Boxing Pythagoras

Philosophy from the mind of a fighter

For the unwise man ’tis best to be mute

For the unwise man ’tis best to be mute
when he come amid the crowd,
for none is aware of his lack of wit
if he wastes not too many words;
for he who lacks wit shall never learn
though his words flow ne’er so fast.

Wise he is deemed who can question well,
and also answer back:
the sons of men can no secret make
of the tidings told in their midst.

–Hávamál 27 & 28

There is a fair bit of irony to these verses of the Hávamál. It is best for the unwise man to hide his lack of wit by listening rather than speaking, yet there is a good deal of wisdom required in recognizing when and where he is unwise. This passage strikes home, for me, as it took me a long time to realize that knowledge and wisdom are two separate things, and that the latter is not acquired by pretense to the former. I used to spend a lot of time ranting about any subjects with which I was even vaguely familiar, barely ever letting anyone else get a word in edgewise. I had thought that my doing so would elevate me in the eyes of my friends and conversants, but in truth, it caused them to look at me in a worse light. I wasn’t thought to be the Erudite One, as I had intended; but rather, I was viewed as the Know-It-All– the guy who just wanted to feel superior by bragging about his knowledge. Many of those whom I had targeted with my longwinded speeches– perhaps even most– came to resent me for the effort, and usually without confronting me about the problem. Thankfully, one of my best friends had no qualms about slapping me with a loving and good-natured reproach. It wasn’t until he did so that I realized that so much of my blustering had just been empty braggadocio, rather than the actual love of knowledge to which I had pretended.

While I am still known to rant about my favored subjects– as is no doubt evident by the very existence of the Boxing Pythagoras blog– my approach has undergone a very significant change. My intention is no longer to lecture or to brag, but rather to dialogue. I still very much enjoy speaking about those things which interest me, but I also now stop to listen to those with whom I’m speaking. I ask them questions and listen to their answers; and when I am questioned, I try to answer thoughtfully. When I am shown to be wrong, I correct my erroneous views. When someone else is wrong, I do not attempt to assert superiority when I correct them. I try to listen as much as I speak, and to learn as much as I teach.

For the unwise man, it really is best to simply listen, to ask questions, and to answer them in return. This is how the unwise man is made to become wise.

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3 thoughts on “For the unwise man ’tis best to be mute

  1. I find real life intellectual discussions usually go a lot smoother than internet ones. I imagine a certain amount of self-restraint happens in real life settings, especially if you have some sort of relationship with the person prior to said discussion

    To add some related thoughts to your post, whenever I read a post or comment on the internet or some other medium I ask the following questions:

    1) Are these words trying to persuade me (convince me to change my mind or educate me about something) or are they just trying to win an argument (embarrass the interlocutor and/or egotistically save face)?

    2) If I participate in dialogue, will I honestly be able to change this person’s mind or will I just set off the backfire effect (a dogmatic person who is emotionally attached to their arguments, beliefs, and worldviews)?

    • Thanks for reading and for providing me with your feedback!

      I completely agree with both of your points, as regards both Internet and real conversations. You’re absolutely right that it is far easier to fall into these sorts of self-aggrandizing traps when you’re not face-to-face with someone, and I had to learn these lessons both in real life and on the Web.

      My only caveat on #2 is that, even when I run across someone dogmatically attached to their argument, I will sometimes continue to present my counterarguments for the sake of others who might read. I’m actually engaged in just such a discussion on one of the forums I currently frequent, where I’m defending a particular Greek translation on the basis of lexical glosses and primary sources while my dialogue partner opposes that translation on the basis of theology and numerology. Even though I’m fairly certain I won’t be able to convince him of anything, I continue my discussion for the edification of others who are reading the thread.

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