Monday, February 06, 2006

What Were We Thinking?

"This younger generation doesn't know how to think for itself," I grumbled to myself as I rounded the bend on Costado Street this morning. I noted the progress of the rhododendrons, their red buds just beginning to burst out. A particularly graceful acacia in full bloom drew my attention. Thinking. Wasn't it Montaigne that said, "Une tête bien faite vaut mieux qu’une tête bien pleine?" These words of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, a French philosopher of the 16th Century, ring as true today as they were then.

In English, "A well-ordered head is worth more than one that is well-filled." In other words, it's not enough to know a lot of facts; the important thing is to be able to think clearly. I mused over this idea as I passed the bramble bank where the poison oak is just leafing out. We jump so quickly onto the nearest band-wagon, I thought, but how many of us are actually examining the opinions we've glommed onto in our daily encounters with the media and our circle of acquaintances? We live in a sea of opinion, awash in the ebb and flow of talk show discussions, newspaper op-eds and news service reports; in the splash of web sites, blogs, and e-mails. It's very easy to drift into ones own eddy and find a backwater of shared opinion, in which to escape the tug and pull of the surf. But one can as readily catch a rip tide and get pulled out to sea. Live in your own little world, not dealing with the complexities of the world, or follow the strongest thought current uncritically: these are the two perils of the life of the mind today.

Only today? Thinking back to Montaigne during the 1500s, I see that he found this a concern in his own day as well. His was a century of massive paradigm shifts. Whole new worlds had literally opened up to Europeans, and vice versa. The great sea was no longer impermeable, the world was round and much larger than most people had suspected, there were people who knew nothing of European ways. Furthermore, the earth was suddenly being thrust out of its privileged position as center of the universe, which meant that the whole ordered system of the spheres could no longer explain the heavens. The Catholic Church was shaken to its core by schism and reformation, and Europe was torn by wars of religion.

Two developments made all of this possible. First came the universities, which began to creep into Europe from the Islamic world--first into Spain and Italy, and then into France and England. Knowledge that had once flourished in the Hellenic world, now found its way back into Medieval Europe. Students in these institutions began to consider the knowledge they aquired and to expand upon it. On top of this came the printing press. Once Gutenberg had designed it, people could disseminate their ideas for all to share. Anyone could find access to information, and could form his own opinion of it.

We live on the opposite side of that divide. Not only can we access information, we are inundated by it. If Montaigne was concerned that book learning might fill the head with facts without enabling it to think, how much more does that danger face us today?

I want to go on with this train of thought, with some musing as to why it is that we all think the upcoming generation is much worse in all respects than our own. Also, I will add some comments on a new book by John C. Maxwell, Thinking for a Change.


At 5:43 AM, Blogger "The Fanatic" said...

A very thoughtful exposition. It's a huge issue, too. Maybe too big.

At 7:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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