Socrates assumed that an examined life is a good life, but Joseph Conrad rejects this idea. He believed that an unexamined life is better because it has authenticity. When a friend suggested in a letter that Singleton, the character in Conrad’s novel The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus', would have been more convincing if he was educated, Conrad sent a reply in which he questions the idea that the world is more intelligible to an educated person. Here’s an excerpt from Conrad’s letter:
You say: ‘Singleton with an education’ ... But first of all – what education? If it is the knowledge of how to live my man essentially possessed it. He was in perfect accord with his life. If by education you mean scientific knowledge then the question arises – what knowledge, how much of it – in what direction? Is it to stop at plane trigonometry or at conic sections? Or is he to study Platonism or Pyrrhonism or the philosophy of the gentle Emerson? Or do you mean the kind of knowledge that would enable him to scheme, and lie, and intrigue his way to the forefront of a crowd no better than himself? Would you seriously, of malice prepense cultivate in that unconscious man the power to think? Then he would become conscious – and much smaller – and very unhappy. Now he is simple and great like an elemental force. Nothing can touch him but the curse of decay – the eternal decree that will extinguish the sun, the stars one by one, and in another instant shall spread a frozen darkness over the whole universe. Nothing else can touch him – he does not think.
Would you seriously wish to tell such a man: ‘Know thyself.’ Understand thou art nothing, less than a shadow, more insignificant than a drop of water in the ocean, more fleeting than the illusion of a dream. Would you?This letter, which is cited in Cedric Watts introductory book on Conrad, A Preface To Conrad, can be seen as Conrad’s rejection of rationalism in ethics. Singleton may not have the education but he is versed in the ways of the world because of his experiences at the sea with his sea mates.
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