The Source of Self-Regard: Toni Morrison on Wisdom in the Age of Information
“We move from data to information to knowledge to wisdom. And separating one from the other… knowing the limitations and the danger of exercising one without the others, while respecting each category of intelligence, is generally what serious education is about.”
By Maria Popova
“Information will never replace illumination,” Susan Sontag prophesied shortly before her death, before the birth of the social media newsfeed, as she considered the conscience of words and writer’s responsibility to society. A generation earlier, long before we came to confront the untenably urgent predicament of wisdom in the age of information, Walter Benjamin — one of Sontag’s great intellectual heroes — lamented that “the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out” — a death he attributed to the rise of information, plentiful and unconsidered.
This increasingly dangerous obfuscation of information and wisdom is what Toni Morrison (b. February 18, 1931) — one of the deepest seers of our time — examines in an almost-aside, the way only towering intellects can, in a 1992 lecture that lent its title to her altogether fantastic nonfiction collection The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (public library).
In all of our education, whether it’s in institutions or not, in homes or streets or wherever, whether it’s scholarly or whether it’s experiential, there is a kind of a progression. We move from data to information to knowledge to wisdom. And separating one from the other, being able to distinguish among and between them, that is, knowing the limitations and the danger of exercising one without the others, while respecting each category of intelligence, is generally what serious education is about. And if we agree that purposeful progression exists, then you will see… that it’s easy, and it’s seductive, to assume that data is really knowledge. Or that information is, indeed, wisdom. Or that knowledge can exist without data. And how easy, and how effortlessly, one can parade and disguise itself as another. And how quickly we can forget that wisdom without knowledge, wisdom without any data, is just a hunch.
That Morrison is making this astute observation more than a quarter century ago — before the web as we know it existed, before “fake news” and “alternative facts” and other such misinformation-driven erosions of wisdom, before the golden age of Big Data and its reduction of human lives to marketable data points — only adds to Morrison’s prescience. But while these are serious concerns for the citizen, they are also serious concerns for the creative artist, the storyteller. It is with an eye to her own craft that Morrison examines them — the subject of the talk is her stunning 1987 novel Beloved, which would earn her the Nobel Prize only a year after she delivered this lecture, making Morrison the first black woman to receive the esteemed accolade.
Reflecting on how she too had mistaken information for illumination in her initial approach to her subject — a sort of arrogance she condemns as poison to both wisdom and imagination — she writes:
[I had read] the historical books… I had read the autobiographies of the slaves themselves and therefore had firsthand information from people who were there. You add that to my own intuition, and you can see the shape of my confidence and the trap that it would lead me into, which would be confusing data with information and knowledge with hunches and so on. I thought I knew a great deal about it. And that arrogance was the first obstacle.
What I needed was imagination to shore up the facts, the data, and not be overwhelmed by them. Imagination that personalized information, made it intimate, but didn’t offer itself as a substitute. If imagination could be depended on for that, then there was the possibility of knowledge. Wisdom, of course, I would leave alone, and rely on the readers to produce that.
What a lovely testament to Proust’s insistence that “the end of a book’s wisdom appears to us as merely the start of our own.”
Morrison unspools more wisdom in the reader’s mind throughout the remaining meditations collected in The Source of Self-Regard. Complement this particular portion with Pythagoras on the meaning of wisdom and Thomas Merton’s beautiful letter to Rachel Carson about technology, wisdom, and civilizational self-awareness, then revisit Morrison on the artist’s task in troubled times, how to own your story, and her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech about the power of language.
Published March 6, 2019