Last year February, I wrote an article titled “I Forgive Myself“, wherein I lamented life’s general insatiety and the elusiveness of absolute knowledge. Somehow, the conclusion of that article has transmogrified into a ghost over the months, haunting me day and night, with its grotesque face constantly reminding me that reading has become a compulsion, the burden of which I would never be relieved.
In part, the said conclusion reads: “Yet I forgive myself. I forgive myself for knowing so little. I forgive myself for even attempting to know all. I forgive myself for having the guts to forgive myself. What a man does not know will forever be greater than he, and I weep at the finality of this… But woe betide me should I think this as an excuse to become complacent, for knowledge is yet the salvation of mankind… So, I read on.”
Of course, you must be wondering what prompted me to write such a profound article with a rather embittered conclusion. I’ll tell you. Few days before then, I had imposed on myself a solitary confinement of 36 hours, during which I binged on a collection of books well over 600 pages altogether, with the subjects running across arts, philosophy, science, religion and languages. When I was done, instead of being elated at the knowledge garnered, I was depressed by the vastness of the world, the intricacy of humanity and the realisation that no man would ever come to full grasp of the universe. At 18, I was embarrassed to know that life is a state banquet; help yourself to as many plates as you please and there is still a lot left to be eaten.
The unhappiness I felt was transitory, though. I was soon consoled by the thought that fulfilment might not lie in the acquisition of absolute knowledge, for that seems impossible, but in the daily increase in understanding attainable by man, no matter how little. It was about that time I resolved that, come what may, I must become a better man each day than I was the previous day. But that’s not even enough. The application of this acquired knowledge in solving, one at a time, the manifold problems of mankind outweighs even the acquisition. And on this, nothing could be more poignant than Anton Chekhov’s words: “Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.” Indeed, what is the use of an eye if it cannot see?
Over the centuries, man has come to see the necessity of knowledge. Above all things, he has come to realise that it is the first step towards true freedom, sound health, wealth, satisfaction and a meaningful life. It is, therefore, little wonder that he has constantly sought for a means to attain it. Fortunately, one does not need to go into the rigours of epistemology, where one bothers oneself with alethiology, empiricism and other such tedious concepts, before one becomes better enlightened. Socrates offered one of the most helpful yet succinct instructions: “Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have labored hard for.” That instruction, so unequivocal in its language but sophisticated in its ideology, encapsulates the basis of my fascination for books.
In conclusion, perhaps you would find worthwhile the story of a father and his son, a contrivance of mine but nevertheless illuminating. The father had called his son into a closet and sat him down, ready to impose on the poor boy his will as regards a crucial matter. The boy listened with rapt attention, resolute to accept only that which was convincingly true and tenable. With the duo maintaining conflicting opinions, a debate was soon started. “Shut up and listen to me,” the father said. “I am seventy years old. I have explored this land and foreign ones. I have met black and white folks from far and near.” Then he stood, walked laboriously to the window side and added while gesturing with his fingers, “Ten governments have come and gone, and under that mango tree I have analysed their rise and fall with my contemporaries. What could you possibly know, you little squirt of yesterday?”
With a measured voice, the son answered, “Perhaps I know nothing. After all, I am only thirty. I haven’t fully explored this land let alone foreign ones. I haven’t witnessed or analysed under a mango tree the rise and fall of ten governments. But I know scores of people who have done all that and amazingly more. In the few years I have lived, I have listened to their experiences and learned from their writings, such that I feel as though I have travelled the world over and lived a thousand years. Yet I have the humility to admit that I know nothing, for what could I possibly know, little squirt of yesterday that I am, in comparison to the enormosity of that which is to be known?”