“The point is to understand”

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

The Rock, T.S. Eliot

Yesterday, I suddenly remembered my late Jethu’s pet quotation. My father’s elder brother was inordinately fond of it. Or so I had always thought. At that time, to a college-going student like me, it suggested an attitude of quiet despair with the state of things — be it with the state of the nation, the youth of the day, or with mankind even. “Oh great!”, I’d mutter sarcastically under my breath, “This kind of attitude is to surely make you the darling of those gray-haired pseudo-intellectuals. Won’t they just simply lap it up?”

But of course I was wrong. I usually am, you see. More often than not, Old Man

Time has had to patiently explain the true import of Literature to yours truly. But better late than never. Today, decades later, I have come to realize that Literature, at its best, is nothing less than distilled philosophy. It holds up a mirror to life, one that does not flatter to deceive. Rather, what we get is the true picture, warts and all. Naively innocent, yet coquettish and worldly-wise; unexpectedly generous at times, while at others unreasonably tight-fisted; breathtakingly beautiful, though unbelievably cruel. Whatever, it is too much to take in at once. The need of the hour is that we introspect even as we engage with the text. And come away wiser from our association with the world of letters.

Surely, wisdom is the goal of all knowledge. When Bacon observed that some books “are to be chewed and digested”, he was referring precisely to those texts which kindled the inquiring, the wondering, and the philosophical minds. And how right he was! Indeed, some works of fiction are simply unforgettable, leaving an indelible impression on our minds; their lines haunt us, pursue us for the rest of our lives, and evoke sombre feelings and powerful emotions, giving rise to “[t]houghts that do often lie too deep for tears” (Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, William Wordsworth).

Or, consider the pathos of the following, the bleak ruminations of a lost soul:

. . .Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

William Shakespeare, Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28

This one is my personal favourite. I don’t know about you. But the despairing cry of of the king resonates with me. Just like Eliot’s. Both seem to give expression to what a lot of us have, at some time or other, experienced in our daily lives. In a very real sense, we “live” these emotions and therefore can instantly identify with them. Our minds thrill to the wisdom of a universal truth . And thus, we may hope to become better men.

Knowledge without wisdom, however, is dangerous. In A Little Learning, Alexander Pope advises us to “[d]rink deep or taste not the Pierian Spring”. Without wisdom, knowledge is but of little consequence. Knowledge inherently makes us proud that we have learned so much; that is why we need wisdom, to temper that pride with humility. Humility that we know very little, and that we still have a lot to know and learn. Remember what Socrates had to say in the course of his trial? That, “[t]he only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing”. If knowledge is the flour then wisdom is the bread. We eat the prepared bread, not the loose flour. “Like water to the desert is wisdom to the soul”, or so goes a well-known maxim. One must forever remain a student of life to be truly wise.

But wisdom is found in quiet places; places where solitude is a regular visitor; places suited for reflection, introspection, and mental deliberation. But does our modern lifestyle allow that kind of quiet slow-paced life? Not really. Today, we are all in a rat race that shows no sign of ending. None of us have any “time to spare”. We are always “busy” doing a whole lot of things; things that unfortunately do not take us far down the road to wisdom and consequent intellectual emancipation. And yet, ironically, we are in the midst of an information explosion. We are inundated by an information-deluge telling us precisely. . .nothing. We have missed the woods for the trees. As Albert Einstein baldly put it, “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”

Today the longevity of information and knowledge is about as much as the latest update on your Facebook page. In this age of “use-and-throw”, surrounded by the ephemeral, reading a book in order to gather wisdom is oh-so-boring. Instead, we hear about “speed reading”, “fast-reading”, “skimming”, “meta-guiding” and what have you — all geared towards enabling us to “read” a considerable chunk of information/text in the shortest possible time. Today, happily, we are all highly informed and “knowledgeable”. But not the wiser in any real sense because of that. We need to get our priorities right. And fast. Father Time waits for no man. And the clock has been ticking away for a while now. Indeed,

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

All has not been lost. Not yet. But do not delay. Else. . ..