Calvisius Sabinus

It is one thing to remember, another to know.

In the upcoming issue of Adbusters -- #89: The Ecopsychology Issue -- there is a thoughtful letter to the editor by David Miller of Calgary. Mr. Miller writes in defense of Google, which he feels has been unjustly attacked by stodgy old-school educators. This is how he explains the essence of his argument:

"The Google Generation can retrieve facts almost instantaneously, from nearly anywhere, on an infinite number of subjects. Some may see this as detrimental to the intelligence of youth, but I see it as liberating. Without the need to memorize vast swaths of cold, dead, factual information, it is possible to cut to the quick and focus on the larger picture."

What is interesting about this argument is that it originated out of the ancient philosophical inquiry into the nature of wisdom. And one can trace its rhetorical lineage through Montaigne, the inventor of the essay, to Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher. Arguably, Mr. Miller is obliquely quoting Seneca who once wrote: "it is one thing to remember, another to know."

If we were to take only these words by Seneca into account, then we could conclude that Miller's defense of search engines is valid: in releasing us from the burden of remembering, Google frees us to know. But a deeper reading of Seneca reveals a stinging rebuke of relying on Google.

For Seneca, the stereotypical Google user would be remarkably similar to Calvisius Sabinus, a rich Roman who Seneca explains mastered a unique type of ignorance and stupidity. Sabinus was a foolish man, unable to remember the facts and literary allusions that comprised the educated culture of that time. But he was also a vain man who wanted to be intelligent. With his great wealth he devised a plan.

Calvisius Sabinus purchased educated slaves, each of whom was tasked with knowing a specific bit of culture. One slave knew Homer, another Hesiod and there were others that were expert in each of the nine lyric poets. It cost him a tremendous amount of money to educate these slaves, but once they were ready he put them to use. If, in the midst of a feast, he wished to recite the Greek poet Pindar then he would simply speak while his slave whispered into his ear. In this way, Sabinus believed he had attained wisdom because as he explained to a guest who suggested it would have been easier to educate himself instead of his slaves, responded that, "what any member of his household knew, he himself knew also."

From our perspective, Calvisius Sabinus is ridiculous. But one must wonder whether we are not like him. Do we rely on Google to provide us with the knowledge that we lack, leaving ourselves empty of wisdom? Is Google like the retinue of educated slaves, ever ready to insert the proper cultural reference so that we may stay in overall ignorance?

For Seneca, the definition of wisdom was not simply to be one who does not rely on memorization. He went further, and said that wisdom was something that can only happen once knowledge had become internalized, a part of ourselves. Or, in the words of Montaigne, who wrote the following after reflecting on the story of Sabinus:

"We take other men's knowledge and opinions upon trust; which is an idle and superficial learning. We must make it our own. We are in this very like him, who having need of fire, went to a neighbor's house to fetch it, and finding a very good one there, sat down to warm himself without remembering to carry any with him home."

Micah White is a contributing editor at Adbusters and an independent activist. He lives in Berkeley, CA and is currently writing a book about the future of activism. or micah (at)