Paying the Price

In the first chapter of his little book, How Do We Know, Leonard Read quotes the first-century Roman poet, Juvenal, who writes: “All wish to possess knowledge, but few, comparatively speaking, are willing to pay the price.” Read claims that Juvenal only got it half-right; that is, few indeed are willing to pay the price, but according to Read, “never… has everyone wished to possess knowledge.”

This is a curious statement coming from someone wishing to interest others in the quest for truth, but Read is absolutely right. Possessing knowledge—true knowledge, at least—requires work. Too often we disregard the reality that thinking is hard work; in actual fact, this is why so many people tend to avoid it. Read says that “if an individual fails to work for an ever-increasing understanding of ideas not yet known, he or she lapses into a stalemate—that is, a no-improvement—category.” And, in the same way, we too often settle for like-minded company, which only serves to further our own assumptions about how the world works. Edmund Burke explains it well: “He who calls in the aid of an equal understanding, doubles his view; and he who profits of a superior understanding, raises his powers to a level with the height of the superior understanding he unites with.” Being challenged with ideas higher than our own is uncomfortable, but this is precisely what we should be striving to do. If our own understanding is correct, we should be unafraid to examine other views. However, in order to give other ideas a respectful hearing, we also need to be willing to actually listen and think through the alternate views: this is what Juvenal meant by “paying the price.”

Read then quotes Edward Bulwer-Lytton:

The man who has acquired the habit of study, though for only one hour every day in the year, and keeps to the one thing studied till it is mastered, will be startled to see the progress he has made at the end of a twelvemonth.

Like every other discipline and activity, the pursuit of truth and knowledge requires practice—daily practice. This means a wide range of reading, yet it also means a concentrated and focused regimen of specific reading. It is too often believed that the very act of reading—regardless the material—is good enough. That this notion is obviously wrong should be self-evident, but since it is so prevalent, we should take a closer at it. It is commonly expressed that reading should be preferred to watching television or listening to music or surfing YouTube videos, but a further question should always be asked: Reading what? Is reading an entire series of romance novels preferable to watching instructional videos on YouTube? Is reading Us Weekly preferable to watching Band of Brothers? Is reading a comic book preferable to watching The Simpsons? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on what you mean by preferable. Read says:

Those who are truly earnest in the pursuit of freedom more often than not find the means to such a glorious end. If not, they create their own means, and they succeed in their explanations.

In other words, those seeking to be confirmed in their own ideas and understandings will always find paths to that confirmation. Paths that lead away from their own current understanding will most likely be ignored, ridiculed, or brushed off as being wrong-headed at best, heretical at worst. Seldom is the other path ever considered for any length of time and we end up right where we started—“doubled” in our starting viewpoint. This is all well and good if the understanding is correct, but it can be equally disastrous if the understanding is wrong.