Of Pedantry

Pedant is a term of opprobrium but the pedant is more a figure of ridicule than of menace. Yet what is a pedant? A phony is a person who appears to respect or care for someone else only for their own advantage, and a sadist is a person who takes sensual pleasure in the pain of another. These faults seem clear and are generally agreed upon but what exactly is the fault of a pedant? By most accounts, the failing somehow pertains to knowledge.

Perhaps the pedant is someone who has acquired great knowledge and has become proud and overbearing in his erudition. There are some who are very beautiful and are supercilious and disdainful to those not as beautiful as themselves. There are also some who are very rich and they are arrogant and domineering because of that wealth. Such individuals are rightly the objects of general reprehension. The beautiful may take some pains to maintain that beauty, but its possession is an accident of birth, a drawing in the genetic lottery, and we take it very ill if those who’ve been so lucky are inconsiderate to those not so fortunate. The rich are often born already wealthy, and while some become wealthy through great talent, ingenuity, or industry, some others become wealthy through luck or nefarious dealings. Nobody is born into great erudition, and while some learn more quickly than others, the attainment of great knowledge comes only with intense and prolonged effort. We can imagine some scholar who believes that those not as learned are dolts and sluggards and while we should find such a man very disagreeable, he is haughty and scornful rather than pedantic. Furthermore, the amassing of great knowledge is usually considered ennobling and productive of humility and even wisdom.

The word pedant carries a suggestion that the knowledge is somehow flawed. Flawed doesn’t mean entirely erroneous and none of the many pedants portrayed in fiction have ever been wrong about every single fact. Their knowledge is somehow flawed but it isn’t simply mistaken on every point. Instead of being false, the stock of erudition is somehow vain or silly. A great store of information can be quite useless if it’s merely a great jumble of trivial facts. Lists of dates, genealogies, statistics, and other heaps of data compiled on a page can be useless if they don’t bear on anything and if they hold no organic unity. Yet these great assemblages of facts with no connection are daunting to memorize. Why will anyone take on such a monumental mnemonic feat with nothing to gain from it? Nevertheless, we are drawing closer. Pedantry isn’t the storing up of useless knowledge but the misuse of knowledge.

Kant enjoined that in our actions we must treat another person not only as a means but also as an end in himself. We must similarly treat our knowledge not only as an end but also as a means. People often confuse ends and means. The pedant makes knowledge an end in itself, when it should be both a means and an end, much like the miser makes money, which should be only a means to an end, into an end in itself. The purpose of money is to provide us against hunger, sickness, and discomfort. Yet the miser will starve himself to add to his treasure. He will endure any privation or indignity if he can heap up more money. He will eat bad food and live in squalor, making himself sick, and he will worsen and die before spending some of his precious wealth on medicine. The money that was the means to his health, comfort, and happiness becomes his master and destroyer.

We seek to know so we may better cope with the world around us. Great learning is a treasure, but we shouldn’t hide it away, guard it, and slumber upon it, like some avaricious dragon. Knowledge is a means as well as an end, and it is only valuable if it also useful. Grammar furnishes many notable instances of pedantry. The purpose of grammar is not to make ourselves understood but to make it impossible for us to be misunderstood. As Wittgenstein observed, the laws of language are very much like the rules of a game. Yet in a game like chess, the number and the roles of the pieces are fixed. In a living language, words sometimes die away but more frequently they are born. A language will need to contend with entirely new words and come up with rules for them.

What if new pieces emerged in the game of chess? What will be done with these new pieces? Will the board be enlarged or will the pieces be assembled in three rows rather than just two? Let’s take one of these new pieces and call it the raven. How will the raven move, straight or diagonally? Can it move many spaces until impeded? Can it overleap its own fellows like the knight? No. The raven will be limited to move one space diagonally and it will also capture in the same manner. Can it move two spaces on its very first move? Yes. If it advances to the very last row, can it become any other piece like the pawn? That will soon lead to a proliferation of queens. From now on, the raven can become a queen, and the pawns can become only a rook when reaching the last row. The introduction of the raven has changed the pawn, because some of the functions of the pawn are now redundant.

Like this example from chess, languages must adapt to use new elements. When a new word arises it sometimes reduplicates the work of an existing word, and that existing word is shifted to meet another purpose. The rules of grammar serve to use these elements to the utmost advantage. Grammar serves communication, but pedantry makes communication serve grammar. The word ‘hopefully’ is frequently used to modify a situation. The rules of grammar insist that the adverb ‘hopefully’ should pertain only to the actions of an agent who is hopeful. In English prose, the occasions when such a usage are needed are very few. The occasions when a situation needs to be characterized in this way are many, yet a strict adherence to the established rules of grammar will force the writer to resort to something like, “It is to be hoped that…”. Forbidden one useful adverb, the sentence begins with a flotsam of pointless, forgettable little words. To avoid such periphrastic nightmares, writers should break these laws and the grammar police may issue a warrant for their arrest.

Taking one more example from grammar, it is a famous, or rather infamous, rule that one should never end a sentence with a preposition. In writing prose or poetry, there is good reason for doing so whenever possible. The second most important word in a sentence is the first, and the most important is the last. Much of the immense power of Milton’s blank verse lies in the forceful and vivid words he uses to begin and end a line. Ideally, the first and last word of a sentence should be strong and memorable. Yet this is not always possible, and if obeying means dislocating the phrasing so that the meaning is unintelligible, the rule should be broken. Moreover, the injunction is given without any explanation. There is a good reason but it isn’t given, and the rule is set down as if were an arbitrary statute set down merely to be vexatious.

 

Not merely rules of grammar, but whole bodies of thought may become pedantic. When the scholars of the late Middle Age in Christendom and the Caliphate, rediscovered the writings of Aristotle, they were dazzled by the new vistas displayed before them. These works, the Prior and Posterior Analytics, the History of Animals, the Mechanics, even the Physiognomics posed questions they had not thought to ask. They were stimulated by his example to ask these very questions for themselves and the manner in which the Stagirite had attacked them suggested fruitful lines of inquiry. But eventually, the difficulty of these problems and the scanty progress made in their solution in comparison with their classical predecessors began to discourage them. They still followed Aristotle in his investigations but they came more and more to accept his conclusions. The thinker who had been an inspiration ultimately became an authority.

Once Aristotle was generally accepted, Thomas Aquinas made it his life’s work to combine his philosophy with the truths of Scripture. He found Aristotle to be right on a great number of matters but never took him to be inerrant. Yet this immense body of secular wisdom should be a complement to the revealed truth of religion. This critical combining was later taken, in its entirety to be the official doctrine of the Church and Thomas Aquinas was canonized as the Angelic Doctor.

Many profound thinkers have been dreamy and abstracted in their meditations, and this has led them into accidents and embarrassments. Adam Smith was sometimes lost in his musings as he walked, and on one occasion he walked a great distance as he meditated, and when coming back to himself he found that he was come to a remote area and could only get back home by another long and wearying march. Thales was another dreamy rambler and he once became so lost in contemplation that he walked himself into a large hole. A pretty serving girl happened by and rescued him, but as his rescuer felt entitled to reprove him as she pulled him back up, asking how he can know what is passing in the firmament above if he’s ignorant of what lies at his feet. The great sophist almost certainly felt somewhat sheepish about this incident and this may have lead to another of the legends told about him. Thales was a meteorologist of some skill, and it is recounted that one year his observations led him to be quite sure that the next season’s olive harvest would be stupendous. He bought up every olive press he could acquire, and his prediction turned out to be accurate. The harvest was the greatest within living memory and he made an enormous profit. This venture into agriculture was meant to show that his search for knowledge wasn’t some harmless yet also useless eccentricity. He was seeking the governing principles of the universe, and these secrets were great truths valuable in themselves, but they were also immensely powerful and could yield tremendous benefits.

Thales, and those who later took up the same quest like Leibniz, took pains to show that their recondite researches allowed them to pursue the more practical and lucrative callings of statecraft, finance, and commerce with greater success than their more experienced and worldly practitioners. They needed to show that their thought wasn’t a pointless caviling over terms and definitions with no bearing on the real world. They needed to show they weren’t pedants because pedantry isn’t the failing of a bygone age or an alien and eccentric civilization but a recurring and dangerous tendency in our species. Texts that have revealed great discoveries are rightly revered, but we must always remember that they are a conduit to truth and not its apotheosis.