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Certain kinds of knowledge and the preservation of sincerity – with some thoughts from Thomas Carlyle

At a certain time in life, and not necessarily as a cause for or a result of an existential crisis, one might be confronted by certain questions.  Those questions are about what one perceives of this world and his own attempts at making sense of what is the reality of our personal and collective existence.  Such thinking requires an environment created by possibilities, uncertainties, and apprehensions.  If an environment quite favorable and conducive to one’s growth is found, where one has simply found a contentment, then the fires of ambition or of legitimate concerns over the direction a society is taking can be the reason for such musing.  It might be quite personal as well, having little to do with what is happening in a society but what one simply wishes to make out of one’s own life.

The thought is simply inescapable.  What if this life is all there is for a human being?  Not by the span of life, but by the activities and purposes during those years a man can reflect back. 1

  We all create memories and we can choose which ones to create and what kind they would.  We hope to create those memories we can look back upon and then feel a sense of contentment for having experienced in our limited, perhaps never to be repeated lives some things that gave us happiness.  In the process, if we succeeded in imparting meaning and happiness to other humans and creatures, our joy only increases.  For having touched other lives and imparted something useful that will outlive us – that is a very powerful source of happiness, of a satisfaction deeper than one can be achieved only by fulfilling one’s own self.

Who understands life correctly?

Does the politician/statesman, or the religious leader, or the one who travels the world, or the one who meditates in a cave, or does the reader of many books and knower of several languages present the example of a worthwhile understanding?  Any of those has found an occupation and in the interest of those occupations and the fulfilling of a personal desire, even the desire of a spiritual nature, each one of those men and women has dedicated their minds.  The devotion of the mind arouses its own development of methods and results of attention. The understanding that results is the finality of the following of those methods and the sustained attention.

The politician/statesman

It is seen by some as a deplorable occupation for what it has become as part of the democratic process, as one politician seeks to win the favor of as many as possible and at the critical election time gain their votes.  In doing so, there are specific promises for specific sections of the people and some promises that are made to all.  Of course, the fulfilling of all these promises is done by the ones who have nothing to do with the actual politics but are the feet on the ground.  They find their occupations and work at their duties.  The politician who seemingly speaks truths in parts but is a liar as a whole occupies the position of power and seeks to hold together the system and the people it serves.  Should he grow to be strong and rise above political games, he then takes on a role that differs from the anticipation of the people.  There simply isn’t one who can gain the respect of all, even he may have superhuman powers.  So, while much glory may be attributed to the statesman, less so to the politician, it usually follows their passing away from career or from life itself.

The religious leader

Finding himself as a leader of the people, the teacher of the difference between right and wrong, he finds that he inspires some but controls none.  Where he tries to control, he fails as a guide and as a teacher.  It is his inability to achieve through his example and words – as he would wrongly suppose among free people – what should then be compensated for by other clever, more forceful means.  And when the crowds under his care stray, he finds blame and far less reward!  The allure of being a “leader” is pounded into a very modest image by the reality, by the responsibility.

The one who travels

What an excellent way it is to learn about different cultures, the foods, the places, the people, and their strange languages and customs.  If one is the kind of person who is very flexible, easily mingles, and picks up on what is appealing to the locals, surely traveling is a great way to spend time and learn.  Might it be one of the better ways to learn, to acquire both knowledge and then also the kind of knowledge that is acquired through experience? 2

The one who meditates in a cave

He is safe from the world, and the world feels safe to be away from him, until the day of misfortune when the two shall meet!  He too has developed a view of the world, and from his understanding, there is nothing of interest to cause a return.  If he does return and finds a world of great allure through human technological achievements, something of the sort that divine miracles are supposed to accomplish, he still finds all the attraction and amazement only of a passing nature.  He can’t forget why he left, and that memory always is calling him back… away from the world he had left.

The reader of many books

Ah, the man or the woman who has saved his or her soul from the foolishness of all the other mortals, for that one has found neatly written on pages, with clear ink markings, the exact procedure to find knowledge and wisdom.  Having carefully read even one book, there must have come into that one’s mind the required information to make a success of himself or herself.  The world’s secrets have opened up and he or she is now fully equipped for the challenge.  Is that really how it happens?  Have the readers of books or even the writers of them found the right or even the corrective understanding of the world?  It isn’t how reality is.  And every reader or writer only carries fragments of thoughts, bits of information, that if they coincide with the required time in actual living seem to make sense.  If these do not coincide, there is simply a terrible mismatch waiting to happen.  Too much knowledge, and there is hardly anything that matches.  Then, a person longs to take the long journey back to less knowledge, for ignorance is no longer possible.

Whether one is deeply involved in the pursuits of the world and seeking to find every possible way to consolidate his position and power, or one has found a longing for leaving the world and understood it to be merely an illusion, there is an underlying understanding of the world.  Think of human life.  Human life is the possibility of filling a short period between birth and death with the highest intelligence we know of among the creatures.  The most natural, pervading sense, therefore, is bound to be dissatisfaction.  How is it possible to be satisfied?  When there is a satisfaction there is a knowledge.  There is the knowledge of the desire and its knowable answer.  The desire repeats, the satisfaction is temporary, and the very knowledge that provides the answer becomes a self-sustaining question.  At the end of it all, we forget our own temporariness and build in our minds an illusion of permanence of our physical self in this world.  Understanding, acknowledging our impermanence is central to a meaningful life.  What every thinking person has attempted to do is to make sense of this impermanence and make the best of it.

The peculiarity arising from understanding all of one’s personal existence strictly confined to the physical existence has its advantages, its achievements, its attachments, and it has also all of its inherent drawbacks and pains.  The inescapable conclusion from our experience is to accept all the possibilities related to our individual and collective physical experience with all the creatures and in this material world.  There is the height of pleasure and the depth of pain, all possible in this physical existence.  What cannot be avoided is the dissatisfaction.  The dissatisfaction gives birth to a search.  And coming back to the politician, the reader, the traveler, the religious, the spiritual, each one is seeking an answer to his or her own dissatisfaction.  Each one works with a set of knowledge, a related perspective, and activities that keep going back to satisfaction from those works, knowledge, perspective, and activities.  What we wish to forget is the physical end and wish not to have even the memory of the possibility.  So we try to build our lives as though they cannot end.  In this effort, some have built what will last as long as the world lasts and history will be written, read, and remembered.

The correct understanding, therefore, regardless of the occupation seems to rest with the person who has developed a real understanding of his purpose, preserves a sense of finality, and wishes to establish a meaning that will be as immortal as his own wishes are.  We are confronted by the conundrum where a creature as impermanent as a human is, is capable of contemplating and desiring immortality.  If one is capable of such, then, this is what one will find.  Not all pursuits can lead to such, and most do not.  Such a purpose, if it is not in existence within the activities of a given society and even the collective society as a whole, then one must find it elsewhere.  The only thing is, is to find it in a way that can preserve life and all that has made it meaningful.

The natural abilities and inclinations must be recognized, understood, and become part of the chosen pursuit.  The traits one is born with, the aptitudes, the tendencies and how those might become a part of expressing in skills is an important part of what one chooses as an occupation.  Along those lines, one might find then the “calling”, and if there is a calling, then the One calling will make the one called able too!

The redundancy of knowledge, and the superiority of sincerity

Every now and then men have risen with the conviction of having found a knowledge which is not only true, but it alone is true.  The former is necessary for actions to be performed.  The latter is somehow of a peculiar nature.  When great wars are fought and kingdoms built, such a truth is somewhere at work.  If it is on the scale of a God’s Kingdom, then, the truth has an undying quality.  Only a mind that has become enlarged to accommodate the idea and see through the faith of its immortality, its worth, its truth could then promote a life in accord with it.  It unites the aspirations of mankind and gives it a hope.  However, no absolute clarity has arisen that makes the distinction between standing for or against the said Kingdom of God.  If such a distinction arises, would it be as specific as being narrowed down to the very individual capable of contemplating its meaning, its purpose, its formulas, its practical achievement, the laws, the principles and the powers giving rise to it?

For all the knowledge given to the descendant races and generations, it falls flat, dispersed, and defeated by its own contradictions.  One could pick any one track of knowledge and even in that come to find variations, discrepancies, and not a clarity one wishes through the study of many details.  Of course, as one picks several different tracks, one is bound to find a multiplying of such in the mind until a meaninglessness ensues.  Under all the surface, what is found is a force of nature, a power that we have come to understand through the men for whom sincerity is the way – the only way.  This is where Thomas Carlyle’s words are well to remember.

Thomas Carlyle

The Great Man’s sincerity is of the kind he cannot speak of, is not conscious of: nay, I suppose, he is conscious rather of insincerity; for what man can walk accurately by the law of truth for one day? No, the Great Man does not boast himself sincere, far from that; perhaps does not ask himself if he is so: I would say rather, his sincerity does not depend on himself; he cannot help being sincere!

~ Thomas Carlyle.

For all the knowledge a man may acquire, it is simply wasted without sincerity.  Sincerity enables a man to accept all the training and teaching based on knowledge.  It is that training, when expressed through a daily living, believing, and thinking that makes knowledge of any worth at all.  All that dedication and determination stands because of sincerity.  Even the existence of knowledge, apart from direct and original knowledge, but what one develops as in a systematic growth of a body of knowledge is the result of sincerity.  Sincerity enabled a person to have the determination to begin the pursuit, to maintain the discipline of the pursuit, and then remain loyal to the pursuit.  If, at the end of it, one found it to be an endeavor in what is wrong (though, one never rarely finds an absolute wrong and right), still it is the sincerity that led to making such a discovery.

Sufficient knowledge exists today to not only give rise to phases of inspiration but also the sustaining of skepticism, cynicism, and a decline.  For those who make it their sincere occupation to be so inclined, it is evidence of what they desire.  However, it is for the ones who have the natural fire, the hope given them that has found an independent existence from the affairs and goings-on of this world that a peace has been found.  For all the depth of attachment, there is no problem at all to relinquish what is of great pleasure.  The sincerity of such a one has never depended upon the changes on the outside.  This is the kind of sincerity, any knowledge that it would hold, it will find an eventual success in the pursuit.

Awareness and consciousness – products of knowledge and the pursuit of it – are the enemies of sincerity

For all the clamoring about being aware, awake, knowledgeable and conscious of all that is going on, it doesn’t bring about sincerity.  Sincerity exists as it ought to right from the start, and not even as a result of observing good examples or training.  However, when one is made aware of the specialness of one’s sincerity by the flattery of another or a growing pride out of a tendency to compare, there is a huge loss to be suffered.  The loss of sincerity that comes as a result of self-adulation or the corrosive effect of the insincere is a terrible loss.  How, then, is such knowledge of any use at all!

As an example, a special instance arises when a need for transparency is expressed.  Why?  If the person asking for it is suspicious, the evidence as plain as it needs to be would still not settle the suspicion.  Would it not be said that the act of trying to be transparent and performing actions suitable to it is itself an evidence of insincerity?  A man comes across as merely a showman.  On the other hand, the one is giving the opportunity for transparency may or may not have anything to prove.  Even so, he subjects himself to scrutiny and bases the value of his actions on the appraisal of others.  This also produces insincerity, sooner or later.  This disregards the human roles of different characters a single person is called upon to play.  If each is performed with sincerity, it is above being put on display.  The spiritual, natural power of sincerity, if it is insufficient to put observers to shame and humble them, unnecessarily elevates them in making such demands.  Sincerity, should not be left to others, to judge.  The sincere person should himself know of his sincerity, and especially his insincerity.  Then, it is not some externally provided knowledge arousing awareness or a consciousness but a much deeper, inner sense of right and wrong at work. Realizations are a special knowledge not ever replicated by acquired knowledge.  The sincere understand this.  Should they consciously internalize words and symbols present outside, it would not be imposed by authority or by some training, but the inner power of nature expressed only through sincerity.

To develop whatever view one wants to of the world, sincerity has to be among the foundations.  If it could be put there by another man, it would be easy, but it cannot.  It is there when found in its purest condition to be put there by the same mysterious powers that make us different.  What one does with this sincerity is then, a personal choice, a personal responsibility.  Everything follows.  Sincerity can succeed where knowledge might even stand to tarnish it, or mislead it, but knowledge cannot replace sincerity.  Focus on finding the sincerity and the sincere first, and knowledge could be found to serve it in all the right places.


  1. Additional reading – Epicurus: The Nature of Death and the Purpose of Life”
  2. 50 inspirational travel quotes
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