In 1844 the French author Alexandre Dumas – the man who wrote The Three Musketeers – finished a new book, The Count of Monte Cristo. It is an incredible book, if not very long-winded, because Dumas was paid by the line, which meant he put loads of unnecessary stuff in to up the word count – a bit like a student trying to pad out an essay.
Quite early on in the book, the titular hero, a man called Edmond Dantes, is in a horrible island prison where he meets an old priest digging an escape tunnel. The priest, being a very clever man, hears Edmond’s story and swiftly figures out who it was that caused Edmond to be imprisoned. Edmond is understandably angry when he hears this, and vows to have his revenge. The priest offers to help him, using the four years it will take to complete their escape tunnel to teach Edmond everything he knows – multiple languages, science, history, politics, etc.
Edmond is shocked that he can be taught everything the priest knows in four years, and asks if this is true. The priest replies: “…in their application, no; but in principles yes.. . Learning does not make one learned; there are those who have knowledge and those who have understanding. The first requires memory, the second philosophy.”
There is a lot to cover in this quote, and to really unpack it, we need to start at the end.
Philosophy has two definitions. The first is the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge. The second is a theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour, and it is this second definition that the priest is referring to here.
If you want to study effectively, then you have to understand what it is you are trying to learn – it is not enough to know that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, you need to understand why the cell needs a powerhouse – learning can’t be taken in isolation.
Initially, it seems a lot easier to just memorise a set of facts than to cultivate a deep understanding of a subject or topic. This doesn’t hold up to scrutiny though. To use a personal example, I had to resit a lot of my AS-levels because I didn’t put the effort in to truly understand the subject. I knew facts and snippets and thought this would be enough. It wasn’t, and the subsequent effort of studying to do the exams again, alongside my A-levels, ended up being far harder than if I’d studied effectively the first time around.
That being said – again illustrating the difference between knowing something and understanding it – it can still be a lot harder to force yourself to sit down and develop a true understanding of a subject however, and so this is where philosophy comes in. Having a personal philosophy in this sense can be boiled down to having an aim, a goal, a reason to study. As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
This can be quite easily changed to “He who has a why to study can learn almost any thing.”
The real challenge then is not in the learning, but in finding the why, and this circles back to one of the core questions that Push always encourages people to ask themselves: what do you want from life? If you find the answer to this, then you will have the ultimate reason not only to study, but to truly understand what it is that you are learning.
To circle back to The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmund was only able to learn everything the priest had to teach him, and to survive years in prison, because of his reason – which was, admittedly, horrible revenge on everyone who had wronged him.
You might say that your answer doesn’t have any relation to what it is that you’re trying to learn, and in response I’d ask you to look a little deeper. At the end of the day, all of our goals and desires are just different means to the same end; we all want to be happy. As Aristotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”
Think about how doing well in the exam will make you happy.
Not only will you have made it easier for you to achieve your dream job or dream life by improving your grades, and thus expanding your options for further education and employment, but what better way is there to achieve true, personal happiness than to know you’ve set yourself against something hard and challenging, and to have overcome it?
It is incredibly important that, when you sit down to study, you consciously remind yourself why it is you’re doing this, to reinforce that there is a reason you are studying this, that it will have an impact on your life. This will also have the added bonus of making you learn better, because we retain memories – and that is all learning truly is – of things that have strong emotional importance to us.
To sum up, find out what your personal philosophy is. What are the principles that guide your behaviour? What things do you want out of life? What is your reason for existing? Find this out and then tap into it – your personal philosophy can offer you an unlimited amount of motivation and energy, and once you’ve found this you will be able to dedicate yourself to truly understanding what it is that you’re learning, not just recalling unrelated facts.
Guy Reynolds is a graduate of Cardiff University with a BA in Ancient History and an MA in Ancient and Medieval Warfare. Guy’s plan is to gain his doctorate and spend his life studying increasingly niche areas of history. Guy has lots of experience working with wild animals, from Falconry Centres to Wetherspoons, and he loves anything to do with books.
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