Eleanor Roosevelt, the former first lady of the USA has an interesting quote that has acted as a guardrail for what I like to involve myself in. She is quoted to have said “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people”. The original quote was a salvo fired against gossiping. It is fun to note that language originated with the need to gossip. Somehow, the same invention of humanity rose to a point where ideas articulated through languages gained a dominance of being superior in some sense.
The quote is terribly problematic if it were to be interpreted sans nuance. Taken in a literal sense, it offers a serious setback for when someone is reading a biography. A biographer fundamentally discusses a person & the set of events that occurred in the life of the subject. By extension, there’s very little room for ideas in almost every facet of life. That remains the issue if we stick to the Kantian definition of what an idea is. In his critique of pure reason, Kant suggests that there is a level of thinking untarnished by the visceral senses. It seems like a great pursuit to go within the metaphysical realm of thought where ideas exist.
However, there is a confusion here once we consider one of the needs to read biographies. We become wiser with every mistake we commit. However, we can’t expect ourselves to make all the mistakes we want to make to become wiser. Mistakes are expensive. It’s rightly said that we must learn from others’ mistakes. A good biography offers this in loads. The mistakes made by the subject are laid bare for the reader to know more about. Going back to the quote, the biography discusses a person & the set of events that took place in that person’s life. If someone has the possibility to become wiser by reading a biography, how is that correlating with being a small mind or an average mind per se? A wise mind is definitely neither average nor small. By exclusion, assuming that the list of 3 minds is exhaustive, it definitely has to be a great mind. It becomes a paradox if we were to make the equalising proposition that a wise mind is a great mind. That is because wisdom was achieved by seemingly unwise means. How can something be what it is through what it is not?
This isn’t an extolling of the quote made by Eleanor Roosevelt nor is it a scathing commentary. The confusion created by the statement haunted me until I ran into the ideas of Alfred Korzybski. Korzybski suggests that language & thoughts are disconnected, if not for a structural differential of the construction of thoughts. In his model of sanity, there is an unspeakable level of the reality we live in. This reality is described in words by abstraction. What actually happens versus what is described can be compared but there will never be a 100% sync between reality & the description of reality in words. In his differential, we go deeper into something and seek the idea central to the event populated by the people in it. Upon a second reading of the quote now, it becomes clear as to what the smallness or greatness is. If someone were to only discuss the people without considering the events surrounding their lives for the choices they make, any assessment made of the person being discussed is a superficial moral argument. To say that somebody did something and then agreeing or disagreeing with the outcome, is the indicator of smallness of thought. It is a clear indication that there’s no understanding other than a comparison of the outcomes between the person being discussed and the people talking about the person.
To get to the level of discussing the events that may have driven the person’s actions, and by extension the outcomes, is still not an attempt at understanding the reality. To know the person’s biases of thinking & then piling it together with the events surrounding the person to understand what they did gives a coherent picture as to why something happened. Why Ben Franklin suggested to Jefferson to let slavery be despite being staunchly abolitionist, has an idea at the centre of it. The idea was to secede from the English empire at any cost. There is an infinite regress. Ideas have other people & the events surrounding them within themselves. It is easy to get lost in this vortex of thinking while fooling ourselves that we’re up to some great pursuit. The problem arises from the equivalency of a wise mind being a great mind. A great mind can think, probably. But a wise mind knows how to do that. Would a wise mind be greater than a great mind? I don’t want to make any such claims but all I do know is wisdom is worth pursuing.