I really admire Harper’s Magazine blogger/lawyer Scott Horton, not least because he is a voracious and sensitive reader, who often serves up nice chunks of older texts. This, for example, is from today’s excerpt of John Stuart Mill’s essay on Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
‘Lord, enlighten thou our enemies,’ should be the prayer of every true Reformer; sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions, and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers: we are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom; their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength.
I’ve heard this quote before, without attributing it to Mill, and I’m guessing you might have too; but there’s more, and it’s all worth reading.
I know, I know; my bias on this is clear, since I read and reread old stuff as a matter of disposition – an irresistable need to know – as much as because of my profession.
I think what I want to emphasize, in this case and maybe in others, is that you, gentle reader, ought to be dissatisfied with the general knowledge you have of people like John Stuart Mill, whether from a college humanities course or wherever. It’s too easy to say, “yeah, Mill, Utilitarianism, I know all about that.” I mean, be thankful that you know that. But I think that kind of checkbox thinking about intellectual history is too easily encouraged by the way we teach this stuff.
What doesn’t come through in that isn’t the deep nuances of the different philosophies or systems or biographies that scholars and specialists concern themselves with. It’s the knowledge that most of these people that we remember were really important because they were great essayists, occasional thinkers, men and women who could speak about anything great or small. And there’s nothing to replace that feeling that you get, reading someone, that you’re thinking with them, and that their thoughts and words are… irreplaceable and necessary and just.
I don’t know. I am not saying this well. These thoughts are replaceable and unnecessary and almost certainly unjust. So I will take them to their limit. You have to continue to challenge yourself as a reader – a serious reader. And as one who learns – a serious student. That you have not calcified. That you do not know what you think you know, least of all who or what or where or especially WHEN is important.
I don’t have to impress upon you the need to embrace the new. But get a library card and wander somewhere dusty. Find something real. And then blog about it — bring it into this world.
Scan that creaky wisdom, make it sing. We need many things now, but wisdom most of all.