(As with my “musings” series, I offer less structured thoughts about a topic in hope of clarifying – and possibly solidifying – ideas about it. I do this for myself and for the interested readers. I’m not necessarily concerned with making extended arguments. It is possible that I merely pontificate in an armchair sort of way, ending the procedure on no less marshy ground than when I began. But that’s good philosophy anyway, isn’t it?)
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
– Alexander Pope
I am waylaid by beauty
Oh, savage Beauty, suffer me to pass
– Edna Millay
Why is learning important? This question is posed occasionally, usually in a lazy sort of non-philosophical way. It is an easy one to answer. How about this one: Why is learning important if we all just die some day anyway? This question is in fact no less easy to answer, although the ones who pose the question believe they frame it in a philosophically difficult way. The importance of learning – and learning deeply – is forever and always important and necessary for a good life (regardless of any stipulations).
Why bother? The other (quasi) philosophical alternative is the “ignorance is bliss” account. It’s certain to say that people do, in fact, get on with their lives – sometimes their whole lives – without appreciating the beauty of learning, to say nothing of actually engaging in learning deeply. So, if it isn’t necessary to do it - and if we all die anyway (presumably with the understanding we cannot take any knowledge with us to the grave) – then why isn’t the better way to live life to try and move through it unscathed? To move through it ignorant and happy? After all, with knowledge comes the understanding of a world full of tragedy and unhappiness, a life full of our own unhappiness.
This, however, is a bait and switch. Or, rather, this primordial Garden of Good and Evil only extends until the moment we slip and lose our innocence. Once we get a taste of learning about the world, and the beautiful as well as horrific realities of the world now and at times past, there is no returning to the previous state. Once we learn, we cannot unlearn. We are intuitively curious creatures. Once we realize we can know, we almost certainly want to know. People’s interest in learning varies, but that we would choose ignorance over learning is absurd. We either are ignorant, or we are in the process of digging ourselves out of it. There is no other real choice.
How then do we account for those who know a little, but disengage with the quest for further information? I believe the answer to this boils down to variable interest levels. Some of it is laziness, and some is probably time management. But generally this process depends on the interest in a given subject. Some are fond of certain areas of history, some of languages, and others of scientific disciplines; some love poetry, some art, and still others architecture or music. We dig into the trenches of our interests, perhaps without realizing what we are doing.
I propose (as I did in my book-length plea) that we all become students of life, that we understand the process of learning deeply and chase these loves to the ends of the earth. The richness that life brings is unparalleled. A slow and steady burn remains, a flame steadily dancing, sometimes igniting a full conflagration of wide-eyed excitement. As Edna St. Vincent Millay pointed out, a candle burning at both ends may not last the night, but it certainly gives off a lovely light. Alexander Pope alludes to something similar in his poem A Little Learning. Once you begin to truly dig into the trenches of learning, a little bit is never enough.
Learning becomes a reinforcing feedback loop, but a positive one that doesn’t end without some external source to break the cycle. The beautiful thing about learning is how truly deep and how broad it really is. The world and its contents is an endless abyss of possibility. The past represents a ceaseless opportunity for exploration. Each new discovery allows us deeper and deeper or wider and wider into more fascinating worlds, new nooks and crannies to pique our interest and dilate our eyes. The more we really learn, the more we realize we know nothing. There is a reason why the most learned people exercise the most sincere humility. Sharing these journeys with others become some of the most valuable experiences we can have.
If ever deeper dives into the depths of the unknown consumes so much of our lives, can this ever be a bad thing? Can we dig too deep? Is it possible to waste our time spending it in this way? The short answer is no. I recommend, though, that both breadth and depth be measured. If you dive too deep you risk getting lost to the surface, and here you miss the beauty of the rest of the ocean as well. Conversely, if you skim every inch of the ocean but never dive deep, you miss the enchanting beauty under the surface. The key is to balance this intellectual breadth and depth. Discover the wonders across disciplines, but also notice the marvels within them.
There is another analogy that I like – that of blood pressure. It is important to have a certain intellectual viscosity, thickness of the blood (or in this case, mind). We should operate with our intellectual blood pressure slightly elevated at all times: As Christopher Hitchens once put it, “hungrily operating at the margins” of a potential discovery. The process of deep learning should impose some level of discomfort. It is not easy to push against the current, to break new intellectual ground, and to fight off the loneliness that sometimes attends heading off in a solitary direction (relatively speaking). As we all know, however, the easy route is almost never the rewarding one. To embrace the intellectual and emotional discomfort is eventually to reap the lasting rewards of deep knowledge and understanding. Do not stop at the first layer. Dig deeper. And then find new trenches to excavate.
If your intellectual blood pressure gets too high, do not hesitate to stop and rejoin the world of non-intellectual pursuits, whether that entails something meaningful like spending time with family and friends, or even superficial activities or interests. Everyone needs some balance and relaxation. On the whole, it is far superior to “hungrily operate” in the caverns of endless knowledge and understanding. Truth lies that way also.
So what about dying then? If it is all for naught anyway, then what is the point of spending (wasting?) the time gathering and sifting through information to gain knowledge? Perhaps it is the truism of the century to say it, but why not? What else will you do with your time? Even hedonists understand the depth of the philosophy behind their view on life. As I alluded earlier, the base of this is no real choice after all. We are either ignorant or climbing our way out of ignorance. We like to know. To whatever fitful degrees, we need to know. I simply point out the beauty of continuing the journey. Knowledge and learning is so much richer and deeper and more fulfilling than people typically understand. There are so many subjects of understanding that present an inexhaustible buffet of thoughts, facts, and opinions. That we one day die is no reason to cease or ignore these journeys. Indeed, that these journeys one day end is precisely why we should throw all of ourselves into them. If we have one chance to imbibe all the understanding life has to offer, then why wouldn’t we want to pursue this? After all, the beauty of the world (now and in the past) is present and available, even if we are not.
There is no time like the present. The present turns into the future and the future the past. We stand on the shoulders of giants. And the world has still much more to offer. Life eventually ends, so become a student of life before it does. Ignorance isn’t bliss once the first curtain drops. What is on the other side is far more blissful and beautiful. So, we should not just learn but learn deeply.