Philosophy and Writers - the need to read
When an author decides to impart some pearls of wisdom to the reader that wisdom never comes from a vacuum. The author has developed his or her ideas from a varied collection of sources much of which is personal life experience blended and colored with the reading of other writers particularly the philosophers past and current. It seems that more weight is placed on philosophers of old for their wisdom, especially in the academia, where professors desire their students to understand not only the construction of these renown author's writings but also what and why they wrote what they did. Therefore, to better understand ourselves and develop the ability to make what we feel better understood we study the philosophy of those persons that have demonstrated meaningful insight to the human character and the skill to impart that idea. That study requires reading.
It seems that one of the facilities people of renown have is to be able to expostulate a variety of ways a decision could carry into different paths. If the author's subject of attention were to turn left instead of right or look up instead of down at a particular moment in time, what a different world we would all live in today. Who of us hasn't at speculated, where would we be had we chosen differently at some particular decision point in our lives? Somewhat half-jokingly I have voiced that Aristotle was just one the philosophers to have been born early enough to pen more about the human condition; physically and mentally than any of us. We already know that most what he says as to the human condition as now a matter of course to us. What a marvel of intellect for example if a high school graduate of today was inserted into 365 BC Greece. We must read if we wish to be considered seriously when we write about similar topics. Not so much as to rehash what Aristotle wrote but rather to enrichen and refresh. What kind of a take would Aristotle have had on the overlay of the technical world on today's society? Like St. John in Revelations Aristotle would be hard pressed even to find the words to describe the things he would observe in today's world. Henry David Thoreau in his book "Civil Disobedience" wondered as people strung telegraph wires from Maine to Texas as to what in the world would someone in Maine and Texas have to say to each other? He alluded to the worthlessness of the endeavor. I doubt as intellectual and insightful as many of the famous people we have read or read about got the right of things all the time. As writers and philosophers these people we seem to expect more from and are particularly let down when we think they error in their paradigm. I've read accounts of how Thomas Edison wondered at the value of the phonograph player and mistakenly put so much of his reputation on direct current. Bill Gates of Microsoft didn't warm up to the internet right off. In my life; I see little use in Twitter; with Thoreau's reasoning; who would follow me on Twitter; who would want to? By the same token, who is there that I would care to follow. Should we care? Do we need to know what Miley Cyrus', Rush Limbaugh's or Michelle Obama's moment to moment hundred and ten character thoughts are? Somehow I think not. So, what am I missing? What is there to the millions and millions of people that are on Twitter? I wonder in my breadth thinking how I can be so narrow. I can only guess at what Thoreau might have written about Twitter.
I disagree with much of what Thoreau has to say in his book "Civil Disobedience." But, I love the way he says it. He is cynical and short-sighted but makes a grand argument of it. As with Adam and Eve partaking of the forbidden fruit so as to learn the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, health and sickness so must we consume of the works of writers of note, the classics if you will, to ascertain for ourselves how we feel about what they wrote and how we will apply that wisdom or lack thereof in our lives.
President John Adams told John Q. Adams, his son and future U.S. president when he was but a boy that he should read Cicero in its original Greek which he did. I, however, will live with whatever might be lost in the translation. Thus I will content myself with having read the English translation. I have read Confucius' Analects (English version). I didn't take away much from it. An aspect of it I did find remarkable is the period in which he wrote and like Edison did with his inventions Confucius turned his writings into an enterprise by opening schools and teaching. There is more to him than I can fathom as Chinese dynasties rose and fell from his writings as a philosophy to follow. At risk of short-changing Confucius further I have not read all his works, and therefore I cannot speculate with any degree of certainty as to what I might get from the rest of his writings were I to wade through them.
I wonder, did Confucius, Cicero and Thoreau have an editor? Fill a room with monkeys hammering away on typewriters for a hundred years, and they will produce "War and Peace" so the story goes. A fanciful notion and not completely wrong providing someone is there to edit the material. Which as a sidebar leaves me to mention how most authors on the first page or two of their books credit their editors for the success of their books. Many philosophers will tell you that with the logic I just set up that writers are no more intelligent than the monkeys typing out "War and Peace." A fallacy of reason made through valid inference is one path for false logic. Surprisingly some will glom onto such logic as valid and argue with conviction that writers are indeed no wiser than monkeys hammering on typewriters. What segment of the population makes a lucrative living at convoluting logic in such a manner? The U.S. government perhaps. Probably outside the college podium a cadre of the best writers we have to reside inside the beltway.
The best writers are good mechanics of language following all the conventions of good writing by such things as not changing tense midway or intruding with personal interjections upon the reader's consciousness, putting their periods, commas and semicolons in all the right places; (another job of editors) and then coupling all that with an astute understanding of human nature so as to bring their characters to life with conflicts and problems and joys and satisfactions that parallel our own. The closer they come to mirroring what we think to be true the better we like it. If you would like to read a book that breaks nearly all the conventions of good writing pick up the "Last of the Mohicans" by James Fenimore Cooper. It is a classic for historical value and a darn good story allowing the reader to forgive the poor construction.
Another aspect of philosophy is how prolific the classical writers were. They wrote volumes about what they reasoned to be the ways things were. Of those volumes, we glean some of what we feel to be significant dew drops of wisdom and discard the rest. Even the discarded has value in validating what we feel is contrary to what they said. As it turned out the people in Maine and Texas have a lot to say to one another and it surprises me Thoreau would not have thought so. Even still, what you find enlightening may be bunk to me. These writers of old had incredible mental acuity.
Gerrids, the common water bugs that stride across the water as sparrows guide through the air otherwise known to most as Jesus bugs, and water spiders to others don't know by their scholastic name but by a few. I asked a dozen people if they were familiar with the Jesus bug and most were. None knew it was a Gerridae, in the singular. It would be a safe wager to say when a father walking his son or daughter by the pond upon seeing the small creature darting to and fro over the water would more likely tell them, "Look a Jesus bug," rather than a Gerridae. I marvel when a writer carries on about every creature, plant and the supporting environ associated with them by their textbook name and with such detail and clarity that one would think they had done their doctoral thesis on the topic. At the risk of seeming ignorant; I could not get through Moby Dick. I wonder at those who profess to have read it. The story is riveting. Gregory Peck was im-peck-able in the movie. As a child, I loved the story and missed all the symbolism. I tried to read the book years later as an adult and could not wade through all the hundreds of pages of whale detail; every kind of whale, every characteristic of every kind of whale and the personalities of every kind of whale. Did Melville miss any whale? I wouldn't know had I finished the book. I can name maybe three different whales. That an author of a classic wrote in that fashion is even more astonishing when you realize that he or she wrote from memory and limited resources having only to draw from their schooling and limited access to books to draw upon for reference. Thoreau was a Harvard graduate. Is it a testament to that school that he wrote so well? Perhaps, I think so. Cotton Mather wouldn't have thought so because he thought Harvard was low class. Maybe it was back in his period of the late 1600's. Reverend Mather convinced a wealthy Boston merchant by the name of Yale to start another college to contrast Harvard.
Where does this take us? Writers read, thinkers read, leaders read, philosophers read, and then they write out what they think. It doesn't matter if what they think is to entertain us, convince us, enlighten us or they simply don't care and write as an expression of their need to vent. In that case, they might only bore us. We need to read as much as we can and ponder the intelligence conveyed so that we may foment the structure of our personalities to good effect.