What If Books and Conversations Aren’t Enough to Make Us Wise?

This post of mine originally appeared on the Circe Institute.

If growing in wisdom were as simple as going to the right school and reading the right books, why aren’t more people truly wise?

As a teacher of many years, I direct great time and energy toward selecting and discussing the right books. Every year I reevaluate my curriculum and reading lists; I listen to podcasts and read articles and talk with friends, trying to discern which books my students should be reading and discussing. I also spend time cultivating the right conversations about these books, asking the right questions and helping our students learn the right conversational habits. These conversations—either one-on-one or in a classroom—are just as important as the books our students are reading. But in my years teaching and discussing great books, I’ve come to realize that the greatest books and the best Socratic questions are rendered powerless if our students do not possess the right virtues. While all of the virtues are helpful in becoming an educated human being, the two that seem to be essential to the learning process are humility and courage.

Every semester I begin by reminding my students that the two greatest impediments to the learning process are pride and fear. In a simplistic way, we can place many of the people we know in one of these two categories. On the one hand, there are the prideful: the people who talk too much and listen very rarely; the people who think too highly of their own opinions; the people who challenge others but seldom accept disagreement with their own ideas. On the other hand, there are the fearful: the people who hesitate to venture their own opinions; those who prefer to remain quiet, happy to have others risk their reputations on wrong opinions but never willing to risk it themselves. We all know these people. Maybe we are these people. But I think if we dig deeper, we can see that pride and fear are seldom so neatly separated. And as we come to understand more of how they are joined, we can come to see why these vices often threaten the pursuit of wisdom.

When we approach a book or a conversation or an idea in pride and fear—for let us all confess that these vices beset all of us—we fail to allow the truth to make the necessary soul incision that leads to transformative learning. And this is exactly what truth is—a sword, a scalpel, an incisive tool that lays bare our ignorance and folly and disease so that we might be made whole, integrated, and enlightened. In fear we retreat from the truth, for it threatens our sense of self. In pride we fight against the truth, for we believe that truth is our enemy, not the friend who faithfully wounds us so that we might be healed.

Truth is a terrifying prospect, for it threatens our self-esteem, our self-assessment of our own being, our self-confidence. Truth not only shows us—and others—where we are wrong: it shows us where our own powers of self-perception have failed us. The way we have measured ourselves is faulty. Not only have we failed to account rightly for the nature of things outside of us—we have failed to understand our own self, our weaknesses and ignorance and faulty inner sight, our disease and disintegration and darkness. If the Delphic oracle is right that education begins with knowing ourselves, then learning is a terrifying prospect, indeed. We all know this intuitively, which is why we have many natural defense mechanisms against true learning.

The list of defense mechanisms—the things that we all do to retreat or combat the truth out of pride and fear—is long: silence, talking, ignoring, distracting, debating, deferring, not reading, reading so that one can talk intelligently, trying to win the approval of one’s peers, etc. But for all of these external actions, there are internal motivations that are the true impediments to learning. Take silence, for example. Listening rather than talking can be an act of humility and courage: the willingness to learn rather than instruct, to be taught by others rather than to teach. But silence can also be an act of pride and fear, an unwillingness to venture one’s opinions because we might be wrong, an obstinate selfishness that turns the eyes inward, rather than toward the truth. Likewise, talkativeness can be an act of pride and fear: the constant defense of our own entrenched ideas or the arrogant belief that we have the answers already within ourselves. But talkativeness can also be a sign of humility, a keen desire for the truth, a willingness to risk being wrong. In The Man Who Was Thursday, Chesterton says that “it is always the humble man who talks too much; the proud man watches himself too closely.” The pursuit of truth can often be expressed by the willingness to share wrong opinions so that they can be made right. For both the quiet and the talkative person, what is most important is not that we talk a certain amount, but that we be courageous and humble in the way they approach our conversations and our reading.

What all this means is that certain forms of conduct does not necessarily facilitate true learning, nor is wisdom a matter of simply reading the right books and having the right conversations. It is fundamentally a matter of the internal workings of the heart. We must have the courage to be wrong, to listen to ideas that seem to threaten our ideas and our very sense of self. We must have the humility to change our mind, to venture a wrong opinion, to stand underneath an idea so that we might truly understand. And what better way to help others grow in these virtues than by cultivating humility and courage in our own souls? For as Aristotle says, we all learn through imitation. And is this not the path our Savior walked before us, in courage and humility taking human flesh, being born among lowly men, that he might lead us into Truth?

2 thoughts

  1. One of the things I’ve learned about myself and people, in my opinion, that it doesn’t matter if you have pride or fear, or talent or come from the wrong side of life. What makes a person learn or do or accomplish anything is the “desire” to. That’s it. With a burning desire in the bosom all others are overcome. Don’t stand in their way…


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