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How to Be Teachable Part I: The Virtue of Docility

The ground from which all learning grows is sincerity. If you can’t be sincere to yourself and recognize what you do and do not know, what you do and do not understand, what you want to know, the extent to which you know the things you know, that others may know more and simply be better at things than you, and that there are limits to what one may reasonably know at all, you’re going to believe that you know things that you don’t and will have some inevitable and rather large gaps in your worldview, which can and often does cause great harm. For example, imagine a sergeant who thinks his military school training is all he needs to effectively lead his troupes against enemy lines, or an entrepreneur who is working hard at getting out a product that they’ll never be able to sell because the market is completely saturated, and even though people keep telling them that that’s the case, they think it’ll work anyway. Why? Because it HAS to work? Another example is a philosopher claiming to have discovered the absolute meaning of life.

All of these errors of judgment are based on a lack of grounding in actual knowledge. Knowledge of what a battlefield is really like; knowledge of how markets work and that just because you are you, that does not mean you will inevitably succeed; knowledge of which questions are, by their nature, unanswerable.

We can define sincerity as “meaning well” – yet not just meaning well based on passive information, but also on an active curiosity and appropriate action. Active curiosity means you seek to answer the questions you ask, while appropriate action usually means doing the best you can. In this way, a sincere person is a productively oriented person – someone focused on “freedom to”. Conversely, someone focused primarily on achieving “freedom from” forces outside their control are much more likely to be insincere because of it. One type is productive, while the other can never win. Today we will be looking closely at the pathology of a subcategory of the second type: the philistine.

Typical Pathology of a Philistine

Lack of sincerity is one of the fundamental aspects of a philistine; they, fundamentally, lack integrity. To hide from their own lack of integrity they build layers of defense around their egos to protect them from, to use the Buddhist term, dhukka (pain, suffering, anxiety, etc.). However, this is a bad strategy for dealing with dhukka, because what they can avoid by closing off to all criticism and sincere communion is nowhere near the suffering of their now empty, vulgar, uncritical, asocial, superficial lives. And because like attracts like, philistines huddle together, reinforcing this attitude as the solution to the problem of their existence, all while othering people occupying alternative modes. This is the conformist solution to existential anxiety par excellence, and it is probably the most common way people relate to themselves and the world: through the illusion of the herd.

Philistines primarily operate in a position-based mode of existence. Their central argument, the question at their core, is not one they want to answer, but one they want to be convinced they’re 100% right about; no, not even that, they MUST be convinced – there is no question about it. Instead of having a core based on principle and judiciousness, where there is the chance of learning, win-win situations, and reconciliation, they choose to disregard other people and take whatever they can get, perpetuating the societal prisoner’s dilemma undermining the golden rule.

This type of person is also prone to believing there is absolute truth. This is because it is convenient and actually quite necessary for them to reduce the world into simple platitudes and clichés, as this gives them a sense of power and stability.

But of course, there is no absolute truth. The more we learn the more we doubt, and the more we realize that even the most absolute, essential component of reality is, at least to some degree, uncertain. That’s not to say we shouldn’t rely on things that work most of the time – like the theory gravity for example – but we should still have some humility and be willing to doubt even the most deeply ingrained elements of our experiences. Learn a little about the ten dimensions, for example, and you’ll start to get a better grasp of the uncertainty I’m talking about.

However, because of their black and white worldview, these individuals, whose primary character trait is immaturity, block themselves from escaping their internal despair and external mediocrity with their absolutist, position-based attitude.

Is it possible for them to change? If so, how can we encourage them to go about doing so? And if it is possible, is it worth doing? And, if not, what lessons at least can we learn from them for how not to live? That is what I want to talk about in this two article series: lessons we can learn from the philistine.

Virtue of Docility

Fundamentally, the philistine can be defined by his dependence on verbalism and his inability to be sincere. He is dependent upon his group to describe reality for him, and rarely experiences it directly (and when he does it can be quite disconcerting and even frightening). This makes him closed off to learning, as curiosity threatens to undermine his safely enclosed, uncritical traditionalism. In this way, the philistine’s supreme failure is his inability to be docile.

Many people think docility means passivity with perhaps a hint of dolefulness thrown in, but that’s wrongheaded and leads to unfavorable connotations. Let us denote our term then: someone or something is docile when they are easily taught, led, or managed. Yet this does not mean passivity – quite the contrary – one of the essential components to docility is activity.

Activity

“One should always be drunk. That’s all that matters; that’s our one imperative need. So as not to feel Time’s horrible burden that breaks your shoulders and bows you down, you must get drunk without ceasing.

But what with? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you choose. But get drunk.” –Charles Baudelaire

What activity means is that you are attending critically to the object of your attention; it means you are asking questions and seeking answers; and it means you are sincerely trying to understand what you encounter. A docile student is one who is going to hear out in full what someone is teaching, and they also are aware that everyone has something to teach them, that is, if only they themselves can remain open and not start jumping to conclusions or letting their personal beliefs obfuscate the lesson.

What I am talking about is active learning. Active learning is the skilled operation whereby the mind elevates itself by the power of its own operations, passing from understanding less to understanding more.

Most people aren’t actively engaged with the world to any degree, and yes, one can be too active, but that is a problem for later ages to deal with. For our times, I think more deliberate, concentrated effort in individuals is what is called for if we are to transcend to a more favorable, meaningful phase of humanity.

How do we learn to concentrate our individual efforts? The first step is choosing what you focus on. It would be unreasonable to expect a 9 to 5er working at a convenient store to be actively engaged in their labor, but it is vital that you transition as much of your labor as you can onto things that activate (or, in other words, stimulate) you on a deep level.

Conventional thought and “normal” labor practices present a major obstacle for any individual who wants to reach their full potential through focused activity, but even so, this is no excuse to surrender – that only leads to a victim mentality and depression, which is at the core of philistinism – a deep-set feeling of powerlessness and insignificance.

Before we move on to talk about breaking down your remaining philistinistic habits and lessons we can learn from them, let’s wrap today’s post up with a few dos and don’ts for being docile.

Don’t:

  • Be disputatious or contentious
  • Be inattentive; a passive listener
  • Accept or reject something without consideration of the maxims of intellectual etiquette
  • Have the attitude that it’s the other person’s job to prove something to you. It is your job to allow yourself to be persuaded or dissuaded by their rational argument; you are responsible

Do:

  • Ask questions/be critical
  • Patiently hear out the full argument before you even consider passing judgment
  • Entertain ideas that may at first seem impossible or ludicrous. Even if they are proven false, you have learned something about the world – an important “what it isn’t” sort of thing, which are sometimes far more valuable than “what it is” realizations
  • Be aware of common propaganda and debate techniques people use to irrationally sway others’ opinions and win support
  • Treat the speaker like a human who is more than the words they are saying, because that is what they are. Transcend verbalism and experience the world in its namelessness with sincerity. Otherwise you will exist without actually living, only ever experiencing life secondhand

That wraps up today’s post. Next time we will be specifically looking at how one can break out of philistinism and lessons we can learn from the them so we ourselves can live more sincerely.

Stay tuned,


Ethan

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