My dear fellow Yalie,
If you quoted Hume’s “A Treatise of Human Nature” to me in the middle of a conversation, I would not be surprised.
Michel de Montaigne, on the other hand, might take great offense; perhaps, he would call you a pedant, castigate you for your ostentatious display of being learned, claim that your soul was puffed up with nothing but pretense, bluster and rags of knowledge. I, however, lacking his confidence to call your bluff (as well as his perspicacity), would be mildly impressed. Of course, you’d have to be understated about it. You couldn’t really state outright, “Oh! I read a book recently that suggested …”, or “my philosophy professor mentioned …” That would be overt, ungainly — like watching a pigeon trying to juggle. You’d have to wait for the correct moment to slip it into conversation inconspicuously, and yet noticeably enough where it wouldn’t be lost in our repartee.
Your success would probably enkindle my jealousy, and release that green-eyed monster from its captivity deep within my soul. I’d be perturbed to see the intellectual playing-field on which we once both stood, tilt so suddenly in your favor, leaving me to fall inelegantly on my haunches.
As a first year remotely interested in nourishing my soul with classics and philosophy, I’ve certainly felt this intellectual jealousy towards DS students — connoisseurs of the classics, who can explain the Nicomachean, understand the Thucydidean or appreciate the Euripidean on command. These archetypal Renaissance men and women, paragons of the liberal arts education, aficionados of the philosophic and literary humanities, exemplify the image of an elitist utopian Yale that exists in America’s collective consciousness. Put a DS student reading Rousseau or de Beauvoir under a tree on Cross Campus and you have the next admissions poster for Yale. I, however, by sacrificing the opportunity to lay a stable foundation for my humanities education, have imperiled my future in Yale’s intellectual elite, permanently plagued by self-doubt and the fear that any knowledge I subsequently accrue will always be laconic.
However, would being a classics scholar shield me from this jealousy? How would a DS kid protect their veneer of scholarship from attrition by arcane conversations about magical realism in the South American tradition or postcolonial tragedies in the Caribbean? How would a literature major participate in a heated debate about baroque influences on romantic music? How would a classical musician surrounded by ethicists decipher those appellations — absolutist, positivist, relativist, consequentialist, particularist — whose suffix espouse more rigidity than the people who adopt these positions feel inside?
To many of you readers, the answer might be self-evident: if you don’t know, ask. But at the point in which someone has quoted Hume to you in simple conversation, you find yourself embroiled in a spiritual conflict, charged with the task of defending your intellect. Asking “who’s that Kant guy again” is equivalent to walking away from an arena where aggrandizing the intellectual challenge of various midterms, assignments and readings is someone’s greatest ammunition.
What do we do then? How do we protect ourselves from the affront of admitting our ignorance in a setting where general knowledge can never be general enough? How do we dispel the imposter syndrome that plagues each one of us when we exit a conversation feeling dazed and discombobulated by the esoteric subject being discussed with such bombast that you’d think the arguer’s life depended on their sophistry?
The way I see it, we have two options. One is to take the Pascalian, the Montaignian road. Rail against those who quote Hume in simple conversation, label them as pedants, in search not of truth but of facts and fragments that can be plucked like flowers to create a bouquet that is as colorful as it is disorganized. In your criticism of their pretense, defend your humility and ostensible character.
The second is not to eschew this scholasticism but to embrace it. Take inspiration from your failures, and buy a book on the life and works of Hume, Napoleon or Sartre. Or if you feel secondary sources dilute their words, buy their books. Use your intellectual insecurity to fuel your learning, until you become so well-versed with so many facets of intellectual conversations that it is your breadth of knowledge which dazzles others, which distinguishes you as Y-shaped, and plunges them into an abyss of intellectual shame. Nevertheless, if your soul is too caring, too empathetic to relish this Schadenfreude, then pursue this goal not with the aim of belittling someone else’s intelligence, but of nourishing your mind with food for thought. Know that this yearning to buttress your intellect does not indicate that you do not deserve to be here, but rather, it is the reason you are here. Intellectual jealousy, then, is a testament to intellectual curiosity.
And if that isn’t convincing enough, you can just take the perspectivist route, and assuage your fears with the axiom that truth and knowledge never existed in the first place.
PRADZ SAPRE is a first year in Benjamin Franklin College. His column, titled ‘Growing pains,’ runs every other Monday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.