Monday, 31 July 2017

Written Wisdom

During their long journey to the galactic Heart Stars, Jack Loftus, Sandbag Stevens and their mentor, Dr Langer, have a lot of time to think and talk. They discuss a Biblical passage which Sandbag renders as:

"'He who darkens counsel without knowledge isn't earning his keep.'"
-James Blish, Mission To The Heart Stars (London, 1980), Chapter Eight, p. 91.

When Jack asks what good is written wisdom when we cannot understand it until we have experienced it for ourselves, Langer replies:

"'Not very much good, in my opinion...Written wisdom, it has always seemed to me, is like an algebraic formula: it states the general case as elegantly as possible, but all the terms in the equation are parameters which you must fill specifically in terms of your own experience. You need to have led a rich and thoughtful life before the formula becomes applicable to you. If you are, in addition, especially thoughtful, you may in the long run be able to refine the formula itself. But that doesn't happen very often. It's a noble ambition, though, I think.'" (ibid.)

Interesting. But how many people can refine proverbs? Blish usually discusses and dramatizes the acquisition of new knowledge through science, not the formulation of timeless wisdom.

When I was at University, a fellow undergraduate made an interesting distinction between proverbs and slogans. Proverbs are relatively changeless and timeless whereas slogans focus the need for immediate action to change something:

"No taxation without representation!"
"Liberty, equality, fraternity - or death!"
"Land, peace and bread!"
"All power to the soviets!" (When those were still popular, democratic institutions, of course.)

I looked up Blish's discussion of experiential knowledge because I had read:

"'Training does only so much. Experience you have to get the hard way.'"
-SM Stirling. The Tears Of The Sun (New York, 2012), Chapter Fifteen, p. 465 -

- which in turn reminded me of some reflections on Poul Anderson's Time Patrol series. See More On Everard and The Quotable Time Patrol.