On the Duty to Learn

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A reflection on the Great Learning

I have already proclaimed that, due to one’s actions affecting others and others actions affecting oneself, that it is false to conceive of your life as wholly belonging to yourself (see on Superiority). Furthermore, I have posited the idea of learning as a suitable substitute for metaphysical good towards which we can direct our immediate actions (see on Learning). When these two ideas are combined, provide a compelling thesis: that all individuals must learn. In this reflection, I hope to provide a compelling case for this conclusion – and exhort my readers to begin their process of understanding.

Firstly, we need to re-examine the premise that your life is not your own. On its face, this seems to be a defence of slavery – a suggestion that one must subordinate one’s interest to the power of the political class. I wish to gently correct this view – for as I have previously posited, the use of political power to enforce doctrinal orthodoxy can only be met with submission or revolution (see on Obedience). What I truly mean is that your life is the product of family, friends, enemies and strangers – the mental schema by which you think are shaped and moulded by a multitude of minds stretching back to the first creature to think beyond their appetitive desires. Thus, to claim oneself as a ‘complete individual’ derides the reality of you mind being built on the multitudes who preceded you.

Furthermore, you are not an island – every one of your actions has impacts, positive and negative, on those who surround you. Like ripples in a pond every thought, action and deed spreads out across the entirety of humanity – and thus your actions cannot be thought of as impacting yourself only. Even if you choose a life of seclusion, isolation and asceticism, you still impact on the world – by denying the faculties of your mind to the rest of humanity. With these two concepts – the derivative nature of our minds and the significance of our actions – it is difficult to argue for radical individualism.

If our lives are not our own, then we must consider the impact of our lives on others and act accordingly. If this is the proposition we face, then we should consider that as an individual we must attempt to determine the best way in which we should act to benefit both ourselves and the rest of our fellow beings. In this case, I point back to learning as the guide that we should use in the absence of perfect knowledge. Thus every individual – due to the corporate nature of their lives – must strive to learn. This leads, however, to a dangerous question – should those in power force the masses to undergo the process of learning.

Here I would suggest that learning cannot be coerced, for if learning is to be seen as a virtue as opposed to a form of indoctrination, we must see it as a voluntary action. The impost of freedom is twofold defended if one thinks of the paradox of enforcing learning – the mental state of seeking understanding and questioning assumed beliefs. How can someone be forced to think critically? As such, although we must encourage and enable learning in others, we can never force learning down the throats of unwilling students. I would argue the best way that someone convinced of the argument for the duty of learning can proceed is to lead by example – demonstrate how a person of learning reaches closer than others to attain the good.

Original text

The Great Learning


Gu Hongzhong, The Night Entertainments of Han Xizai, ca.910–980

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