Knowledge Is Good but Wisdom Better

January 14, 2005

BENJAMIN Jowett, Master of Oxford’s Balliol College in thelate 1870s, was a celebrated polymath, inspiring one disenchantedstudent to post the following lines on his door:Here come I, my name is Jowett,There’s no knowledge but I know it.I am the Master of this CollegeWhat I don’t know isn’t knowledge.Like the anonymous poet, we are inclined to be suspicious ofostentatious learning. We confidently expect our tax advisor tohave an encyclopedic knowledge of the Tax Code, yet we can’thelp feeling uncomfortable when someone at the dinner tablequotes Virgil on the subject of wine – in Latin, yet. Evidently, it’sa question of packaging.ALL the same, it’s hard not to be impressed by someone who seems to have the answerto every question, even if we brand him a know-it-all behind his back. In my giddy youth,I read somewhere that the German philosopher Leibnitz (1646-1716) was the last man toknow everything, meaning presumably that he had read everything published up to thatpoint. With the blind self-confidence of the young, I took this as a personal challenge andset out to speed-read two books every day, with the firm intention of becoming the newLeibnitz by the time I was 70.But I pretty soon hit a snag: what might have been possible in the 17th century wasn’teven on the cards in the 20th. Merely reading the torrent of words poured forth by theworld’s printing presses in a single day would take more than a lifetime. So I gave up theattempt and instead turned my attention to studying the common earthworm, which has onlya modest literature to its credit.YET even amongst earthworm fanciers, the question still kept arising as to whether itis best to know a lot about a little or a little about a lot. The answer, unfortunately, like somany answers, seems to depend on context. For example, I require the surgeon who is aboutto replace the clouded lens in my eye to have a pretty comprehensive idea of what he plansto do, though I don’t give a darn if he can’t tell the time of day. Contrariwise, we expect anovelist to convince us, by deft little touches of fact here and there, that his story might conceivablybe true, so that we can enjoy the plot without any mental reservation.But sometimes the author stumbles, as when Ouida famously and fatuously wrote abouta boat race: “All rowed fast, but none sofast as Stroke.” Or in our own backyard,Michael Crichton in “Jurassic Park” placedSan José on the coast. Tiny slips, but theyshattered the fragile compact we had madeto suspend disbelief for the sake of the styleand plot. Suddenly, we knew something theauthor obviously didn’t, so why should webelieve another word?Unreasonable of us, yes, but if knowledgeis praiseworthy, ignorance is contemptible.

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