Favourite quote #3: “Wisdom cannot express itself properly …”

Wisdom cannot express itself properly without eloquence; eloquence is so much empty verbiage without wisdom. (Joanna Martindale)

most-common-words-in-english-proverbs-1I have always remembered a particular history module I took at university where there were only 5 registered students, so our seminars were small and everyone was required to participate in the discussions. I dreaded those seminars, as I often felt out of my depth. There were two or three students who, along with the professor, would wax lyrical about this and that, and I’d have a hard time following their highfalutin statements. What they said sounded like nonsense much of the time, but I was insecure enough to assume that I was always just too illiterate to follow what they were saying.

One day, the exchange student trotted out a long-winded, jargon-filled opinion in his American accent, and it was complete Greek to me. The lecturer listened politely to everything the student had to say, then replied mildly, “Sounds pretty, but what does it mean?”

What a red-letter day that turned out to be!

That small and amusing non-event of an interchange (which I doubt neither the professor nor the exchange student would be able to recall) has lingered in my mind for years because of something important that it brought clearly before me: here was someone who had spoken with great eloquence and confidence, but for all that had spoken twaddle.

For my postgrad I had to undertake a supervised reading course of various psychological, philosophical and theoretical texts. Left largely to my own devices, I had to struggle through what seemed like a morass of ideas, all of which were complexly and commandingly expressed. I soon noticed that I was being convinced of one intellectual’s point of view only to read the writings of a detractor and subsequently cross over to the latter’s way of thinking. With time I saw that I was unwittingly allowing tones of authority and high-sounding discourse to sway me to different standpoints because, problematically, I did not always have the language and critical thinking skills necessary to entirely understand what it was that was being said. I was therefore essentially being won over by frills (the manner in which the argument is presented) rather than by the value or logic of the argument itself. Not only did I need to work hard to reach a place where the academics’ discourse could no longer intimidate me, I also needed the confidence born of experience and skill (since I do not have it by way of temperament) to place that which was being claimed in the witness box of my own court for interrogation, instead of abdicating that responsibility to the court of the populace (which in this case was the academic community saying Dr X and Mr Y are the authorities on the topic at hand).

I know now that there is much meaningless waffle out there in general, and you can easily be taken in if not careful. The extreme articulacy and confident demeanour of some (whether scholars, your neighbour or a talk show host) can often mask flawed arguments.

Today I think of that memorable history seminar as symptomatic of two very important things that it took me years to fully assimilate: do not assume you know less than someone whose superior education and/or way of speaking seems to say they must know more than you, and have the confidence to ask for clarification on what is being said and then discern for yourself if it is eloquent wisdom or just “so much empty verbiage”.

I still, 9 years later, find myself responding to imperious arguments that strike me as nonsensical with the thought: yes, it sounds pretty, but what does it mean? Certainly one of the best benefits of being fortunate enough to have a good education is having the confidence to point a finger when necessary and cry: “You over there – stop it with all that empty verbiage!”


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