“Never seem wiser, nor more learned, than the people you are with. Wear your learning, like your watch, in a private pocket; and do not pull it out and strike it, merely to show that you have one.” Lord Chesterfield
I recently received a variation on that quote from someone in an email, and I immediately recalled first reading the quote in my childhood. For one thing, I realized that it ignored the rhetorical device that I had discovered among some early Greek philosophers to assert what they believed to be true and subject it to challenges from their audiences. And I further realized that the word “never” made it a bit extreme, something I would later learn qualified as a glittering generality.
Even as a child, always skeptical of received wisdom, I could envision numerous situations to which it would certainly not apply. Here is a partially updated list of exceptions which would render Lord Chesterfield’s advice problematic and I encourage you to think of additional situations; but note that there are also times when Lord Chesterfield’s admonition would be applicable. Think of this as an exercise in how to properly process received wisdom (or conventional wisdom).
1. Imagine riding somewhere with someone else driving, and coming to the realization that they were making a wrong turn or headed in the wrong direction.
2. In the workplace, your boss asks you to perform a task in a certain way, and following Lord Chesterfield’s advice, even though you know it won’t work, you keep silent and perform the task as instructed. Who will get the blame when the task is unsuccessfully completed?
3. Imagine a world in which everyone is reluctant to share what they have learned unless asked about it by someone else. That presupposes that the other party knows enough to even inquire about the subject. What books might not have been written, what brilliant speeches not delivered?
4. How would our various sciences progress today if researchers kept their discoveries secret?