Knowledge - or wisdom - found in the words of others

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"The wisdom of the wise, and the experience of ages, may be preserved by quotation."
- Benjamin Disraeli

There has been considerable coverage of the new book "The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World," for which author A.J. Jacobs read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica. But aren't his efforts more about collecting information rather than gaining knowledge? And what if one is really after wisdom?

In the Jerzy Kosinski novel (and film) "Being There," a gardener who has lived a secluded life and gets all of his information from television is suddenly thrust into the real world. He repeats what he has heard on TV, is perceived to be the smartest person in the world, and becomes a celebrity.

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Imagine meeting someone who had spent his entire life reading nothing but books of quotations. What might a conversation with such a person be like?

First, thank you for this interview.

The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.1

What do you think about modern society?

Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.2 Perfection of means and confusion of goals, it seems to me, characterize our times.3

How do you feel about our leaders?

It is not that they cannot see the solution. It is that they cannot see the problem.4

Do you have any feelings about the pace of life?

Life happens too fast for you ever to think about it. If you could just persuade people of this, but they insist on amassing information.5 Information is not knowledge.3 We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge.6

Is there also a difference between knowledge and wisdom?

Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.7 But to know how to use knowledge is to have wisdom.8 The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than a society gathers wisdom. 9

Are we being blinded by technological progress?

Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner.10 We must not try to manipulate life; rather we must find out what life demands of us, and train ourselves to fulfill these demands. It is a long and humble business.11 As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world - that is the myth of the atomic age - as in being able to remake ourselves.12

Concerning the future, how should the next generation be educated?

Prepare youth for the path, not the path for youth. Young people today feel they deserve more freedom. Give it to them, but give it to them with culture.13

How can youth find the path?

Books are a guide in youth, and are entertainment for age.14

Should students study the mechanics of literature and be encouraged to write?

Learn as much by writing as by reading.15 The greater you understand the structure of something, the more amazed you'll be at the tiniest movement within it. In that sense the possibilities are limitless.16

Books may be "entertainment for age," but some of us lead such busy lives that we can't devote as much time as we would like to serious reading. What should we do?

Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.17

But what if we can't find the time to do even that?

It is not so important to know everything as to know the exact value of everything, to appreciate what we learn, and to arrange what we know.18 Man is not born to solve the problem of the universe, but to find out what he has to do; and to restrain himself within the limits of his comprehension.19

Do you have a message for the world in 2005?

Let us labor for that larger and larger comprehension of truth, that more and more thorough repudiation of error, which shall make the history of mankind a series of ascending developments.20

C. Ikehara is a freelance writer.

1) Adolf Berle

2) Cicero

3) Albert Einstein

4) G.K. Chesterton

5) Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

6) John Naisbitt

7) Immanuel Kant

8) C.H. Spurgeon

9) Isaac Asimov

10) Gen. Omar Bradley

11) Phyllis Bottome

12) Gandhi

13) Benjamin Lindsey

14) Jeremy Collier

15) Lord Acton

16) Brian Eno

17) Henry David Thoreau

18) Hannah More

19) Goethe

20) Horace Mann

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