The world can be a confusing place, but academics, authors, artists, poets and philosophers are just some of the many who have tried to explain things. In my wanderings through scientific texts, popular non-fiction and and documentaries, there have been a few stand out comments.
Whether it be Malcolm Gladwell’s keen insight into human nature, or Carl Sagan’s prophetic view of the world, all have resonated in some way beyond comprehension. They seem intrinsically correct, and universally true.
So here are ten incredible pearls of wisdom from the great minds.
1. On The Origins And Nature Of Human Behaviour
‘Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs.’ – Richard Dawkins, ethologist, evolutionary biologist and popular-science writer.
As the current face of evolutionary theory, Dawkins’ is no stranger to controversy. And although his work has revolutionised our understanding of the natural world, his opinions about how we must overcome our nature have caused the most conversation.
Dawkins’ is very aware how our evolutionary history, and how the selective pressures of the environment and each other, have shaped our behaviour. And in his book ‘The Selfish Gene‘, gives us to pause to consider the true morality of nature.
What is ‘natural’ isn’t inherently ‘moral’, and what we consider ‘moral’ is not inherently survival. So Dawkins’ asks us to understand our primal natures if we are to best them.
2. On The Power Of Words
‘To acquire immunity to eloquence is of the utmost importance to the citizens of a democracy. ‘ – Bertrand Russell, Philosopher, Logician and Nobel Prize winner.
Although Russell is best known as a philosopher, his life of work reached deeper into the shared mind of society than we realise. By studying and writing on the academic disciplines of logic, mathematics and epistemology (the study of knowledge,) he became a strong advocate for peaceful societal reform.
And most noteworthy are his observations of how people can be manipulated by words. The use of eloquent language, a flowery vocabulary or poetic arrangement can make the terrible seem empowering. You need only read the words of Nazi spokesperson Joseph Goebbels to see how language can betray human decency.
We must understand a man’s motivation, and place it in the context of the sociopolitical climate, to truly understand what may be hiding behind the words.
3. On The Risks Of Virtue
‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.’ – Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosopher, Author and culture commentator.
As the central reference to ‘Nihilism‘, Nietzsche examined the purpose of life without purpose. His infamous quote ‘God is dead‘ instilled the idea that the concept and role of any God is limited, and that through pain and suffering we may choose a virtuous path.
Whilst an avid skeptic of religion in general, his infamous parable ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra‘ presented, in humbling terms, the true insanity of zealotry. He warns us not to lose ourselves in purpose, and to recognise how a belief in achieving ‘the good’ can lead to evil.
And in a world where popular influencers claim a moral authority, his words could not carry greater weight.
4. On The Importance Of Responsibility
‘Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.’ – Jean Paul Satre, Philosopher.
Regarded by many as the father of ‘Existentialism‘, Satre believed that existence precedes essence, and that we must find our own way in a meaningless universe. But in accepting this freedom in action, we cannot ignore our role in what comes next.
Many existentialists reject the concept of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviour being an inherent natural motivation, and instead suggest that we make our decisions based on complex (although often incorrect,) contextual interpretations.
Not only does this mean we must be aware of our own limits, but take responsibility when they are exposed.
5. On The Stoicism Of Knowledge
The older I get, the more I understand that the only way to say valuable things is to lose your fear of being correct. – Malcolm Gladwell, Author and Journalist.
Famed author of ‘David And Goliath’, ‘Outliers‘ and ‘The Tipping Point‘, Gladwell explores the interconnectedness of humanity with the world around it. In his poignant prose he unravels what may seem miraculous, often challenging widely held beliefs.
His work tells us not only to dig deeper to explain the world, but that explanations may exist beyond the obvious. He also extols the value of expressing new ideas, fearlessly with no regard for your own ego.
We must challenge convention to find the truth, even if it risks our reputations.
6. On The Insights Given By Friendship
‘You can learn something about a person by the company she keeps.’ – Sam Harris, Philosopher and Neuroscientist.
Although more likely to be a figure of repute for his views on religion, Harris is a distinguished author and surveyor of the interface between neuroscience, morality and the world at large.
A fierce critic of authoritarian dogma, Harris asks us to take responsibility for building our knowledge toward creating a better world.
He also asserts that morality itself exists independently of religious doctrine, and empowers a human approach toward a coalescence of society. And as a neuroscientist, he is all to aware of how our behaviour may make us, or betray our intentions.
So if you want the measure of a man, consider who they value as friends.
7. On The Illusion Of Simplicity.
‘I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.’ – Ben Goldacre, Physician and Author.
The namesake of his popular book tells us a lot about Ben Goldacre. An academic and scourge of pseudoscience and ‘folk wisdom’, Ben uses evidence to expose the lies many are sold by the few to the many. He also tells that what is made simple, or appears so, may not be.
What is claimed to simple may be complex, and what lies between may be inaccurate, underhanded and deliberate.
And with that, we should try to understand the motives behind simplification, and why it is so easy for us to be sold a lie. Amongst his many targets is Homeopathy and the risks involved in being misled.
8. On the Arrogance Of The Human Mind.
‘See that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man.’ – Richard Feynman, Theoretical Physicist, Nobel Prize winner and Science Communicator.
Whilst it may seem odd that a theoretical physicist is so humble about uncertainty, Feynman shows us just how wonderful the universe is.
Although a pioneer in our understanding of the nature of our reality, he recognises that there is simply more we don’t know.
The intricacies of our reality, currently hazy between the infinitesimally small and unimaginably large, appear to us through rigorous questioning and often teach us that our presuppositions are not just wrong, revealing a drastic flaw in human understanding.
We claim to be intelligent, and yet this intelligence often blinds us to our own folly. We must revel in the wonder of whats left to wonder about, and not be afraid to look stupid doing so.
9. On The Value Of Choice And Humility
‘I was never born to write. I was taught to write. And I am still being taught to write.’ – Atul Gawande, Surgeon, Research and Author.
If you are a doctor, you no doubt are aware of Gawande. Whilst a strong advocate of evidence and comprehensive approaches, Gawande has also ventured into a philosophical musing of the human condition.
In his best-selling book, ‘Being Mortal’, Gawande examines the true value of human life, and what we lose and gain as we age. And true to his nature, he treats himself with a level of skepticism coherent with his humble world view.
We are born with a choice in a difficult world, expertise is only a measure of dedication tempered by self criticism, and arrogance undermines greatness.
10. On The Size Of Our Influence
‘The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.’ – Carl Sagan, Astronomer, Astrophycist and Pulitzer Prize winner.
To reduce the works of Sagan to one sentence would vastly sell him short. Not only did he lead the way in popularising science, but housed a mind so in tune with the human condition that his loss is truly universal.
Having inspired legions of scientists, including protege Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sagan’s holistic approach to science and its delicate implications toward society rings as true today as it did years ago.
He was exceptionally kind, humble and patient, expressing the very tenets he postulated as a universal ideal.
Sagan reminds us that the true beauty of the universe is not just in its nature, or its creation, but in our pursuit of explanation and the inherent ability to use this knowledge to better ourselves and future generations.
And that perspective matters, for the universe is much greater than such complex molecular machines as we. We are so very small, but in that there is much to be learned, gained and valued.
So Much Left To Learn
Ten quotes simply isn’t enough to even scratch the surface of the grand insights accumulated in the wealth of human knowledge, or beyond it. And with each quote, you may have taken your own interpretation of meaning and purpose.
Perhaps you disagree with some, or worry that they are incongruent with each other. But I am willing to contend the opposite, that each shares a unity in placing the pursuit of knowledge through humility, truth and beneficence as a true virtue.
So what are your favourite quotes? What and who has changed your life? Let us know in the comments. And if you believe, like I do, that knowledge is best shared, then help us by sharing this article with your friends and family.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Featured image courtesy of Flickr.
Note from the Author: Upon writing this article I became very aware of just how much I don’t know, and how much I can learn. I feel it only right to follow up on this article with more information about the works and lessons of the persons featured. There are many greats not featured on this list, but don’t worry, I will find ways to include them. I do not value my opinion of what is great above any others, I only wish to signpost what is already there.