Shaw's Wisdom of the Idiots

The Sound of Truth

One of the major themes in Shaw’s Wisdom of the Idiots is the conflict between the wisdom of the Sufis and the knowledge of scholars. Indeed, one of the major appeals of this work is the distinction between wisdom and knowledge:


Sufi Ajmal Hussein was constantly being criticised by scholars, who feared that, his repute might outshine their own. They spared no efforts to cast doubts upon his knowledge, to accuse him of taking refuge from their criticisms in mysticism, and even to imply that he had been guilty of discreditable practices.

At length he said: ‘If I answer my critics, they make it the opportunity to bring fresh accusation against me, which people believe because it amuses them to believe such things. If I do not answer them they crow and preen themselves, and people believe that they are real scholars. They imagine that we Sufis oppose scholarship. We do not But our very existence is a threat to the pretended scholarship of tiny noisy ones. Scholarship long since disappeared. What we have to face now is sham scholarship.’

The scholars shrilled more loudly than ever. At last Ajmal said:’Argument is not as effective as demonstration. I shall give you an insight into what these people are like.’

He invited ‘question papers’ from the scholars, to allow them to test his knowledge and ideas. Fifty different professors and academicians sent questionnaires to him. Ajmal answered them all differently. When the scholars met to discuss these papers, at a conference, there were so many versions of what he believed, that each one thought that he had exposed Ajmal, and refused to give up his thesis in favour of any other. The result was the celebrated ‘brawling of the scholars’. For five days they attacked each other bitterly.

‘This,’ said Ajinal, ‘is a demonstration. What matters to each one most is his own opinion and his own interpretation. They care nothing for truth. This is what they do with everyone’s teachings. When he is alive, they torment him. When he dies they become experts on his works. The real motive of the activity, however, is to vie with one another and to oppose anyone outside their own ranks. Do you want to become one of them? Make a choice soon.’

As an English major at the University of Washington I was certainly made aware of the split between poets and critics, with a definite bias towards poets in most of the classes I took. I’m sure that bias still shows in the way I discuss poetry and novels here, with emphasis on what they mean to me and whether or not they help to see the world more clearly rather than on critical analysis per se.

That’s not from a lack of ability. By the time I entered Grad school, I had generally mastered the literary game. In three years of grad school, the only “B? I ever got was one in Filmmaking. Several English professors even asked me why I wasn’t pursuing my PHD and trying to move up to teaching at the college level.

Simply put, I wasn’t a good enough poet to get a job at a college and had absolutely no interest in literary criticism. I could barely stand to read a book of literary criticism, even those written by famous poets like Eliot and Auden. Like Joseph Duemer,
who also attended the UW, when it comes to poetry I prefer “the concrete as opposed to the abstract.?

I wouldn’t be posting Shaw’s tale, though, if I thought it merely applied to poets and literary critics since I doubt that many who visit here are interested in such things. It seems to me that the last two paragraphs of Shaw’s tale apply just as much to many bloggers, particularly political bloggers, who spend days arguing over the issues of the moment, more concerned with attracting readers to their blog than with actually getting down to the truth of the matter.

Caught up in their own opinions and interpretations, they have little time for facts and less desire to arrive at some kind of agreed upon truth. The way they throw the term “fact? around, one doubts they even know the difference between a fact and an opinion, much less the difference between a sound and unsound opinion. For most of them, a good opinion is the one that draws the most attacks and, in doing so, attracts the most readers because that’s the way most of them measure success.