“You want to be wise? Don’t read too much.” Well, there goes all the textbooks, essays, and articles we’ve been reading through all these years in the pursuit of knowledge. In essence, the debate is actually between whether one should acquire knowledge or skills more. Or to be more specific, whether knowledge should be acquired simply for its own sake.
It’s quite clear today which society values more in terms of economic worth. Knowledge is proliferated in spaces like the academe but if you want to make it in the world beyond structured learning, you need skills. And that’s the point Montaigne wanted to drive home: that it’s better to have a “well-made” head than a “well-filled” one.
“We should rather examine, who is better learned, than who is more learned. We only labor to stuff the memory, and leave the conscience and the understanding unfurnished and void. Like birds who fly abroad to forage for grain, and bring it home in the beak, without tasting it themselves, to feed their young; so our pedants go picking knowledge here and there, out of books, and hold it at the tongue’s end, only to spit it out and distribute it abroad.”
Surely, knowledge has its own virtue but it won’t mean much if it’s just stuck in our head. However, there’s nothing wrong with scholarly pursuits. If only these lead to discussions that could change the way we understand things and use that insight for improvement or development.
Montaigne was distrustful of education that was too scholarly, as I have just discussed. In alignment with the great polarity that marks the thinking in the Essays, the opposition of nature and art, of good nature and evil artifice, erudition is more likely to distance us from our own true nature than to put us closer in touch with it. Montaigne tells us with pride that his readings have not turned him away from his own nature, but, on the contrary, have enabled him to understand it.
Read more of this discussion on Lithub.
(Image credit: Mitya Ivanov/Unsplash)