Men of NO Ideas


One of my favorite essays is “Men of One Idea.” It was written by Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-1881). Some sources say it was written by Timothy Titcomb. However, that was his pseudonym. I have a copy of the essay in the Union Sixth Reader, a book published in 1862. Long have I sought an electronic copy of the essay. I really did not want to type it out. Thankfully, someone else did. If you want to read it, you can CLICK HERE.

Here is a short excerpt from that relatively short essay…

Man cannot live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God, whether spoken through nature or revelation. There is no one idea in all God’s universe so great and so nutritious that it can furnish food for an immortal soul. Variety of nutriment is absolutely essential, even to physical health. There are so many elements that enter into the structure of the human body, and such variety of stimuli requisite for the play of its vital forces, that it is necessary to lay under tribute a wide range of nature; and fruits and roots and grain, beasts of the field, fowls of the air, and fish of the sea, juices and spices and flavors, all bring their contributions to the perfection of the human animal, and the harmony of its functions. …

A mind that surrenders itself to a single idea becomes essentially insane. I know a man who has dwelt so long upon the subject of a vegetable diet that it has finally taken possession of him. It is now of such importance in his eyes that every other subject is thrown out of its legitimate relations to him. It is the constant theme of his thought–the study of his life. He questions the properties and quantities of every mouthful that passes his lips, and watches its effects upon him. He reads upon this subject everything he can lay his hands on. He talks upon it with every man he meets. He has ransacked the whole Bible for support to his theories; and the man really believes that the eternal salvation of the human race hinges upon a change of diet. It has become a standard by which to decide the validity of all other truth. If he did not believe that the Bible was on his side of the question, he would discard the Bible. Experiments or opinions that make against his faith are either contemptuously rejected or ingeniously explained away. Now this man’s mind is not only reduced to the size of his idea, and assimilated to its character, but it has lost its soundness. His reason is disordered. His judgment is perverted–depraved. He sees things in unjust and illegitimate relations. The subject that absorbs him has grown out of proper proportions, and all other subjects have shrunk away from it. I know another man–a man of fine powers–who is just as much absorbed by the subject of ventilation; and though both of these men are regarded by the community as of sound mind, I think they are demonstrably insane.

Timothy Titcomb’s essay: Men Of One Idea http://fullonlinebook.com/essays/men-of-one-idea/nibb.html

Since we are talking about the Bible, I am reminded of a few verses that (I would argue) relate strongly to the point of Holland…

Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.

Proverbs 15:22

Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.

Proverbs 11:14

For by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory.

Proverbs 24:6

Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.

Proverbs 27:17

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.

Proverbs 12:15

Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance,

Proverbs 1:5

After three days they found him (Jesus) in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.

Luke 2:46

By insolence comes nothing but strife, but with those who take advice is wisdom.

Proverbs 13:10

Reading these verses, one sees a couple of clues to gaining wisdom. First is Dialogue. Luke 2:46 and Proverbs 27:17 suggests this directly. The Luke passage is especially important since Jesus (we are tempted to think of Him as one who needs no wisdom from others) is described as holding dialogue and asking questions with experts. A few verses later, in verse 52, Jesus is described as growing in wisdom. The other verses I shared describe interaction with others, and presumably this implies dialogue of 2 or more people. Second is Counsel. Wise people listen to others. They don’t simply trust in their own self-sufficient awesomeness, but take seriously others’ perspectives, knowledge, and understanding.

But if the counsel of many leads to wisdom, what is the character of this wisdom?

#1. Broadly defined. What I mean is that it should be BOTH eductive and deductive. Deductive is classic advice-giving. The counselor tells the other something that this person does not know. This is the classic one. Eductive is the preferred method of modern psychological and pastoral counseling. Eductive counseling is a form of drawing out. It presumes that the person already knows what is right and true, but needs help in drawing this out or identifying the internal inconsistencies in that person. We see Eductive counseling masterfully integrated into broader counseling in Nathan’s counseling of King David regarding his affair with Bathsheba (and with killing Uriah). I think broadly defined also suggests both “sofia” and “phronesis.” These Greek terms suggest wisdom based on theoretical understanding of the way things are (sofia wisdom) and the practical understanding of the way things should be and how to accomplish this (phronesis wisdom).

#2. Multi-perspectival. Wisdom comes from listening to different perspectives. Because of this having a group of “Yes Men” does not count. This is not counseling. It is parroting back what the one says and thinks. They tickle the ear and confirm the prejudices of the one who needs wisdom rather than affirmation. There is no doubt that this is a failure… because there is only one perspective— the “Perspective of the Self.” But that brings up another thought. What if there is only one perspective— the “Perspective of the Other?” That is, what if one surrounds oneself with only one perspective. I would argue that this is no better. We learn by being surrounded in a sea of ideas. While we may fear drowning in such a sea, we are likely to be parched with the trickle from a spring that feeds only one stream of thought. Walter Wrigley Jr. has the great quote, “When two men in a business always agree, one of them is unnecessary.” Perhaps this bit of wisdom applies in life as well.

It seems to me that we are suffering from this today. Perhaps as a defense against being inundated with too many ideas, we shield ourselves off from all but one viewpoint. I see this a lot. I teach in a seminary and am often shocked at how little seminarians (who are supposed to be “experts” in religion and theology) know about other religions, or even the church of a different denomination or tradition just down the road. I occasionally get notes from friends sharing interesting information. They tell me where they got this information. That is a good thing because citations are important. However, in some cases, it is clear from the context that I should believe it because it came from news source “A,” and not from news source “B.” In fact, I have had people gainsay things I have said simply because I referenced a source that they have identified as “fake.” Often, however, fake just means that it expresses a different perspective. Truthfully, I get that. There are some sources of information I am tempted to reject off-hand. I have to remind myself that even a person who is 99% wrong, must then be 1% right, and it is possible that in that 1% is something I need to hear.

If you think about it… surrounding oneself with those who share one perspective is likely to create an echo chamber that leads to more extreme and unquestioned opinions. It is in this environment that groups with cultic tendencies (authoritarian and separatist structures with extremist views) and fascination with conspiracy theories thrive. Sometimes people describe this as the “new tribalism,” and perhaps the term has some merit. Years ago, people spoke of the Internet, along with migration, and ease of travel and communication leading to a sort of globalistic mega-culture. But we love to identify with smaller groups. There are good and bad sides to this. But one bad side is the temptation to sanctify our own group (and our opinions), while demonizing other groups and opinions.

And if one places oneself into this setting where one willingly becomes a reflector and transmitter of the insulted views of another(s), it may not be enough to say that this person has become “A Man of One Idea.” Such a phrase suggests some amount of personal creativity… a bit of innovation. Creativity comes from interacting with diversity, rather than indoctrination from uniformity. As such, this person perhaps may be best described as “A Man of NO Ideas.”

I believe that God has gifted all of us with the potential for wisdom that, in part, springs from our uniqueness. This uniqueness comes from our:

  • Talents
  • Calling
  • Circumstances
  • Experiences
  • Relationships

To give a trivial example. I am “White” (Swedish-American) raised up in a region that was almost 100% White (a small percentage of Native Americans made up the remainder of the population at that time). I was raised up in a culture where an awful lot of people shared a common identity and perspective. Nothing wrong with that… geography and socio-economic factors would drive a lot of people to a common perspective. However, the US Navy got me out of the area and allowed me to see many other parts of the United States and the World. This travel in some ways helped me to treasure the uniqueness of my upbringing, but it also helped me to see its limitations. Marrying a woman who was raised up in a different country of a different ethnicity, and raising children who are considered biracial, helped me see things from a yet broader perspective. Then living for 17 years in a country where I am not part of a 99% ethnic majority, but rather a 1% ethnic minority, has further helped me see things from a decidedly different perspective.

I believe that these different circumstances have helped me grow as a person. I also believe that my perspective may also be valuable to someone who has had a decidedly different background. This doesn’t mean that I got it all together. This doesn’t mean that people of narrower experiences are of no value to me.

Multi-perspective dialogue helps. Some express fear of individuals “losing their faith” whatever faith position one is speaking of. For me, however, a faith that goes unchallenged is likely to both brittle and rotten. Rotten means it goes from something good to something bad (Holland’s essay speaks to this). This is where extreme viewpoints tend to take a person to a very bad place. Brittleness means that one has not developed the faculties to think through ones beliefs. When challenged, the person is either forced to react with hostility, or retreat ignobly. “Losing one’s faith” in this situation may be either (a) losing a faith that was unworthy of basing one’s whole life upon— or (b) never having really embraced that faith in a constructive, reflective, and creative way.

A “Man of No Ideas” will devolve toward a from of insanity (falling pray to the mind-control of a few), or instability of poorly reflected upon opinions that yield to the will of others.

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