Two Types of People – Those Who Think they Know Something and Those who Know they Know Nothing

Near the end of his novel The Idiot, Russian novelist Dostoyevsky reflects on two sorts of common people.  First there are common people who possess limited intellect:

 To a commonplace man of limited intellect, for instance, nothing is simpler than to imagine himself an original character, and to revel in that belief without the slightest misgiving…Some men have but felt some little qualm of kindness towards their fellow-men, and the fact has been quite enough to persuade them that they stand alone in the van of enlightenment and that no one has such humanitarian feelings as they. Others have but to read an idea of somebody else’s, and they can immediately assimilate it and believe that it was a child of their own brain. The “impudence of ignorance ,” if I may use the expression, is developed to a wonderful extent in such cases;—unlikely as it appears, it is met with at every turn (p. 290).

Such people think they are original and intelligent but are actually unoriginal and just regurgitating ideas they read from others.  Yet Dostoyevsky says such people are much happier, due to their ignorance.  Then there are common people with greater intellect:

Our friend, Gania, belonged to the other class— to the “much cleverer” persons, though he was from head to foot permeated and saturated with the longing to be original. This class, as I have said above, is far less happy. For the “clever commonplace ” person, though he may possibly imagine himself a man of genius and originality, none the less has within his heart the deathless worm of suspicion and doubt; and this doubt sometimes brings a clever man to despair (p. 290).

These people are smart enough to realize, though they want to be original, that they really are not.  They realize how many other smart people are out there and doubt their own intelligence.

As I read this it struck me as a fantastic description of people.  Do we think ourselves to highly then we ought?  Perhaps we doubt ourselves when we shouldn’t?

I’ve had experiences where I was very confident about something until I learned more.  I read one side and was convinced of their arguments, thinking anyone who disagrees was ignorant.  Then I read or listened to the other side and realized I was the ignorant one.

What do we take away from this passage?  Don’t think yourself too highly then you ought.  Realize that no matter how much you think you know, someone else knows just as much or more and disagrees with you.

Maybe simply, be humble.

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One thought on “Two Types of People – Those Who Think they Know Something and Those who Know they Know Nothing

  1. One thing about a higher education is that it clarified just how unclever and not-near-as-smart-as-I wish-I-was when it comes to my own intelligence. All the better, perhaps, to be able to contemplate what it means to be humble. I have not figured that out, quite, but life seems intent on reinforcing lessons about humility!

    Dostoyevsky puts it brilliantly–I wish I had thought of that!

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