Saturday, September 09, 2017


Aversion to Study and to Studious People

David Stove (1927-1994), "Did Babeuf Deserve the Guillotine?" On Enlightenment (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2003), pp. 3-25 (at 5-6):
But the other reason I gave is equally important: the weakness or absence, in most people, of any passion for thought and learning. Most people find their own lives quite interesting enough, in fact painfully interesting, without putting themselves to the pains which are inseparable from getting entrée into physics or philosophy or philology. To sit quietly alone for hours, thinking about some difficult question, in which you yourself have nothing to gain or lose—this is how some of us spend much of our lives, but to most people it is a purgatorial prospect. Noise, company, joint occupation, the excitements of war or power or money or sex or sport: these are the things which make up most people's idea of time well spent.

But in most people there is not merely an absence of studious inclinations: there is a positive aversion to studious people. This aversion is at some periods overt, at other periods covert, but it never dies out entirely. Its roots undoubtedly lie, as Hazlitt said in his essay on "The Disadvantages of Intellectual Superiority" (1822), in fear: the immemorial fear of "cunning men." It is painful to recall that when Socrates was still interested in astronomy and meteorology, even his friend Aristophanes could not resist currying favor with the Athenian voters by ridiculing such inquiries. Jack Cade, in Shakespeare's Henry VI, has a clerk put to death for associating with people who use such disgusting words as "noun" and "verb." The revolutionary judge who sent Lavoisier to the guillotine in 1794 remarked with satisfaction that "The Republic has no need of chemists." Pol Pot was even more thorough than his teachers, Lenin, Marx, and Ho Chi Minh; under him, even an educated accent, or merely wearing spectacles, was a sufficient death-warrant.

History is full of scenes of studious people feeling the effects of this aversion which the non-studious have towards them. The mathematician-theologian Hypatia was butchered by a mob of Christian monks in fourth-century Alexandria; famous monastic libraries in England were burnt by Danish raiders in the ninth century; professors were hounded to death by Red Guards during the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution"; in our own universities twenty years ago, learning and teaching were disrupted, and professors intimidated, by chanting mobs of "anti-Vietnam" demonstrators; and so on. Now ask yourself: in all such cases, which side is more representative of ordinary humanity? Which side, the studious or their tormentors, stands for inclinations that are widespread, strong and steady in human beings, and which stands for inclinations that are rare or weak or intermittent? The question will answer itself.

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?