Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

No man is a prophet…

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… is the beginning of a saying that has long annoyed me. Usually, the continuation is “… in his own village [town, country].”, implying that men of worth are paradoxically not recognized specifically by those who know them well. (“Familiarity breeds contempt.” is one of several other sayings with a similar idea.)

In my eyes, the opposite is the true problem, namely that strangers who are not known well enough are awarded the status of prophet—while the estimate of the neighbours is more just. Indeed, why should those who knows us the best be more wrong than those who only know us from afar?

Unfortunately, too many people fail to realize that truly extraordinary humans are extraordinarily rare—and that the typical book author, college professor, movie star, …, is just as human as the next-door neighbour. Indeed, the few truly extraordinary are ultimately human too: Even Einstein had to go to the bathroom. More importantly, even Einstein was not infallible. He made silly errors, he grew sad or angry, he had the odd moment of vanity or unwarranted pride, he felt a sting of self-doubt every now-and-then, he even, likely, had malicious or unfair thoughts about others. (And, yes, I feel perfectly confident in saying this without having known him in person—the bathroom part would be the easiest by far to avoid…)

Obviously, there are great differences in e.g. intelligence between different people, and the typical professor of mathematics will sooner be able to understand a particular issue, see its nuances, poke holes in arguments concerning it, whatnot, than the typical delivery boy. If the topic is mathematics, he has an even greater advantage. The saying is true, in so far that many delivery boys will fail to appreciate this, if the professor happens to be the next door neighbour, who spends the weekends slacking in the garden, wearing worn-out shorts and a silly hat. Still, the professor should not be considered a prophet, but have to defend his position with arguments—and now and then the delivery boy is himself a future professor. (A very annoying problem is that below a certain intelligence level in the counter-part, arguments are just a waste of time, as I can attest from many discussions on the Internet, both as a neutral observer and as the bringer of the arguments. That, however, is a different issue.)

The true problems start when the near-by authority is compared to the authority in the distance—and the latter is given more credibility. The true solution, however, is not to elevate the near-by authority, but to view the distant one more realistically. German professors are pretty much the same as Swedish (I have studied in both countries)—and they are all human. A book does not become less valuable merely because its author lives next door—and a text often goes beyond its author in terms of wisdom and insight. The charismatic actor may be shy in real life, while the beautiful actress may be bland without an hour in the make-up chair—and neither is the larger-than-life figure that so impressed the audience. And, yes, Einstein went to the bathroom.

No man is a prophet—period.

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Written by michaeleriksson

February 6, 2011 at 2:13 pm

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