sense what we have smelled, touched, heard. But that does not stop language from being an exceptionally powerful tool, and should never stop us from giving an impression of our lives and feelings to other people when they are receptive to such, or when we feel it could help them on their way, as much as it helps us. Two people standing next to one another do not see the same thing, and that is why sharing is such a wonderful experience, to see the differences and learn from the differences others have seen.
Letter writing is something, as far as I am concerned, which requires dedication as much as anything. This is one of the reasons why I have always written to people who have long sentences before them, who will not be suddenly taken out of this form of life and thrown into another. If you feel confident enough to put your words down on paper – regardless of how they are spelt – and feel that you will be able to continue sharing your experiences with me after release, I would welcome it wholeheartedly. The world has much to offer, much that we can share.