I have noticed a trend whereby people will post or tweet a quote, with nothing else: no analysis, no interpretation, not even a link to a relevant real world situation.
But that is not what I find strange. What I find strange are the scores of ‘likes’ and dozens of responses along the lines of “Right on!”, “Exactly!”, “How insightful!”, etc. How vapid. There is, though, one redeeming quality of this social media blight. I get to use the word vapid in writing for the first time in my life. Also blight.
I am not saying that these quotes from great minds are not enlightening, just that if one wishes to post quotes, then they should use it as the foundation of a deeper meaning. Otherwise it is just spam.
Not being one to simply point out problems without providing solutions, allow me to lead the way in posting pearls of wisdom from the long dead as well as my insights on these quotes. Attempting to provide value, if you will.
The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.
– Bertrand Russell
To understand this quote, one must first understand who Bertrand Russell was. He was a British philosopher, but he was also a mathematician, writer and social critic. He was fired from Cambridge University (later to be rehired), jailed for a few months for political protests and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
So what does Russell’s little gem have to teach us? A superficial analysis would lead one to think that this is a reaffirmation: all the big talkers don’t know what they are doing and the competent people are quiet.
But that misses the main part of the quote: The trouble with the world. It is one thing to try and make oneself feel better by classifying oneself as the quiet but intelligent one. It is something entirely different to blame the world’s problems on this point.
The point that Russell is making is not that there are stupid people who are confident and intelligent people who are uncertain. The point is that perfectionism binds the intelligent and allows the stupid to take advantage.
This quote is not an affront to stupid people nor a balm to intelligent people. It is a reprimand to the intelligent that their hesitation leads to forfeiting everything. Perfectionism is equivalent to capitulation.
The takeaway is that confidence trumps intelligence. I like to call it leadership.
Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.
– H. L. Mencken
Mencken was an American journalist (amongst many other things) and quite cynical. A cursory analysis would lead one to believe that Mencken meant that normal people are surrounded by so much that is reprehensible, that they must want, once in a while, to vent. I believe that the term “Going Postal” would be the modern day equivalent.
The key phrase that such an analysis misses is hoist the black flag and also spit on his hands. Such actions are not necessary for the beginning of the slitting throats phase of the temptation. So what does it mean?
Literally, hoisting the black flag is a reference to piracy and the flag that pirates used. It is an announcement of a permanent change in behaviour. One cannot decide to be a pirate for a few months and then go back to normal living.
What supports this is the spitting on his hands phrase. Colloquially, this is taken to mean getting ready for hard work.
Putting these two bits together, we can see that Mencken is alluding to a permanent change via hard work that is outside of the norm. Entrepreneurship? Start up? Venture capital? I say all three.
Mencken is basically saying that the basic instinct for normal people is to strike out on their own. To make their own rules. To defy the status quo.
In closing, the quotes of intelligent people should not be sampled as if they were uttered by the shallow. They are to be savoured, and returned to, in order to experience the full depth of meaning.
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