A little while back I read a post on Tim Ferriss’ blog about Michel de Montaigne. I got interested, as philosophy keeps being an interesting thing. Michel de Montaigne is the inventor of essays and has become famous of the essays he wrote.
Reading through the story I got to the most interesting question (although the commonplace book is also a great idea): ‘Que sais-je?’ or ‘What do I know?’
What do we know?
I am in my second year of medical school. The past 13 years of my 19 years counting life I’ve been going to school, I’ve been educated. Now, what do I know after that lifetime of education?
In elementary school we’ve been learning about things in everyday life. How does a bird fly. Why is the grass green. How do we write peanut butter.
Then we went to high school. From everyday subjects we went to a ‘higher understanding’ of things. Birds don’t just fly because their bones are hollow, there is a lot of physics behind it. All those laws of nature makes the bird fly. Grass isn’t just green to catch sunlight but they contain chloroplasts which are taking all the colors of the sun except green, so green will be the only reflected color.
Now, we are in college. Physics is taken to another level and we learn how chloroplast are formed. College is where we get an even more specific understanding of everyday life. We are becoming specialists, everybody in its own field.
So what do we know?
If you look in time, we start to know more, but about less subjects. For instance with geography, we start with the world and we know a lot of countries. But then you are going to learn all the cities in your own country and you start to know more, in a more specific way. You learn all the cities of your country, but not the country on the other side of the world. If you show me a map I can show you all the big cities in Europe, but if you ask me the big cities in Australia, it will be way harder.
We learn more, we start to know more, but not about more. We start to know less actually in comparison of what we know in our field of interest. And with every change of school, we make a jump in the specifity of our field of interest. After making the jump to college I didn’t learned anything anymore about economics, so I know something about it, but in comparison of what I know about the human body I know close to nothing about economics.
If you want to answer the question ‘What do I know?’ about everyday subjects you can only say something like: ‘I know something about everything and everything about something.’
The Big Questions of life
Was Montaigne looking for the answer on his question in everyday subjects? Probably not. Montaigne was trying to figure out what he knew about the big questions in life. Where do we come from? Where do we go? And the most important: Why are we here?
If you read back just a little you will see some sort of chronology of what we know about what if you look at everyday subjects, but is there anything like it if you look at the Big Questions? Do we get to know more about these subjects while our age increases? I dare to say no. I even dare to say we know less than before.
When I was six years old, when I just started to go to school I knew where we came from. God made us. I also knew where we were going: To heaven. I probably didn’t knew why we were here, but I had almost all the questions figured out. At least, I had answers. That all changed. If I am trying to answer these questions now there will be pages of text and if you read good enough you will read there are no answers on those pages.
So maybe we know less about the Big Questions while time is passing by. Or maybe we define the word ‘answer’ differently when we grow older. We can state for sure that nobody has the actual answer.
Answering the question ‘What do I know’ is harsh. Because the answer is ‘Approximatly nothing’. In everyday subjects I don’t know a lot. And I am afraid to answer the Big Questions. I don’t know anything.
What meant Montaigne with this question?
If I now look back at the last couple of sentences, there is a lot of reason to get depressive. I don’t know anything and I probably won’t learn it in the near future, so my existence consists of knowing nothing. But Montaigne wasn’t trying to get us depressive. In contrary, he was trying to make us laugh about ourselves.
If I look at my fellow med students, I see a lot of people showing off their knowledge. Walking around like they are doctors already, talking in fancy words. But still, they don’t know anything. Because we all don’t know anything. We don’t have to take us this serious, let’s take ourselves not serious at all. Of course we should cherish our knowledge, but on the other hand we should always keep in mind that there is a world left to discover, that we can only have all the knowledge if we work together. Because everybody knows something about everything. And a lot of people know everything about something. Let us work together and we will know almost everything about everything combined.
We can’t take ourselves seriously, but we can take our partnerships serious.
What do I know? I don’t know anything. But what I do know is that if we all work together, there is a great potential in the knowledge we can gather.
Ask yourself the question what you know every once in a while, think about this question. Don’t take yourself so serious all the time. We are all just human.
If you want to read more about Montaigne, check out these books:
- How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
- Montaigne – The Essays: A Selection
- Montaigne (Past Masters Series)
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