Idle thoughts about reading and knowledge

Idle Thoughts

Posted on 1-December-2011

     For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow.          Ecclesiastes, i,18

     And further, by these my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.          Ecclesiastes, xii, 12

     Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. The chief use of delight is in privateness and retiring, for ornament is in discourse and for ability is in the judgment and disposition of business. For expert   men can execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one; but the general counsels and the plots and marshalling of affairs come best from those that are learned....Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider....Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man and writing an exact man.          Of Studies, Francis Bacon

     The time of the wise passes in the enjoyment of poetry and books of learning, that of fools in sleep, quarrels or addiction.         Hitopadesha

     Of all these scraps I have shored up from my too incomplete an education, it is the one from the Hitopadesha that I have cherished the most and the longest. That is perhaps because it has helped me sustain a belief in the value of reading books and take delight in reading such few books of poetry and learning that I do. Secondly, since I read a few books from time to time, the couplet from the Hitopadesha helps me in the conceit that I somehow belong to the category of the wise and not to that of fools. Yet at times, when I find my head too stuffed with much undigested reading, I regret not having come upon the biblical preacher's advice about much study being a weariness of the flesh a long time ago, for then I would have given myself a reason for keeping a long distance from books and other sources of knowledge and passing my time blissfully thinking of questions such as the sex of angels or the language spoken in paradise. Unfortunately, force of habit has placed me on the side of the writer of the Hitopadesha and of Francis Bacon.

     God forbade Adam and Eve to eat of of the tree of knowledge. The biblical preacher who said that wisdom caused grief--obviously the translator in King James's version of the Bible treats knowledge and wisdom interchangeably here--and increase in knowledge caused sorrow must have been a strong believer in the sacred nature and literal truth of the book of Genesis. There lies a perverse kind of truth in this scepticism--if that word can at all be used in a discussion of people's faith--about the value of knowledge. Most people are comfortable in their acceptance of beliefs, myths, fables and versions of reality handed to them by parents or more distant ancestors, by religious teachers, by political leaders and rulers and even by their peers. Any new knowledge that raises doubts about the truthfulness of people's accepted beliefs causes them much disturbance of the mind, sorrow and occasionally even anger. They would, left to themselves, live for ever in blissful ignorance. Many, if they believe in God, will even find justifications for evil of all kinds--disease, injustice, mass murder--by talking about God's punishment or, if there is no obvious reason for God punishing men, by talking about the mysteriousness of God's ways. Job was a devout servant of God. Yet he was visited by all possible afflictions, either because God wanted to test his devotion to Him or that God's ways are incomprehensible to humans.

     Fortunately for all mankind, there was in the Garden of Eden the snake which tempted Eve who in turn tempted Adam and both ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Their banishment from the blissfulness of Eden was also liberation from the state of ignorance. The curses on them--Adam's beard and moustache and the need for him to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow and Eve's pain in childbirth--were small prices to pay for the advance of knowledge ever since. There can hardly be any doubt that the human species lives several fold better--healthier, better fed, better protected from the elements, less prone to violence, with greater leisure to take pleasure in art, music, literature or simply wonder at the marvels of the natural world--than his distant ancestors in eastern Africa--the actual Eden--where natural selection created him. All this has been possible because there have always been people with unstoppable curiosity about the world around them joined with the unshakable belief that what they perceive about the world about them through their senses or what they learn about the world around them from credible sources whose own observations are based on their perceptions through their senses aided or unaided by instruments must replace or modify versions of reality handed down to them. Primitive humans were far too preoccupied trying to avoid starvation--a certainty if for days you killed no animal, found no berries or grass and found very little water--and predators to have much time for disinterested pursuit of knowledge. Yet had it not been for his curiosity, he would not have wandered from his original habitat, learnt about the flora and fauna surrounding him or learnt how to domesticate plants and animals. Every accretion to human knowledge about the world has brought about an advance in civilisation and every advance in civilisation has increased the pace of the advance of knowledge. It has also increased the sum total of human happiness.

     If increase in knowledge has been beneficial to mankind in the past it will definitely continue to be so in the future too. Yet there are occasional doubts raised--falsely--about all knowledge. Some knowledge has caused untold harm to people, it is argued. A familiar example cited from time to time is the case of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Knowledge of the structure of the atom, of harmful bugs and toxic chemicals has led to the invention of these extremely destructive weapons. A little reflection should show that the objectors' objection is really of a moral order and entirely justifiable. But the moral objection to mass slaughter--the objection should rightly be to any killing--cannot negate the value of the knowledge about the atom, about bacteria and viruses and about toxic chemicals, because the technologies that have been developed from this knowledge have brought undeniable advantage to people. People by and large are quick in adopting new and beneficial technologies (How to prevent bad people from using knowledge to develop and use harmful technologies is a different issue altogether) unless, like the Amish in the USA, they have an ideological objection to any modern technology whatsoever and unless like the Christian Scientists in the USA and a former prime minister of India they have conscientious objections to the use of any medicine. There are Hindus and Muslims who rail against the decadence and moral decline of the West but who nonetheless are enthusiastic about modern technologies developed in the decadent West, and notwithstanding the fact that some of these same technologies may have led to the much lamented moral decline of the West. No complex modern technology would have been possible without the advance of knowledge. If the use of modern industrial technology has brought about observable damage to the ecology and the environment of the earth, it is only more knowledge and understanding and not less that is likely to help mankind arrest the damage it is causing to the ecology and the environment.

     In these times when nearly all religions feel threatened by the advance of science, of secularism (at least in part due to the advance of science), of modern democracy with its attendant freedom of thought and expression, it is not unusual to hear religious people blocking any rational discussion of God and religion by pronouncing this or that a matter of faith and therefore beyond all questioning. Stopping questioning is stopping religious people themselves from forming informed opinions about the nature of the Being they are asked to or are inclined to worship. The problem is that people will still ask questions. Religions themselves have become richer in spirituality through the advance in knowledge because all the major religions of the world have had to accommodate the attitudes of the better informed and the more enlightened among their adherents. Besides, it is advance in knowledge that has made it more difficult for political and religious leaders to encourage the commitment of atrocities in the name of religion. Those atrocities that are still committed in the name of religion become possible because of the ease with which the uninformed and the ill-educated can be misled. If the Hindu populace which followed dishonest politicians and religious leaders had been better informed about the world, about mankind and about the difference between myth and good history, a 16th century mosque in the Indian town in Ayodhya would not have been demolished some nineteen years ago. It becomes possible for mullahs of different descriptions to persuade only ill-educated and uninformed people to strap themselves with explosives and kill themselves and others in the name of jehad, thus becoming martyrs to live for ever in paradise. The kind of religious faith that inspired Mohammad Atta and others in their suicidal mission to destroy the World Trade Centre in New York was blind and unquestioning in the worst possible meanings of both the words and it could not have been inspired by any worthwhile human emotion.

     Most people are bundles of prejudices of one kind or another and these prejudices are magnified manifold when raised to the level of tribe, caste, race or nation. Nearly all of them are rooted in ignorance about people of other groups. But they have been the cause of a great deal of suffering and strife. Institutionalised prejudices, sanctioned by religious traditions, have been and continue to be, albeit a little less openly now, behind atrocities against members of the lowest castes in India. People continue to be killed in the old British mandate of Palestine because the political and territorial dispute between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs gets reinforced by ancient religious and ethnic animosities. From about the first century BC till 1945, every national group in Europe and around the Mediterranean that could or felt inclined to, persecuted the Jews. A widely held view in Europe in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that Africans were either highly evolved apes or not fully evolved humans became a theoretical justification for large scale slave trade. The Nazis and the Japanese invented theories about their being superior races and killed, enslaved or mistreated members of those they considered inferior races. Advance in knowledge about the unity of the entire human race has made such prejudices untenable among the educated segments of all societies. There is a growing consensus among paleoanthropologists that some time after its emergence as a distinct species, modern man passed through a demographic bottleneck, the entire population of the species having been reduced to around 10,000. There is worse. The number of people who crossed over from Africa to Asia some 70,000 years ago may have between 250 and 1000 whose descendants then spread all over Eurasia, Australasia, Oceania and the Americas. If all of modern humanity has descended from no more than ten or twenty thousand individuals and if those outside Africa have descended from no more than 1000 individuals, then there cannot be much genetic diversity among different groups of people, let alone in their inherent capacities. Nothing can be more destructive of national, racial, tribal or caste prejudices than generalized acceptance of such views in all population groups.

     Knowledge then--knowledge about our surroundings, about people, and above all, about the way the world works--is the most treasured possession of mankind and its advance has been a crucial motive force behind the improvement in our lives, both physical and moral. This, more than any other, is the reason why disinterested and unrestricted pursuit of knowledge is the most precious activity for the entire human race. During most of known history, books have been the most important source of knowledge for those who can read. It is only recently that the radio, the television, the cinema and the world wide web have come to supplement books. Let us call all of them collectively books and read them for delight, ornament and ability so that they can keep alive in us the cheerful enthusiasm with which Francis Bacon wrote his essay.

     I do not know what it is that brings an unpleasant thought--screeching brakes of a foolishly speeding car on the street perhaps--to my mind. The biblical preacher said: 'of making many books there is no end'. That unfortunately is truer today than it was in the first millennium before Christ. As many bad books, if not more, are written as good ones. Recently I picked up two memoirs: one published about seventeen years ago, written by a Pakistani woman, member of an influential political family and another published a few weeks ago and written by an Indian journalist. I ended up disliking the personalities of both the writers as they appear in their books and regretted taking time out to read them. Unfortunately I forgot Francis Bacon's caution about some books being for tasting, others for swallowing and yet others for chewing and digesting. These were books for tasting and putting aside but I not only swallowed them but also tried to chew them but much as I tried I could not digest them. Perhaps I was taken in by the salesmanship--aggressive salesmanship is after all one of less attractive features of modern life. Picking up books in the end is like picking up a basket of fruits in which some are only to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some to be chewed and digested.    


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Also on this site:               Introduction to The Waste Sad Time             The Waste Sad Time

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