Montaigne Says We Should Be Better Learned, Not More Learned

Montaigne reminds us in his essay Of Pedantry of the difference between wisdom and knowledge, and laments the fact that we naturally favour the former:

“In truth, the care and expense of our fathers aims only at furnishing our heads with knowledge; of judgement and virtue, little news. Exclaim to our people about a passer-by “Oh, what a learned man!” and about another “Oh, what a good man!” They will not fail to turn their eyes and their respect towards the first. There should be a third exclamation: “Oh, what blockheads!” We are eager to inquire: “Does he know Greek or Latin? Does he write in verse or in prose?” But whether he has become better or wiser, which would be the main thing, that is left out. We should have asked who is better learned, not who is more learned.”

To be better learned is to have learned also to apply one’s knowledge to one’s life; to be more learned is to be a walking encyclopaedia. The latter, however, is more easily measured and more easily observed, for we can always recite facts. Wisdom must be demonstrated over time, and often requires certain circumstances to be seen.

But always our aim should be to become better learned. That alone is what helps one to live.

On Repetition, or Why Repeating the Past Won’t Solve Our Present Problems

“Repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backward. Repetition, therefore, if it is possible makes a person happy, whereas recollection makes him unhappy…”  — Soren Kierkegaard

A year ago I spent time in the south island of New Zealand in a beautiful little town called Wanaka. It was mid-summer and the weather was perfect every day. I was on break from university and had no obligations or demands on my time, so each day I would read, spend time with people important to me, and go for long bike rides around the lake and up the mountains. It was a perfect week.

One day in particular stands out in my mind, and hardly a day goes by without my thinking about it. I woke up early again to a perfect day, got straight into my cycling kit, and headed out the door to ride to Queenstown, one of New Zealand’s most famous towns, which lies about eighty kilometres away from Wanaka over one of the must stunning mountain passes perhaps in the world. There is nothing individually that I can point to to describe what made this day so important for me. It was just the total experience of this long, early-morning bike ride over the Crown Range with no other traffic and no people. Maybe it was a state of flow for almost the entire day. I’m filled with positive feelings and gratitude when I think back on it.

Soren Kierkegaard Repetition — Repeating the past doesn't solve our present problems
View from the top of the Crown Range. This is my frequent repetition memory.

Whatever made the day what it was to me is secondary to its importance in my mind. That day is a yardstick against which I measure up the present.

We all have memories like this, and we all think back on them often. When the present gets tough, we can find ourselves looking back to those perfect times more and more frequently.

But recently I’ve been thinking about the desire to not just remember those times, but to repeat them. To not just think about how nice those days were, but to travel back to the same town, to stay in the same place, to re-travel the same route, eat at the same restaurants and even read the same books.

Merely remembering these times can make us melancholy, since our thinking about them indicates that the present does not live up to them. But repeating them, recreating those perfect moments in the future—would that not make us as happy again? Our desire for repetition is an attempt to reproduce past happiness in the future. The present, in this frame of mind, is merely a link whereby we can plan to link our past with our future.

But repetition does not work. And not only does it not work, but attempting it simultaneously harms us in the present, and harms our original memory of that time that was once perfect. We risk avoiding whatever problems we have in the present, and extrapolating our pasts into our futures endlessly.

1. Our environment does not determine our mental state

We commonly think that our happiness or sadness is caused by the environment we are in. In remembering the wonderful days I had in Queenstown and Wanaka, I draw a connection between those locations and my mental state at the time. This is logical, and indeed there may be a partial connection. But it’s important to realise that our environment does not determine our mental state, and that we do not see all the other factors that contributed to our happiness at that time.

What we eat has an enormous impact on our emotions. So does whether we over or under-exercise. How much we’ve slept. Who we are spending time with, what work we have to do. How satisfied we are with ourselves. These things probably influenced my happiness while I was in Wanaka far more than the fact that was in Wanaka. And yet in the present, it’s far easier to simply look back and point to the location and the environment as the cause of happiness, since it’s the most immediate in our minds.

We can repeat the environment by travelling back to that location that we remember; but we can never repeat all the other factors that contributed to our happiness, the ones that we don’t remember and cannot see. And the irony is that the former was probably not the cause of our mental state, while the latter were. So in seeking repetition, we are merely confusing causes, and seeking to repeat something that was coincidental to our happiness.

2. Desire for repetition stems from dissatisfaction with our present

We can map out the direction of our thoughts when we begin to consider repetition.

When we are satisfied with the present we do not recollect the past. When I was in Wanaka during that perfect week, I was not thinking back to other happy times and wanting to repeat them in the future. Instead I was wholly present.

So, first, we are prompted to remember happy times past by a dissatisfaction with the present. It is not enjoying what we are doing today that encourages thinking about the past.

Next, present dissatisfaction is heightened by our recollection of perfect times. Remembering the best times we’ve had draws an incredibly sharp contrast to our present, making the past memories seem even better, and the present even worse.

Next, in being led to want to repeat those previous happy times in our future, we must assume that our present dissatisfied state will continue into the future. We therefore assume that because we are not happy now, we will not be happy tomorrow or next week, and therefore need to take action to recreate the happiness we felt in our memories.

Last, if we don’t check our desire for repetition, our convictions about present dissatisfaction become so strong that we act on the impulse by booking flights, accomodation, etcetera.

The fallacy in our desire for repetition, then, is that we focus on our prior happiness as a solution to our present dissatisfaction. But because, as I described above, we can never know all the factors that contributed to previous happiness, we will never solve present dissatisfaction by trying to repeat the past.

3. Even if the external environment caused our happiness, it will have changed

In our mind, a given location is fixed. The road that I cycled along is all etched in my mind in a very specific way. Yet it is almost certain that were I to return to cycle that same road, it won’t be the same. There might be roadworks. Maybe the road will simply be a lot busier this time. Maybe they’ll have erected some safety barriers that affect the view. (Maybe this time I don’t eat enough and feel exhausted after ten kilometres). Who knows what it will be—but we can rely on the fact that the physical environment will have changed since we were last there. And in going back to someplace to repeat the past, we’ll only ever be dissatisfied whenever anything does not match entirely. We would not enjoy the present, and we’d harm the original memory we had.

4. Repetition is a recipe for avoiding the present

Say we act on repetition. We travel back to somewhere where we were once happy. Now there are two different chains of thought that can come about:

1. If the repetition worked.

Say, for a moment, that we did become as happy as we were the last time we were here. It lived up to all our expectations. It solved our dissatisfaction. Well, when it comes time to leave and return home where we were dissatisfied, our next thought will be to seek another memory to repeat in order to avoid that dissatisfaction we felt at home. Maybe we’ll start planning our next repetition before we’ve even left the location where we sought the last! In this case, we will avoid ever living in the present, because we are taught that happiness comes from looking at previous positive memories and repeating them in the future. The present, in this scenario, is merely spent in planning the future.

2. If the repetition didn’t work.

But as is far more likely, the repetition won’t work. We’ll just become dissatisfied with how nothing lives up to our memory of the place, and in the process we ruin the original memory we had. What then? We return home to the dissatisfaction that prompted us to seek this repetition; we look for another memory to repeat. Again, we begin living in the past and the future, never stopping to solve our present dissatisfaction which caused our seeking repetition.

5. Maxims

1. Let memories be memories. Be satisfied that you had that experience; it’s something no one can ever take away from you or alter.

2. Think about what in the present is causing you to reflect on past times that were supposedly “better”. Locate the dissatisfaction in the present.

3. Realise that traveling and changing your environment cannot fix the problems in your mind. The Stoics had this right. (Seneca: “If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.”)

4. Focus on having new experiences in the present that might come to surpass those old memories. This way you’re not measuring up the future against your past, but ensuring entirely new memories will be created, ones that stand on their own terms without reference to the past.

5. You don’t need to travel to re-gain that positive state of mind. A simple walk in the gardens near your house might suffice.

The Prestige Paradox: Keeping on Running, Going Nowhere

What is prestige? Why do we chase it, and why does it so often lead us astray?

I recently came across an article in the Harvard Crimson from back in 1998. Written by Rustin Silverstein (himself a Harvard college and Harvard law graduate, who later went on to work at the Boston Consulting Group and start his own companies), the column discusses the problem of prestige at any institution where your classmates will end up running countries, or at least enormous companies and government departments. He calls the problem the “prestige paradox”, and says it works like this:

“An enterprising, promising high school senior manages to secure admission to Harvard. Soon, this lucky kid is greeted with admiration and awe by those who hear of this impressive honor. The glow continues to follow our golden child throughout her college life. Every time she meets someone on an airplane, runs into an old friend from high school or talks to Aunt Clara, she is reminded of her special distinction. She can’t help but begin to define herself by it.

The Prestige Paradox Harvard
Harvard graduates’ competition. Tough to match. Photo by NPR.

Unfortunately, however, once inside the Yard, this identity is complicated by the hundreds of other golden children that surround her. She is then faced with a problem: the rest of the world defines her by this admittedly arbitrary and superficial standard of success. But once here, this distinction is no longer so distinctive. In the midst of this impressive bunch, she must figure out how to maintain this hollow distinction.

This worry leads to irrational obsessions about how to maintain the shine of the Harvard status badge when everyone else is also wearing one. For example, you can’t be satisfied, the thinking goes, with just any grad school—anything below the mythical “Top Five” (or whatever standard is in fashion) might not cut it in the need-to-impress game. Similarly, getting a job is great, but unless it’s with a Goldman Sachs, a McKinsey or a Microsoft, survival in the prestige scene might prove difficult.

I think that describes it perfectly. It’s not that there is something inherently better about jobs at these institutions or organisations (in fact, the work itself might prove to be soul-destroying). It’s that in our desire to be loved and respected by others, we come to see only certain organisations and institutions as providing that kind of respect. And the only respect that now matters is the respect of our classmates and colleagues who are at the same institution as us—the respect of others who didn’t make it into an elite college now seems less important. So we all end up chasing the same things, competing for the same jobs, and running in the same direction.

“It’s not the case that less-prestigious alternatives wouldn’t satisfy”, Silverstein says. Rather, “satisfaction with anything less than what the conventional wisdom deems impressive raises fears of losing standing in the rat race. Contentment with less than the best might imply a slacker’s complacency, a willingness to give up on the race. Or worse, it might reveal that you couldn’t compete in the race at all.” Thus,

The only way to maintain this fragile, prestige-based self-image, then, is to acquire more prestige. Hence, the paradox: The constant hunger always leaves one, well, hungry.

We keep running, yet we get nowhere, for everywhere we go we find the same need to keep running.

At Harvard, Silverstein says, “it’s hard to resist becoming a rat”:

“The temptations to run in the rat race while here and after are all around us, with constant talk of “elite” grad schools, firms and fellowships. Running is both socially acceptable and promoted. A regular dose of healthy perspective of life outside the walls of the Yard is needed as an antidote to these temptations.

The prestige paradox is of course not unique to Harvard, or just to elite schools. The grails are largely identical today as they were when he wrote in 1998. The prestige paradox exists at every “rung” of a social hierarchy, each with their own slightly different grails. But no matter what rung you stand on, whether you’re winning the rat race or losing it, it’s fundamentally the same: you just need to keep running, but you’ll never get anywhere.

One of the final things I liked about Silverstein’s article is how he notes the positives of prestige, how it “inspires great things, like putting a man on the moon, founding a Silicon Valley powerhouse or discovering a cure for cancer.” It’s not that prestige is in itself evil, to be avoided. It’s that left to its own devices, without wisdom and perspective to keep it in check, we risk throwing away our time and our lives in pursuit of something ephemeral, feeling like a failure whenever we cannot match the heights that hard work and luck has propelled our classmates to.

In addition to the inevitable chasing, then, we should spend time at college and university discovering what helps us keep those tendencies in check. Maybe it’s in literature, or philosophy, or painting or acting; it doesn’t matter where we find respite, so long as there is some vantage point from which we can see ourselves and our own incessant chasing clearly.

Rustin’s column is worth reading in its entirety, and for another perspective on prestige, read Paul Graham’s essay where he says, “Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy.”

Who Are You?: Mark Edmundson On How College Can Help Us Find Ourselves

Mark Edmundson Who Are You? Why Teach?“To get an education, you’re probably going to have to fight against the institution that you find yourself in—no matter how prestigious it may be.” So declares Mark Edmundson, a professor at the University of Virginia and author of the book of essays Why Teach?, among numerous others. In an essay in that book titled simply Who Are You?”, Edmundson takes up the question of what exactly a real education is, and how it can help students discover who we really are.

Edmundson thinks we’ll have to fight the institutions we find ourselves in because most students, professors, and the wider university staff all have their own interests, and those interests are decidedly not about helping you discover a sense of purpose in life. Most students come simply to get the degree, Edmundson says; most faculty, too, aim simply “to get on”, focussing on their research:

“So if you want an education, the odds aren’t with you: The professors are off doing what they call their own work; the other students, who’ve doped out the way the place runs, are busy leaving their professors alone and getting themselves in position for bright and shining futures; the student-services people are trying to keep everyone content, offering plenty of entertainment and building another sate-of-the-art workout facility every few months…

No one in this picture is evil; no one is criminally irresponsible. It’s just that smart people are prone to look into matters to see how they might go about buttering their toast. Then they butter their toast.”

Edmundson turns to the idea of a real education, arguing that it should help us, to paraphrase Nietzsche, “become who we are”:

“The quest at the centre of a liberal arts education is not a luxury quest; it’s a necessity quest. If you do not undertake it, you risk leading a life of desperation… For you risk trying to be someone other than who you are…

You may be all that the good people who raised you say you are; you may want all they have shown you is worth wanting; you may be someone who is truly your father’s son or your mother’s daughter. But then again, you may not be.

For the power that is in you, as Emerson suggested, may be new in nature. You may not be the person your parents take you to be. And—this thought is both more exciting and more dangerous—you may not be the person that you take yourself to be, either. You may not have read yourself aright, and college is the place where you can find out whether you have or not.

This brings to mind Mark Lilla’s speech to an audience of students at Columbia, where he said that genuine students are “less concerned with getting what they want than figuring out just what it is that’s worth wanting.” When we read books, Lilla says, we are “almost inevitably led to think, “What would it be like to live like this person, or that person? What would it be like to value what they value, pursue their goals, suffer their disappointments, experience their happiness?…”

Books are the answer for Edmundson, too, and he also sees right through the argument that we should read to be ‘cultured’:

“The real reason to read Blake and Dickinson and Freud and Dickens is not to become more cultivated or more articulate or to be someone who, at a cocktail party, is never embarrassed (or can embarrass others). The best reason to read them is to see if they know you better than you know yourself. You may find your own suppressed and rejected thoughts following back to you with an “alienated majesty.”

When we find books that speak to us in this way, we can start to formulate who we might like to be not solely out of the possibilities that have been given to us by our families, say, but by all the possibilities that exist. We ask deeper questions of ourselves—not banker or lawyer, but how do I want to spend my days, what kind of person do I want to be with, and what work fulfils me?

Ultimately, Edmundson reminds us, we shouldn’t expect a real education to be nice and easy. We will certainly have a more difficult time grappling with ourselves, and may face some tougher decisions. But if we are to live lives that are ours, not someone else’s, we just have to take that:

“The whole business is scary, of course. What if you arrive at college devoted to premed, sure that nothing will make you and your family happier than life as a physician, only to discover that elementary schoolteaching is where your heart is?

You might learn that you’re not meant to be a doctor at all. Of course, given your intellect and discipline, you can still probably be one. You can pound your round peg through the very square hole of medical school, then go off into the profession. And society will help you. Society has a cornucopia of resources to encourage you in doing what society needs done but that you don’t much like doing and are not cut out to do…

Education is about finding out what form of work for you is close to being play—work you do so easily that it restores you as you go… And having found whats best for you to do, you may be surprised by how far you rise, how prosperous, even against your own projections, you become.”

I urge a reading of the essay in full, and if the essay leaves you wanting more, read Edmundson’s whole book. He is one of those unique voices inside higher education who is able to see college and university for what it is, as well as explain succinctly what it can be.