The other day I was reminded of that wonderful comment attributed to philosopher Francis Bacon.
He lived five centuries ago, and said. “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”
Rightly, this has been taken as good advice for young people, affirming three disciplines that serve a person well throughout life.
The importance of reading cannot be overstated, even as we seem to drift into a post-literate era. More stuff – even good stuff – is out there than ever, but technology has changed the way we take in information. Some research suggests that when we flit about on our personal devices our brains really aren’t receptive to deeply taking in new information. That’s a problem with how we’ve constructed and how we use the Internet. There’s always another click promising something cooler behind Door No. 2. It’s harder to focus on the task at hand, and a nation with the attention span of a goldfish is not a good thing.
And “conference” maketh a ready person? Absolutely. Sitting down to talk with people – the give and take of ideas, the eye contact, the reading of nonverbal cues – is hugely important. Forgive me for picking on a younger generation, but although I think millennials and other young people generally get a lot of undeserved grief, I do take issue with the aversion to human contact.
Pick up the phone, and talk to people. For pity’s sake, don’t take the first datum you find on the Internet as true, relevant or helpful.
The superficial rationality of such things as the Internet suggests we can flatten the human experience into a linear equation of stimulus and response, one binary question followed by one binary answer. That’s deeply sad. There’s still such a thing as what they used to call “the warp and woof” of life. Explore it. Talk to people.
And, yes, writing does force a certain clarity of thought – “an exact man,” as Bacon puts it. Then again, hop onto Facebook for 10 minutes and let me know how that’s working out.
Bacon said a lot of other things, too. This one seems particularly fitting for our times: “Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.”
OK, he’s a little wordy, but he’s right.
Another thinker, George Santayana, is remembered for his statement, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
That is so undeniably true – look around – and so often stated that we risk tuning it out.
I’ve always cherished another of his statements, good advice for the young and for old scolds, too. “The young man who has not wept is a savage, and the old man who will not laugh is a fool.”
Most of us could stand to lighten up – but you go first.
Santayana also said, “Religion in its humility restores man to his only dignity, the courage to live by grace.”
Those last three words of course are our daily challenge. But at the risk of stepping way out of line, one has to say it’s easier said than done.
– Follow Jeff Fox on Twitter: @Jeff_Fox