If you would rather listen to this essay, here’s a recording of me reading it.
I recently listened to the tenth book of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, The Slippery Slope, with my sister (and enjoyed it – this series definitely improves as it goes on!). As we were listening a week or so ago, I came across an interesting thought. In the bit we heard that evening, the main characters meet a mysterious boy who seems to want to help them. However, they’re not sure if they can trust him, so they ask him if he can try to prove to them somehow that he’s trustworthy. The boy proceeds to define an unusual word that one of the protagonists had used, explaining that he knew it from having read extensively, and then says, “In my experience, well-read people are less likely to be evil.” The main characters, though they do go along with him, aren’t so sure; I’m not either. The fact is that many people (especially educated people, oddly enough!) do seem to believe that educated, well-read people are more likely to be good. But I, for one, don’t think this is the case. Here’s why.
First of all, let’s consider: what do books give you in the first place? Besides entertainment and other such more transient things, books give you experience. You get to live in the shoes of the characters and see what they see, as in most novels. Nonfiction books can also describe true events that then can become part of your experience. In addition, books can give you ideas. You may hear the characters or the author expounding their thoughts and opinions, sometimes arguing for them, sometimes just mentioning them. Often a narrator will interject little side comments, e.g. Nick saying that “Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope” in The Great Gatsby. This whole question of whether well-read people are less likely to be evil comes from an idea a character expressed in a book, as I explained, and goodness knows Lemony Snicket interjects plenty of other comments into his narration throughout the rest of the series. Nonfiction books also often have ideas; for example, I read a book once, called The Genesis of Science, which argued that “the Middle Ages laid the foundation for the greatest achievement of western civilization: modern science.” That’s an idea, not a hard, provable fact, since “laying a foundation” for something is a rather abstract, mushy concept. Of course, books can also communicate facts, which is the whole point of most textbooks, for instance. So books can give us experience, ideas and facts and so increase our knowledge.
Experience, ideas and facts are all tools we use to gain wisdom and figure out what the best course of action is. For instance, say I have the experience of putting a wool sweater in the washing machine and then finding it shrunken.1 From this experience, I might come up with the idea that putting a wool sweater through a washing machine cycle shrinks it. Then, after I consider existing facts, such as that the sweater was fine before it went through the wash cycle, I could come to the conclusion and believe as a fact that a wool sweater will shrink if you wash it in a washing machine. Now, following from this experience, idea and fact, I could become wiser and know that next time I want to wash a wool sweater, I had better not put it in the washing machine. I have gained wisdom from experience.
The wonderful thing about books is that you can gain experience, come across ideas, and learn facts that you could never have in your own life. For instance, I recently read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. I could never have the experience of a young German man serving in World War I myself. I doubt I’ll ever have any experience being in a war in the first place. But through this book, I could experience a bit of what it was like to fight in a war. I also found ideas in this book about the evil of war and its impact on the young, and facts about the actual mechanics of the fighting. Nonfiction also can give you experience, ideas, and facts that you could not come across in your life. Take any of the books I’ve read on linguistics. In them I can find experiences linguists have had studying various tongues, ideas about how humans think, and facts about how humans use language, things I would never have found out or thought of on my own. Fiction or nonfiction, books let somebody gain far, far more experience, ideas, and facts than they could on their own. And with this larger base of knowledge to draw from, people who are well-read are better able to gain wisdom; they are better equipped to figure out what’s true or what makes sense to do.
But no matter how much experience, ideas, and facts books give you, and no matter how much wisdom you garner from these things, books cannot change your heart and actually give you morality. Experience, ideas, and facts, from books or otherwise, can help change your heart, for sure. But you are going to have to take the initiative to actually work to change yourself. You can’t just read the right books or see the right things or think the right thoughts or understand the right facts and automatically get a good heart. For instance, say a small country gets miserably defeated in a war and is left wrecked and weak. The ruler of that country could see the desolation, have compassion out of a good heart, and conclude, “War is evil. I had better make my country neutral and try to promote peace among our neighboring countries to avoid something so horrible happening to anybody nearby again.”2 Or that ruler could look at the destruction and feel anger and bitterness out of a bad heart, and then say instead, “That country that defeated us is evil. I’m going to do everything I can to destroy them just as much as they destroyed us, if not more.” That one ruler could work from the same experience, the same ideas, the same facts, and still come to very different conclusions, all based on what is in his heart. But whichever path he chooses, because of this experience, he is more well-informed to better do whatever his good or evil heart desires. If he’s a good man, he could use this experience to better understand the plight of those caught in a war so he can help them more effectively. If he’s an evil man, he could use this experience to better understand how to most hurt his enemies. And there’s the rub. Being well-read gives you more experience, more knowledge, and more wisdom, so that you are better able to do what you want to do, but it can’t change what you want to do in the first place.
Now, reading books can definitely help make people want to change. I feel more compassionate for refugees after reading novels set in refugee camps. I feel more eager to promote peace after reading novels about wars. I feel more anxious to be zealous for God after reading nonfiction about great Christian thinkers. Etc., etc. Books can do this just as actual experience can – I could also feel more compassionate for refugees after meeting and getting to know some, or be encouraged to work harder for peace after witnessing the destruction of war first-hand, or want to be more zealous for God after actually meeting a great Christian. And, as I said, with books, you can get more experience and so on than you ever could in real life, giving you more impetus to change. But you will still need to have a heart that is willing to change in the first place. I would certainly agree that quality books, if read well and thought about carefully, will encourage people to reconsider their views and examine what they think. But books alone cannot change somebody’s heart so that they will actually choose the right thing after examining and reconsidering. Books can’t change your heart. They just make you more aware and more wise so that you can more firmly and successfully pursue whatever your heart wishes to.
So I would say that being well-read makes a person more clever, more aware, not less evil. And if somebody is evil, I would say that being well-read would make him or her more quick to justify his or her evil, since again, good reading can make you closely examine what you think and believe, and so prompt you to justify it. A man who is not well-educated or well-read who steals bread to feed his family is not likely to bother carefully justifying his thievery before he carries it out. He just wants to take care of his family, and that’s a good enough reason for him. He is not concerned with having watertight logical reasons for everything he does. I, on the other hand, would have to go through a great deal of ethical wrangling before I could ever be comfortable with stealing something, mostly since my education has taught me to have those logical reasons for what I do. Another, trickier example: in many third-world countries, if you steal or murder or otherwise commit a crime, you get punished, and that’s an end of it. In America and other such more educated places, however, while criminals are certainly still punished, people tend to look for justifications for why they couldn’t help but commit that crime. Maybe the offender came from a poor background. Or was abused as a child. Or got bullied into doing something wrong. Often this can lead to a sentence being softened. Now, I’m not saying that this is wrong; I think it is good to be aware of what may have encouraged somebody to commit a crime and then try to get rid of those evil influences.3 I’m just saying that in more educated places, we tend to look more for justification. So then well-read people tend to be more concerned with having reasons for what they think, since they tend to examine themselves more, so to speak. And so in the end, I would argue that well-read, well-educated people are more artful, more alert, more careful to think things through and argue them out – not less evil.
I have seen this in my own first-hand experience growing up in third-world countries but coming from a middle-class American background. Where I live, a place where people are less educated than they are in America, there is more straightforward crime and evil like murder, robbery, bribery and the like. But these wrongs are recognized as evil by most of society. For instance, even though almost everybody pays bribes, and many people also take bribes, they will say that this is bad – most only continue doing it since they feel they have no other choice. Contrast America. I would say – and I know this will offend some people4 – that living with somebody before you’re married is wrong. This is accepted as wrong in many cultures. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen – of course people still live together before marriage sometimes even in more conservative places. But it is still recognized as wrong by most of society, again, often even by the wrongdoers themselves – they just shrug it off or ignore it. In more-educated America, on the other hand, many people have thought it through and come up with rationalizations for it. And so now many (if not most) Americans would say that it’s not wrong to live with a boyfriend or girlfriend before marriage. Such people are educated. They see value in justification. Which is great – it’s good to think things through! – but they’re using their education to make it easier to do wrong. If their hearts were in a good place, they could have used the tools their education gave them to come up with reasons not to live with somebody before marriage and so make it more difficult to do wrong. Again, being well-read, and being well-educated, makes it easier to do whatever your heart wishes to do in the first place. So to sum things up, people do bad things in both poorly-educated and well-educated countries: just they do different bad things, and the people in the well-educated countries are much more concerned with explanation and rationalization.
Now, there may appear to be data contradicting my argument, namely figures showing that crime rates are lower in more educated (and so presumably more well-read) places. First of all, you can do a great deal of evil that isn’t crime, per se – you can deceive, mock, slander, hold grudges, and do a number of other things that can cause tremendous strife in a community without actually requiring violence on your part. Even just considering crime-type evil, again, if most of the population tends to justify certain types of wrongdoing, then there probably won’t be laws against it, and so it won’t count as a crime. Additionally, more educated people generally have a much easier time getting jobs, supporting themselves, etc., and so have a lesser chance of feeling that they must resort to crime, no matter how evil their hearts may be. Finally, more educated people, being more aware of the world they live in, probably have a better sense that they’ll get punished if they commit a crime (if this in fact is the case) than somebody who is not as well-educated and not as aware of the consequences awaiting criminals. A person aware in this way would probably then work out his or her evil desires in ways that are not technically criminal: once more, a well-read and well-educated person will, in my opinion, be more careful and artful in whatever he or she does.
So now you’ve seen how I think. Well-read people, I believe, are just as evil as those that are not well-read: they just work out that evil in their hearts in different, often cleverer, ways thanks to the additional knowledge they have. But this conclusion does very much come from my belief that people are evil at heart, even though they do have some good in them. Somebody who thought people were good at heart might quite reasonably conclude differently. This opinion of mine also comes from my belief that human knowledge, which we find in books,5 can only get us so far – indeed, it can often mislead us – and so books alone, having only human knowledge in them, cannot lead us as high as we can go. In some ways, this ties into another theme I’m seeing being developed in the Series of Unfortunate Events: we can never know everything, we can never really be sure of anything. I do think that we humans on our own can’t know everything or be completely sure of anything. But I also think that as a believer in Jesus, I do have something more: I have the absolute truth God gave us. I have a basis and a foundation of something I trust to be completely true to depend on, something to support me even while all other knowledge is unsure and can be challenged. God’s absolute truth also gives me a set of assumptions that I can work from, a set of postulates from which to argue. As I have explored philosophy and science and the rest from both secular and religious viewpoints, I have realized more and more than no matter what you think, you are going to need to assume something. If you believe there is no God, you are going to need to assume that somehow all the matter that makes up the universe came into existence by itself. But if you want to explain the existence of matter spiritually, you’re then going to need to assume there is a God. To get anywhere productive, you’ll need to have some supposition to work with; you’ll need to have faith in something. And I, myself, have chosen to have faith in Jesus and the Bible – not the limited human reason and knowledge that I can find in books.
1We are discussing a question brought up by the sweatered scout, after all.
2By the way, I’m not trying to say that this is the best idea, or that it’s not, for that matter. The point is that his heart was good and so he had compassion; there are multiple sensible ways he could work out that compassion.
3Consider Luke 17:1-2 (NIV here): “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.’”
4Let me just note that if I come across somebody who has done this, I do not run away screaming OH NOES EVIL PERSON GOING TO HELL. I see somebody who, just like myself, has a sinful heart that needs to be changed and who should be loved. Somebody who, before God – and God’s opinion is really the only one that counts – is more or less in the same position as me. Not somebody who should be ostracized or pointed out as Especially Bad.
5Other than the Bible – again, in my opinion.