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Socrates On Globalization

The most recent IMF report discusses such results of globalization as the increased wealth in all participating countries and all social quintiles, along with a widening of the gap between top and lowest quintiles due largely to the technology transfers which have made skilled, education-dependent work ever more valuable even as profit-seekers shift as many low chores as possible to unskilled, low-paid workers.

The theme of the champions of human capital since Adam Smith rings a bell with all teachers: education is the key to personal advancement. Unlike the goods which we take home in containers to examine and treasure at our leisure, education is--as Montaigne pointed out in "Of Physiognomy"--swallowed on the spot and, short of torture, cannot be ripped from us. In that same essay, though, Montaigne takes a poke at education. Here he is:

"We are all of us richer than we think we are; but we are taught to borrow and to beg, and brought up more to make use of what is another's than of our own. Man can in nothing fix himself to his actual necessity: of pleasure, wealth, and power, he grasps at more than he can hold; his greediness is incapable of moderation. And I find that in curiosity of knowing he is the same; he cuts himself out more work than he can do, and more than he needs to do: extending the utility of knowledge, to the full of its matter: 'Ut omnium rerum, sic litterarum quoque, intemperantia laboramus.'And Tacitus had reason to commend the mother of Agricola, for having restrained her son in his too violent appetite of learning.

"'Tis a good, if duly considered, which has in it, as the other goods of men have, a great deal of vanity and weakness, proper and natural to itself, and that costs very dear. Its acquisition is far more hazardous than that of all other meat or drink; for, as to other things, what we have bought we carry home in some vessel, and there have full leisure to examine our purchase, how much we shall eat or drink of it, and when: but sciences we can, at the very first, stow into no other vessel than the soul; we swallow them in buying, and return from the market, either already infected or amended: there are some that only burden and overcharge the stomach, instead of nourishing; and, moreover, some, that under color of curing, poison us.

"I have been pleased, in places where I have been, to see men in devotion vow ignorance as well as chastity, poverty, and penitence: 'tis also a gelding of our unruly appetites, to blunt this cupidity that spurs us on to the study of books, and to deprive the soul of this voluptuous complacency that tickles us with the opinion of knowledge: and 'tis plenarily to accomplish the vow of poverty, to add unto it that of the mind. We need little doctrine to live at our ease; and Socrates teaches us, that this is in us, and the way how to find it, and the manner how to use it... What if knowledge, trying to arm us with new defenses against natural inconveniences, has more imprinted in our fancies their weight and greatness, than her reasons and subtleties to secure us from them."

Of course, Montaigne is offering us the very thing he condemns, wise counsel in print, but one supposes that, however modest he may be, he allies himself with Socrates as the purveyor of necessary wisdom.

The IMF Report deals largely with the sort of learning neither Socrates nor Montaigne considers: the technical intelligence which invents, operates and interprets the evermore abstract "machinery" of modern production and distribution. We have had at least since Mary Shelley's exhibition of Dr. Frankenstein's creation warnings about the dangers of such technical genius. Oppenheimer's citation of the Bhaghavad Gita as he watched the atomic explosion in the New Mexican desert is perhaps the best-known of such warnings.

Montaigne summons the Socratic notion that we have in us whatever wisdom we need (restated movingly in Bellow's "Mr. Sammler's Planet": "We know, we know, we know, we know.") but this doesn't apply to what makes us able to buy the Lexus, the 30,000 square foot mansion, the Netjet or, for that matter, the cell phone, the virtual reality games, the iPod and the dinner at the three star restaurant. Yet, yet, yet, we do know, don't we, that what ultimately counts is already in us and that with a nudge or two from a Montaigne, a Socrates or a Bellow, we can tune into it.

--Richard Stern