Erasmus was reportedly the last man in western civilization who knew everything that was known, at least with rough understanding. He knew sciences, geography, history, theology, classical and contemporaneous literature. The claim is untrue even beyond its trivial sense of not knowing where Aunt Eva dined last Tuesday. Still, it provides an interesting marker around 1500, after which knowledge multiplied so quickly that even trained, brilliant minds could not take it all in. The knowledge base available to the masses exploded with printing, and again in the 20th C with schooling and libraries leapfrogging each other in improving the mental life of any farmgirl or butcher’s son who had an aptitude for learning.
We have come to regard this as an unalloyed good. It certainly has been the foundation for the ease and length of life we now possess. Yet perhaps it is all not true, as Luis Pinto de Sa over at First Things cautions in A Monastic Vice For The Internet Age. I have all of these sins in some measure, and live among people who share them. We are not in the habit of looking at much of this as sinful at all, but virtue. “Well at least she’s reading,” we say of a young woman reading trash, and we mean it, however much we might try to influence her to read something better.
For myself, I gave myself credit for virtue in the accumulation of stray knowledge. Later, I concluded that it is automatic enough that it hardly deserves credit, and when I am most honest with myself I see this uncomfortable truth. I still find it gratifying to my conceit when people say “You should go on Jeopardy,” or “I always learn something amazing from you.” I cannot naturally regard any of this as temptation.