Intellectual Discipline, Unicorns and Spats

One is gone, one never was, and one is facing extinction.

I had a boss who told me, “Alistair you are a true Sophist.” This was something of a left-handed compliment. As an ad copywriter my ability to argue any side of a point convincingly serves me well. Indeed, I am so skilled in this I can convince a person that is right he is wrong, even though, in his heart of hearts he knows he is right and understands also that I know he’s right. The power to communicate is also the power to deceive. When truth itself becomes slippery one can lose one’s moral center.

In an important sense, we believe today that he who brays loudest is right. On the net everything is true and all information, regardless of source, has the same weight. Evidence supporting any point, no matter how ludicrous, is readily available; our ability to fashion, present and defend a case is weakening like an abandoned muscle. Intellectual slovenliness, a despicable quality, is rampant while intellectual discipline is nearly unknown. This is a terrible problem because we race to truth most quickly when keen, well-tuned minds pursue it, placing intellectual honesty above domination. 

People interested in finding the truth are rare. Those who do must rely upon their own minds, which, ironically, are perfectly configured to stand in their way. Frankly, the most difficult part of the process is not learning new things; it is unlearning old ones. We all carry around an astounding amount of baggage that actively interferes with our quest for truth. Relentless labor gets us closer until we realize that the best we can ever hope for is reaching our own personal truth, what we understand to be real after we have stripped away all ignorance.

If you meet someone who actively practices intellectual discipline and refuses to lapse into slovenly habits – a person that speaks and acts in good faith – you have met an individual worth emulating. If you meet someone who claims certain knowledge of universal truth, ask him to describe what it feels like to ride a unicorn.


Published by Alistair McHarg

Alistair McHarg was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, moved immediately to Edinburgh, and three years later moved to Amsterdam. At 6 he settled in Philadelphia and for 16 years was confused by Quaker education; Germanton Friends School and Haverford College. A Master of Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Louisville nudged him even closer to unemployability. Convinced at an early age that fate had chosen writing as his calling, Alistair followed a characteristically slow and circuitous path. He has found work as deck hand on a Norwegian tramp freighter touring South America, Bureau of Land Management Emergency Fire Fighter in Alaska, guide at a Canadian wilderness survival camp, truck driver crisscrossing Colorado's continental divide, and inner city cabbie. Alistair has been arranging words on paper for a living since 1983.