In order to really be said to “know” something, it must become a part of you.
Information, ideas, and data: these are external to us. It is only through undertaking the hard, focused work of thinking through these things and understanding them that we internalize them; that they become “knowledge.”
One finds this sentiment echoed in the twentieth-century autodidact Mortimer Adler, who in describing a book writes:
“Full ownership comes only when you have made it a part of yourself… An illustration may make the point clear. You buy a beefsteak and transfer it from the butcher’s icebox to your own. But you do not own the beefsteak in the most important sense until you consume it and get it into your bloodstream. I am arguing that books, too, must be absorbed in your bloodstream to do you any good.”
Furthermore, it is only through becoming knowledgeable that you are truly suitable to teach others. Knowledge is best gleaned from a person who embodies knowledge, and is a citizen of the intellectual lands into which he is trying to initiate others.
But in our current time, we are losing sight of the concept of knowledge while drowning in a sea of information. As many of you know, T.S. Eliot had a similar lament in his Choruses from the Rock (1934):
“Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
We live in an age where people have unprecedented access to the wisdom of centuries, but increasingly lack access to those who have assimilated this wisdom. C.S. Lewis recognized this phenomenon in 1954, when in his inaugural lecture as the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge he told his listeners:
“[T]he vast change which separates you from [the] Old Western [order] has been gradual and is not even now complete… I myself belong far more to that Old Western order than to yours… If a live dinosaur dragged its slow length into the laboratory, would we not all look back as we fled? What a chance to know at last how it really moved and looked and smelled and what noises it made!... Speaking not only for myself but for all other Old Western men whom you may meet, I would say, use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.”
At the beginning of the Dark Ages, there were much fewer individuals who embodied the knowledge that had permeated the ancient world. As a result, the ones who were left—such as Cassiodorus and Isidore of Seville—set about making a fresh start. They saw their jobs not as creatively developing what they had received, but compiling it so as to preserve it. The recovery and proliferation of “knowledge” would have to wait for future generations.
This is how a Dark Age begins... not with the loss of information, but the loss of knowledge.
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Dan is a former Senior Fellow at Intellectual Takeout. He received his B.A. in Philosophy and Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas (MN), and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can find his academic work at Academia.edu.