Posted in book review, Miscellany

Samuel Johnson Rambles on the practicality of knowledge – essay

Ignorance is the timorous and indolent plight from fear because knowledge is considered to be remotely extensive and inscrutable to be comprehended. It retards the progress of the mind and numbs the sense. Samuel Johnson avers in his weekly essay ‘The Rambler, No. 137’ avers that one remains unenlightened unless he is diligent to search for the origin of wonder with a pause of reason, a sudden cessation of mental progress when confronting the unknown to him. The need for general knowledge, the knowledge that confers Citizenship of the World, is an essential element of human characteristics, and an easy task to fulfill in search of meaning in life.

Johnson’s idea of knowledge is simplicity. It is jettisoned from a concatenation of needless abstrusely sophisticated theories and ideologies. It also chimes the bell with the Renaissance virtuoso Leonard da Vinci’s adage that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication in all principles. However intimidating or formidable the unknown is, the essential feature is simple to understand by way of ‘Divide and Conquer,” a principle that complication is a confederacy of the abstruse that can be broken into parts marked by the gradations from the first agent to the last consequence. The force that breaks the shackle of fear for conquering the unknown huddle is patient diligence armored in confidence. The labor of inquiry for wonder follows natural curiosity and confidence that eclipses the soul’s darkness. It comes to fruition by ceaseless efforts to ascertain the origin of the wonder in simple ways. The English philosopher who also advocated democratic pedagogy, John Locke, affirms that the surest way of thorough comprehension knowledge is to attempt little by way of repetition. For the widest excursions of the mind result from short flights of mental imagery and instant thoughts triggered by neurons fired in our cerebral cortex, which can be transformed into an organization of ideas firmly engraved in the mind.

However, knowledge loses its purpose if it dissipates into the possessor’s cerebral ether or is locked in the mind’s cabinet. It becomes useful and purposeful when put into practice. That is why Johnson gives heed to those who pride themselves in the impressive educational backgrounds and belittle others whose mental capacities they arbitrarily judge ignorable or even ordinary. Knowledge is for share, and it is a duty of a scholar who has a wider variety of knowledge through years of academic endeavors for the common benefits of the world he lives in. As Francis Bacon fittingly concurs, books can never teach the use of books. Generally speaking, it is common for intellectuals, despite their ostensible calls for democracy and justice for all, to live out of touch with the practical realities of life and often regard such matters as trifles. But what is worthy of their glorious learning if it does not accommodate the purpose of life? Johnson criticizes such lofty arrogance of the rarified subset of the general population because they lose their days in unsocial silence and live in the crowd of life without a touch of humanity. It also reminds me of Bacon’s utterance of loneliness in a group as such: “Magna Civitas, Magna solitudo.” In this regard, George Orwell is together with Johnson because they saw the educated’s superciliousness, the intellectuals, who often conferred their knowledge to their honor in the voluntary seclusion.

Upon reading Johnson’s essay, I could not help but wholeheartedly agree with the purpose of knowledge and the idea of sharing it with others for the world’s common good. I was also glad to learn that I was not the only one who thought that people with academic credentials were frequently dismissive of the opinions of what they regarded as the mortals of the ordinary among whom I am. Therefore, I hope that the reader who reads this essay of mine should not belittle the soul attempting to obtain the sunshine of the light of letters to understand the world in a perspicuous way to declare to the world that I also can think and express it cogently. That is my essay on knowledge for the purpose of life.

Posted in book review

Intellectuals (or Talking Heads) by Paul Johnson

Intellectuals (From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky)Intellectuals by Paul Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The violent collapse of the ecclesiastical caste precipitated by the French Revolution has given rise to the secular intellectual armed with their scintillating rhetoric and dazzling display of scholastic aptitudes; these social, cultural elites have become guardians of cultures and devised moral and ideological innovations, thus replacing the ancient regime of the priestly caste. Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals lays bare the human frailties of these beneficent intellectuals – ranging from Jean-Jacque Rousseau to Leo Tolstoy, to Henrik Ibsen to Ernest Hemingway, and to Noam Chomsky – and invites us to question the duplicity of these intellectuals that contradicts what they preached for the sake of humanity.

Intellectuals have traditionally proclaimed themselves to be liberals, torch-bearers of fraternity, equality, liberty since they became new potent oracles of societies dictating modes of life and modus operandi of political, social, and cultural systems. However, they are actually bound to the canons of external authority and to the inheritance; that is, the intellectuals are and were by no means free spirits as they profess themselves to be. They are the substitutes for the pagan gods and the elites of Prometheus, who stole the numinous fire for humankind into the bargain under the pretext of shaping our attitudes and institutions and of prescribing us panacea for the social ills.

However, many notable intellectuals who have influenced the arts and shaped our modes of thinking were deficient in rectitude toward their kin, families, friends, and others in their everyday life. To illustrate, Rousseau was an absolute egoist, a brilliant self-publicist, tending to equate hostility to him with hostility to truth and virtue as such. He disdained women of low birth, such as seamstress, chambermaids, and shop girls, while he claimed to love people of all walks of life. In fact, this trait of egoism can be also found in the figure of Percy Bysshe Shelley, a great English poet known for his proclamation that “the poets are unacknowledged legislators of the world.” A sublime egoist with a strong moralizing bent, Shelley assumed that others had to applaud his decisions and when they failed to do so up to his expectation, he was quick to display a sense of outrage. And there was also Ibsen, who changed the social thinking of his generation and that of posterity by preaching the revolt of the individual against the ancient regime of inhibitions and prejudices. He did not want to help others, let alone his own family, for richer he became, the less inclined he was to make any contract with them.

To encapsulate, Intellectuals serves as a literary stethoscope to examine the moral and judgmental credentials of select intellectuals most known to us throughout the modern western history. However, this is not a book to slander their intellectual contributions to the enrichment of culture and society on the whole by revealing their personal history. Rather, it is to show us readers a peril of effaced humanity undermined by the importance of ideas as held by most intellectuals, for ideas – or ideology – were their new gods or new mammon. They put ideas before their families, friends, and people for the sake of perfection of the arts, politics, or society. Moreover, so many intellectuals have jumped on the bandwagon of liberalism in favor of careerism. It is this hypocrisy that Johnson wants to bring to light in Intellectuals. And I think this book is one of the must-haves we should keep on our bookshelves to discern true intellectuals who practice what they preach, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson or George Orwell from those who are no more than learned careerists or demagogues or just talking heads of abstract ideas.