The Smartest Person I Know

One day, I hope, I will be the smartest person I know. If I can (I’m sure I can’t) I will be the smartest person in the world. Arrogant? Hubristic? No, I don’t believe so, though certainly it is at best aspirational, and unlikely nearly to the point of impossibility.

That’s my goal, and I think it’s a good goal to have. It’s a high bar, obviously. I’ve met some smart people in my life, and in reality I have no desire to upstage them or outshine them. I love that they are smarter than I am, and I bear them no ill-will for their brilliance.

Still, I think it is no insult to them, is maybe indeed a compliment to them, for me to set my mind to competing with them.

In a way, it is my way of recognizing my debt to them, communicating my admiration for them, my sympathy with their goals.

Socrates in a few places encourages his listeners to adopt this attitude of intellectual competitiveness. I think it is the best sort of competition there can be.

I want to be better at Greek than any of my amazingly talented friends and professors, though I know I am currently a long way from that. I want to have a mastery of modern logic or economics that would impress authorities in those fields (I’m even further from attaining those goals!). I want to grasp the facts and patterns of history and be able to call them to mind readily when I need them.

I don’t think it’s likely that I’ll succeed in any of these goals, especially while pursuing them all simultaneously. I also don’t think any of them are completely impossible or out of reach, however unlikely. But most importantly, I have no doubt that in aiming for goals like these ones, I will make progress on a scale that I could never have imagined without such goals.

Strauss’s Phases of Human Thought

I realized that Leo Strauss seems to distinguish five phases of development within human thought. These can map to historical eras, and Strauss often does attempt to illustrate them in this way, but they are more sort of existential modes than historical periods. They won’t correspond exactly to historical periods, and they won’t always move predictably in the sequence outlined. Still, they are useful for understanding how and why different groups will thing or speak in particular ways.

The Cave. This is humanity’s original and default way of thinking. It is something like superstition. It wishes to explain the whole world in ways that bring order and comfort and meaning, and through social cooperation and competition a given group will come to inhabit a shared cave, a shared horizon.

The Cave and the Philosopher. Out of a given cave, certain people or small groups will find their way out into the light, into philosophy, into a sense of the meaning and importance of nature as nature. The philosophers who emerge in this way will look back to the cave and its inhabitants, and will understand the cave and the caves more completely than any of those inhabitants is able to.

Political Philosophy. The phase of political philosophy follows on the inevitable tensions and clashes between the philosophers on the one hand and the inhabitants of the cave (often referred to in the singular simply as “the city”) on the other. In this stage, the philosophers have come to grasp their responsibility to the city and their dependence on it, and have worked out ways to draw out potential new philosophers from the cave while causing minimal harm either to the city or to the philosophic community.

The Cave Beneath the Cave. A new sort of cave forms in the attempt at enlightenment, at bringing those in the cave into a greater awareness of and acceptance for philosophy. The city cannot understand philosophy as it is, and so must attach itself to a shadowy misunderstanding of philosophy. In this way they leave their original cave only to enter a new cave, and this time, their cave is a deeper one, further from the light of genuine philosophy. Convincing themselves that they have already exited the cave of superstition and have attained the full benefits of philosophy (or that apparently more successful portion of philosophy which is natural science), they are stuck behind new and stronger barriers which separate them from philosophy itself.

The Reading of Old Books. To exit from the deeper cave calls especially for a study of old books, the study of accounts of philosophy that predate the attempts at enlightenment. It is only in scrutinizing the original conflicts and negotiations between the philosophers and the caves that we are enabled to recognize the inadequacy of our deeper cave, and to find the genuine alternatives that are available to us and obscured from us. If “Straussianism” can be said to mean anything, perhaps it refers to this.

Having kids makes the future closer and more substantial

“Ten years from now” used to feel like a long, long, really long way away. Won’t I pretty much be an old man by then? Will I even still be alive when I reach that age? It was difficult to imagine, and there was no need to try.

It’s having kids that has upended my sense of perspective. Ten years from now my children will still be pretty young. And so will I! Right? I’ll be healthy and strong and with a whole life ahead of me!

Being able to think in terms of years and decades in that new way has had some big implications for how I think about my time and my habits in the short term.

Studying a language on Duolingo for two or three years years used to sound like a terribly long, tedious, painful, boring prospect. But if it’s easy to imagine a moment ten years from now, then that two-year stint ahead of me now is hardly a bump on the road.

If I have a reading project that will take years before it gives me any sort of impressive payoff for my studiousness, then looking at it from the standpoint of the present makes it feel futile and overwhelming. Looking at it from a perspective that’s rooted five years in the future, or ten, or fifteen, makes it something exhilarating. Just think how much I will know when this project is in the rearview mirror!

I’ve heard that it’s hard to sustain excitement over a long time. I find that that’s not necessarily true. If I can keep the longer perspective in view, and see who I will become, and how easy the process of getting there is as long as I’m patient, I find I’m invariably able to feel great anticipation.

And sustaining excitement like that is exactly what it takes to stick with a project and make it a reality, which makes subsequent projects all the more plausible and exciting. It’s a virtuous circle. One of many gifts I did not expect to receive from my children.