A thought inspired by Friday’s Daf (page) in the Talmud, Nedarim 38
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Why teach what you have learned?
This post presents a philosophical idea inspired by the text of today’s Daf. The Daf is one page in the Talmud that tens of thousands of people study each day. I explain the connection to the text in a comment below. My purpose is to show that there are underlying philosophical assumptions in the Talmud that can have great significance for anybody today trying to understand our complex reality.
Our world today is full of opinions. If you look at the sum total of humanity, there is so much knowledge, so many ideas, skills, thoughts, facts and points of view. Humanity is more broadly educated (in terms of total years of education) than it has ever been in the past. With more educated minds, more people are learning for at least some part of the day even when not in a formal schooling system. So many people want knowledge and so many have so much knowledge.
Along with the rise of knowledge has come the age of the microphone. If once only a few sages had access to the microphones of the world, today microphones have experienced hyper-inflation. Look at Reddit, YouTube, any of the other social media or at the Internet as a whole. So many facts and opinions are on offer and more accumulating every second.
But everybody is fighting for the microphone. The new currencies are eyeballs, attention and views.
So perhaps we should stop and ask why it is that we need to talk so much. Is there a moral imperative to speak?
One obvious case is where one person, a nation or the entire world are taking a dangerous or ethically terrible path. Assume they are doing so because they are unaware of key facts. Speaking those facts may help prevent the existential or moral disaster. Now we have one set of situations that probably includes all of morality and politics, where, if you know, you should speak. But vast as these topics are, not all speech is about just these.
Knowledge is always good rule: Assuming that it is universally better to know than not to know, if I know something and I want to help you, I should teach you what I know. These are all arguable assumptions, but if they hold, I should speak.
That seems like a good rule. Are there exceptions to this rule?
What if I have a question that has long bothered me. I now have the answer, but this is just not a question that you have ever asked yourself. Our lives are too short to answer all questions, so we each chose our own questions.
What if I have more knowledge to transmit than you have the time or patience for. I should prioritize, and this answer just takes less priority.
What if I have something to say but so does someone else. How do I know that mine is more important than theirs?
What if I am sure that I have the truth. But so many people who are certain, are actually wrong. So, who know, perhaps I, too, am wrong?
What if I have figured out something really valuable. But the process of figuring it out for myself was even more valuable than the answer. Perhaps it would be better to leave you to figure it out for yourself too.
Now assume that the knowledge is always good rule is not valid.
Perhaps there are two kinds of knowledge. Some knowledge has practical and moral consequences but some is not. Some knowledge is valuable only in that it is interesting. Perhaps only practical knowledge should be shared wherever possible.
Another possibility is that some knowledge is dangerous.
A final possibility, which seems to have been current in ancient times, is very difficult for us to identify with today. According to this idea, a person must be deserving in order to know some ideas. Deep and fundamental knowledge must be restricted to those who truly deserve it. This seems to be an idea behind some esoteric knowledge restrictions.