“Let the greatest part of the news thou hearest, be the least part of what thou believest, lest the greatest part of what thou believest, be the least part of what is true; and report nothing for truth, in earnest or in jest, unless thou know it, or at least confidently believe it to be so; neither is it expedient at all times, or in all companies, to report what thou knowest to be true; sometimes it may avail thee, if thou seem not to know, that which thou knowest. Hast thou any secret, commit it not to many, nor to any, unless well known unto thee.”
-John Hall, Bishop of Norwich (1574-1659), from Schott’s Quintessential Miscellany–
I stumbled across a neat little book while sorting books at my store. After skimming through it, I couldn’t resist purchasing it and bringing it home. The basic idea of the book is a compilation of random tidbits of information, quotes, and statistics. Things that you don’t know your interested in until you read about it-those are often my favourite things to learn. As I read it, I am placing stars next to the inclusions that I think would make interesting blog posts, so don’t be surprised if you see me reference this book in a more frequent manner in the future. Of course, I may simply get bored of the book and move on; such an occurrence is not completely outlandish for me. But, we’ll see how things transpire. Regardless, I wanted to share this particular quote with you, because I believe it to be particularly relevant today for a number of key reasons. If I may indulge myself, I am going to perform a bit of commentary on the quote. Feel free to stop me if I get boring-just kidding, the great thing about blogging is I can just keep on writing!
So, first statement is as follows: “Let the greatest part of the news thou hearest, be the least part of what thou believest, lest the greatest part of what thou believest, be the least part of what is true”. Now, at first glance this seems to be a relatively simple statement; don’t believe everything you hear. There is more to it than that, however-and this is why I find this whole quote to be such a succulent treat of intellectual delectation. This statement is going beyond simple prescription of a cautioned cynicism. It is also advocating a type of Hobbesian reliance on your own senses. Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher and political theorist, had a gargantuan influence on the modern era, essentially beginning the conversation on social contract theory-now the pillar of current democratic political thought. Hobbes, who was born in 1588, had a particular knack for criticizing old and derelict theory, replacing it with his own systematized philosophy. One of his methods for doing this was casting a shadow on the faithful assumption of truth contained in ancient texts. In particular, Hobbes attacked commentaries on the Bible, as well as Aristotelian and Platonic thought. He also criticized heavily the idea of virtue ethics-a philosophy that was prominent in the Catholic church due to Thomas Aquinas’ writings. Hobbes did not believe that reading something made it true. You must examine truth with your own reason, and not simply rely on the work of others. This, I think, is a practice that is in much decay at present. University and society at large places a great deal of emphasis on learning from others. We rely on outside sources for almost every bit of information that we receive. Part of the reason for this is, of course, because of the massive nature of our world. As I write this, I am using a computer that I understand very little of-at best I understand how all the components work together, but not the components themselves. This is something that Max Weber lamented as a cause for the potential deterioration of science as a vocation. Regardless, my point is that this quote encourages us to not simply put our feet up and allow ourselves to be fed knowledge from a plastic spoon. Think-use your mind, examine things for yourself!
“Report nothing for truth, in earnest or in jest, unless thou know it, or at least confidently believe it to be so”. This was a reminder for me, and contained wisdom that I need to take to heart. Often in the past I have found myself relaying information that I had heard as if it was verified by myself, and absolute certainty was contained in the words I spoke. In reality, I was trying to present myself as knowledgeable, and thus ended up manifesting myself to be worse than ignorant-in that I came across as naive. It is better to hold back information you believe you know, if you are not certain-if you are later proven to be mistaken, the egg will not come off your face very quickly.
“Neither is it expedient at all times, or in all companies, to report what thou knowest to be true; sometimes it may avail thee, if thou seem not to know, that which thou knowest. Hast thou any secret, commit it not to many, nor to any, unless well known unto thee.” This builds on the prior installation of the quote, emphasizing that even if you are certain of a bit of information, it may be better to withhold it if you do not have suitable methods for illustrating the reason why you hold onto your certainty. What is also implied here is that, if you know something for certain but are unable to reasonably demonstrate this certainty-perhaps your certainty is questionable in itself. If you cannot explain why you know something beyond a doubt, then how can you honestly say you know it?
Anyway, I know that I have probably gone to deep into this quote, but I greatly appreciated the poignancy of it. Hopefully some of my readers will also enjoy the wisdom it contains-and perhaps some will learn from it. I know that I did!