Books were understood to be a storehouse of wisdom from the past, a treasury and repository of hard-won experience and knowledge of these limits. What these books taught was itself a justification for an education centered around them. Because the present and future were believed to be fundamentally identical to the past, the past was understood to be a source of wisdom about our condition as humans in a world that we do not command. An education in great books was itself a consequence of a philosophical worldview, and not merely an education from which we derived a worldview (much less sought an education in critical thinking).
In this I tend to share the concern of Richard Lewontin, who wrote in the New York Review of Books: "Who am I to believe about quantum physics if not Steven Weinberg, or about the solar system if not Carl Sagan?" What worries me is that they may believe what Dawkins and [Edward O.] Wilson tell them about evolution. What worries me is that so many physicists and geologists seem to think that the peppered moth or finch beak observations illustrate a mighty creative force that produced moths and birds in the first place. I hope that they apply more rigorous standards for evaluating evidence when they are estimating the age of the earth.
Communication means that an idea which I have in my mind passes through my lips (or fingers, in most art forms) and reaches the other person’s mind. Adequate communication means that when it reaches the recipient’s
mind, it is substantially the same as when it left mine. This does not mean that it will be completely the same, but that he will nevertheless have substantially realized the point I wish to convey. The words that we use are only a tool for translating the ideas which we wish to communicate.
Tradition keeps in ignorance or error more people than all the other [the other sources of error] together… I mean the giving up our assent to the common received opinions, either of our friends or party, neighborhood or country. How many men have no other ground for their tenets, than the supposed honesty, or learning, or number of those of the same profession?
Even in peacetime I think those are very wrong who say that schoolboys should be encouraged to read the newspapers. Nearly all that a boy reads there in his teens will be seen before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance. Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn; and he will probably have acquired an incurable taste for vulgarity and sensationalism and the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph to learn how an actress has been divorced in California, a train derailed in France, and quadruplets born in New Zealand.
Do not be scared by the word authority. Believing things on authority only means believing them because you have been told them by someone you think is trustworthy. Ninety-nine per cent of the things you believe are believed on authority. I believe there is such a place as New York. I have not seen it myself. I could not prove by abstract reasoning that there must be such a place. I believe it because reliable people have told me so. The ordinary man believes in the Solar System, atoms, evolution, and the circulation of the blood on authority — because the scientists say so. Every historical statement in the world is believed on authority. None of us has seen the Norman Conquest or the defeat of the Armada. None of us could prove them by pure logic as you prove a thing in mathematics. We believe them simply because people who did see them have left writings that tell us about them: in fact, on authority. A man who jibbed at authority in other things as some people do in religion would have to be content to know nothing all his life.
Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.
Let us suppose the case of a man who was born blind. He can have nothing but oral testimony of such things as are visible to others. Does it therefore follow, that, to him, the luminaries of heaven do not exist, and, consequently, demonstrate nothing of the power and wisdom of God? No: the demonstration still exists, by an intellectual communication from others; and this, to him, is a revelation. What is history, but a revelation of facts, though man is the recorder, the witness, the auditor, and oftentimes the cause? View your premises however I may, they are demonstrably false; and, consequently, what you draw from them must fall to the ground. … You further tell us, that "the whole account is traditionary." The truth of this assertion, will depend, in no small degree, upon the definition of the term. But, if what you assert, were granted, I cannot perceive, how this would falsify the account. If the supposed facts contained in the Bible, be traditionary, and are, therefore, false, there is no historical account in existence, that will not be implicated in the common charge; and, if this be admitted, all moral and historical certainty, must, at one stroke, be banished from the world.
The great obstinacy that is to be found in men firmly believing quite contrary opinions, though many times equally absurd, in the various religions of mankind, are as evident a proof as they are an unavoidable consequence of this way of reasoning from received traditional principles. So that men will disbelieve their own eyes, renounce the
evidence of their senses, and give their own experience the lie, rather than admit of anything disagreeing with these sacred tenets.