In the mid-eighteenth century, one of the great minds of his time set out on a task: to bring the world its first encyclopedia. Civilization, Diderot argued, was the direct result of empirical knowledge. Each generation knew a bit more about the world than the last. Nowhere, though, had this knowledge been recorded. Diderot thought that by putting mankind’s amassed knowledge into physical form, future generations could study it, learn from it, and build upon it, ultimately leading to the advancement of human happiness through the advancement of knowledge.
All too often, though, we ignore Diderot’s pleas for advancement through knowledge, simply because we forget about the origins of much of our current knowledge. Ancient thinkers formed the basis of our accumulated knowledge, yet often we discard their thoughts as irrelevant purely because of their age.
Take Socrates, the father of modern Western civilization. In an interview with The Browser, Jules Evans explains that there is a link between original Socratic thinking and modern cognitive behavioral therapy. Indeed, CBT was directly inspired by ancient philosophy, yet many therapists themselves are unaware of this fact.
In a more recent example, Sigmeund Freud’s work on the ego is proving to be invaluable to modern neuroscience, which is conclusively affirming some of Freud’s explanations regarding the use of our willpower. Freud himself was quick to point out that his work was meant to be tested and improved upon- and indeed it has been put through the ringer- but without Freud’s knowledge as a starting point, today’s neuroscientists would have no basis on which to form the hypotheses that lead to crucial experimentation and exploration.
What does all this have to do with you and the Internet? Going back to Diderot’s ambition for the encyclopedia to be the medium through which human happiness advances, consider that the web is nothing if not the ultimate encyclopedia. We now have nearly the whole of human knowledge at our fingertips, waiting to be explored, uncovered, and built upon. Indeed, I would not be able to write this were it not for the fact that I can access the very views of Freud and Socrates that I have described.
In order to grow, the human mind needs two things: knowledge and the means to put it to use. We know that the web is the ultimate source of knowledge, but it is useless if we don't know how to use it to cultivate the qualities we'd like to see in ourselves.
Consider Jules Evans’s thoughts on a need for conscious living:
We all have values and a model of the good life that we follow throughout life, but often our model of the good life is unconscious. We picked it up unconsciously from our childhood, our friends, what we happen to watch on TV or the music we listen to. And often our unconscious life philosophy won’t work for us. If you have a bad life philosophy, it can really mess you up. But the amazing thing about being a human is that we have the capacity to reflect on our unconscious values, and consider if they are working for us. If they are not, we can choose different values and a different course in life.
The road to happiness, and ultimately, to a fulfilling life, inevitably merges the very Socratic idea of studying one’s self to live more consciously- to replace unconscious motivations with deliberate ones, allowing you to mold yourself into the person you would like to be.
Now, to put that concept into practice, consider Socrates explaining the impact of the written word in The Phaedrus. In the story, Socrates tells of the god Theuth offering the king Thamus the gift of letters:
This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
Current knowledge now affirms this belief: now known as the Zeigarnik effect, this concept states that once you have written a thing down, you are much more likely to forget it, simply because your brain recognizes that the information is now stored somewhere else, and therefore it need no longer retain that information. Your brain, in essence, discards what you’ve written, so as to make room for knowledge that does not reside elsewhere.
How can you use this information to live a more conscious life? The idea of keeping a journal comes to mind. If your brain discards knowledge it knows it can find later, then it (your brain) is aware of how precious and finite is its own storage space. Keeping a daily journal would allow you to transfer the contents- the worries, the clutter- of your mind to a different medium, effectively clearing your mind of junk, and thus allowing it to roam freely to new and unexplored depths. According to Socrates- and to modern science- those who write their thoughts down are more likely to develop new, invigorating ideas, simply because their minds are now much lighter, and therefore free to do so.
Staying with the impact of a journal on self-improvement, consider another use Evans lays out:
One thing Hadot wrote about was the idea of keeping a journal. At the end of each day some ancient philosophers would keep track of what happened during the day – what they did well and what they did badly. The idea is that if you want to change yourself and get rid of bad habits, first you have to track yourself. Humans are such forgetful and unconscious creatures, we don’t always realise who we are or how we’re behaving. So we need to keep track of ourselves. Epictetus, for example, said if you have a bad temper count the days on which you don’t lose your temper, and if you manage to do it for 30 days then you can consider yourself to be making progress.
Evans goes on to praise the power of the web in this context, too- the web gives us the incredible power to track and study our habits so as to improve them. Our diet, our exercise, our sleeping patterns- nearly everything can be tracked, quantified, studied, and improved upon.
Is the web changing things? Of course. Is it a harbinger of doom or enlightenment? It is both, and it is neither. The web is simply a tool, much like a hammer. In the hands of an infant, a hammer is quite a dangerous thing. In the hands of a master craftsman, the hammer allows for new and beautiful things to be created.
Maria Konnikova says this in her Scientific-American piece on the effect on the above-mentioned Zeigarnik Effect:
I would never give up the ability to record, to access, to research endless topics at the click of a button. But, with Hemingway and Socrates never far from mind, I may be slightly more cautious about how I use that ability.
Here, Konnikova combines the ancient knowledge she's absorbed (and that consequently we have absorbed, via the web) with a more conscious approach to that very knowledge, and that very web.
The ultimate goal of mankind- of life- is to lead a more fulfilled life. Diderot believed that the accumulation of human knowledge can lead to a higher plane of happiness, and put forth the concept of the encyclopedia as a means to accrue more knowledge in the pursuit of happiness. The web is nothing if not the ultimate encyclopedia, so it follows that the tools for happiness are in your hands. Use them as you will. Will you be the infant wielding the hammer, jumping online to browse the latest funny cat videos, or to lament the fact that your coworkers are lazy? Or will you adopt the role of master craftsman, molding yourself into the person you know yourself capable of being? The wisdom of the ancients is invaluable, and that wisdom lies no further than the nearest web-enabled device. Knowledge is the new currency. The next time you open your web browser, think of the wealth of knowledge that lies within reach, and make a conscious decision to bathe in the pool of those riches.