Incitation: Finding a path in life can’t be this difficult – what did people do “back in the day”? How did these great philosophers gain and share so much wisdom in their world(s), seemingly small in both geography and information-density?
Quiddity: There’s a real possibility that our knowledge-gathering and book-reading is actually detrimental to our mind and our soul(s).
If you can believe it, the dawn of writing brought about heavy criticism of this new communication technology. It was judged heavily. Many people claimed that it was demonic and needed to be stopped in its tracks. Why?
It was thought to be an uncontrollable outsourcing of the mind. Before writing, people needed to either communicate (orally) information to one-another or observe laws and reality for themselves and come to their own conclusions based on their own experiences. What a curious idea, then, for information to be documented and communicated to you from someone you’ve never met – and at your own will too!
Yet, If you were to not simply speak of something and actually write it down, how could you control where your writing was sent, who would read it, and how it would be interpreted? “Reading a man’s mind” left no option for the author’s active defense – and no time to ask follow-up questions of the author.
Plato was a supporter of this idea that writing could be a very bad tool – and his king, Thamus, said that written words would “weaken men’s characters and create forgetfulness in their souls.”
Seneca then claimed that “the abundance of books is a distraction.” He argued that people should accumulate only a few very good books and read them thoroughly and repeatedly; that too much information could be harmful to your mental health.
Descartes argued to ignore texts completely and only rely on your own observations. He explained that “… even if all knowledge could be found in books, where it is mixed in with so many useless things and confusingly heaped in such large volumes, it would take longer to read those books than we have to live in this life and more effort to select the useful things than to find them oneself.”
The idea that all forms of writing “weaken men’s character and create forgetfulness in their souls.” is a very interesting one. Sometimes when we pause life to think about it, we find ourselves enveloped in someone else’s words, experiences, and guidance. Is this simply the “one consciousness” evolving similarly to evolution of species? Or is this the “forgetfulness” our our soul(s)? When we think deeply about this, do we really have any “truths” that are self-evident – that are truths we’ve discovered from personal experience? Or are our experiences recounted based on the truths we read-to-be-true rather than learn-to-be-true?
From a transcendentalist point-of-view, my observation would be that we must ultimately find our own way and defend our own logic. Yet, I do have certain books that I would never give away. That said, I like the idea of an active hybrid – discovering the truths of existence and the nature of reality for yourself and also relying on a few engaging books, written by wise people who’ve already put in the work, so you don’t have to. In the end, though, we each must put in the work and live a life that’s true to ourselves, our observations, and our souls.
* Some of the quotations in this piece were adapted from The Organized Mind (2014) by Daniel J. Levitin. This piece is not meant to be an endorsement of this book in any way.