“The correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting — no more — and then it motivates one towards originality and instills the desire for truth. Suppose someone were to go and ask his neighbours for fire and find a substantial blaze there, and just stay there continually warming himself: that is no different from someone who goes to someone else to get to some of his rationality, and fails to realize that he ought to ignite his own flame, his own intellect, but is happy to sit entranced by the lecture, and the words trigger only associative thinking and bring, as it were, only a flush to his cheeks and a glow to his limbs; but he has not dispelled or dispersed, in the warm light of philosophy, the internal dank gloom of his mind.”

Plutarch, Moralia (ca. 100AD)

Whilst the (perhaps misattributed?) Yeats quote is catchy, the Greek philosopher Plutarch explained the same idea more elaborately, and much earlier. Plutarch, I think, is talking here about what it means to develop your mind, or in other words: to learn. Many of us, early in life, learn that learning is about filling yourself with other people’s knowledge, to regurgitate at an appropriate time – an exam, presentation, or some other moment to show off your ‘learning.’

Plutarch rejects this view. To him, real learning requires igniting your personal fire of curiosity and truth-seeking. It requires practicing your own rationality, your ability to think and reason, and to actually use it. On some level, I think this means Plutarch sees learning as something that transforms you on a fundamental level. Like you are switching on your mental superpowers.

One of the things I like most from this quote is that it portrays learning as a creative process, in which you use the fire in your mind to make knowledge and understanding. It always starts from your observations and experience, and often from the knowledge of others. But, as Plutarch says, it is not enough to simply warm yourself in the glow of other people’s insight.

Learning requires you to take what you observe around you and actively process it into something new. Whether this ‘something’ is your ability to name all US presidents, your understanding of, let’s say, Schrödinger’s cat, or your very own original interpretation of the meaning of the universe. To learn, Plutarch teaches us, is to create: to light the fire and create your own warmth and light to ‘dispel the internal dank gloom of your mind’.

I like to think this metaphor of lighting the fire is the core of what the learning mindset is about: developing the attitudes and skills for learning as a process of creating knowledge from experience. Writing is a particularly powerful way to do this, as are listening, talking, and reading. We will say much more about these techniques, as well as other elements of the learning mindset, elsewhere on this website.

For now though, I want to highlight a different question that Plutarch raises, that I think should be addressed first – but that I do not know how to answer. It is this: how do we know that the warmth we feel is made by our own fire, or by someone else’s?

David Ehrhardt
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Lighting your own fire

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