Few men think alone. We are most all influenced by those whom we read or listen to, and often in ways that we do not notice in ourselves. One of the great weaknesses of our day is that we are lazy thinkers, or worse, faddish thinkers.
Someone we follow says x, and suddenly x is self-evident to us. This does not mean we’ve had a revelation. In most cases it means that we have not thought deeply about x at all. We are in those cases letting others do our thinking for us. And too often without thinking about it.*
This is why it’s critical to consciously choose your intellectual influences. To learn to think well, you need to read people who think well. To be challenged, you need to read people who can change your mind. To remain grounded, you need to read people not moving in your currents.
So let’s take a look at a few ways to consciously select who it will be that you’ll be learning what and how to think from:
Rule 1: Read people smarter and more knowledgeable than you.
There is no escaping this rule if you want to intellectually challenge yourself. To read midwits is to practice chess by playing against kindergarteners. You may feel accomplished at the end of the day, but you’re not bettering yourself.
But how do you know someone is smarter than you? Here’s a simple test: if a person presents an argument that makes no sense to you, it’s easy to say, “Wow, that guy’s a moron.” You see no way in which this argument has the slightest possibility of being correct. It’s almost insane**
What he says makes no sense, so you write him off. What you’ve done, literally, is told yourself, “I don’t understand what he’s saying, so he’s stupid.” Think that through.
Really smart people think that way. The “therefore” is skipping 6 steps of logic that you’re not seeing. Unfortunately, really stupid people think that way as well. And it’s tempting (and lazy) to go with the easy answer.
Rather than concluding he’s an idiot, figure out the steps yourself or ask. Maybe he really is an idiot. Or maybe, just maybe, you’ve found someone who is going to stretch you.
Example: Vox Day
Rule 2: Eschew the hugbox
It’s comfortable to read people who already agree with you on nearly everything. If you read those folks, you are merely reinforcing your opinions. That makes your reading an emotional exercise rather than an intellectual one. You’re reading them so you can feel smart.
Instead, it’s critical to read people with whom you disagree on a few significant issues. And the reason for it is this: When a person agrees with you on something, you naturally trust their reasoning. Why would you not when they’ve come to such a brilliant conclusion?
So when that same person disagrees with you on another issue, you naturally distrust their reasoning. But how can a person be reasonable and unreasonable? Does a well bring forth both fresh water and salt?
Embrace the cognitive dissonance. Really try to understand why a person whose judgement you mostly trust is so wrong on this other thing. Ask yourself, what are they seeing that you do not?
You may consciously reject their conclusion. In fact, if you stay out of the hugbox, you must reject conclusions, as they will contradict others you read. But in thinking others’ thoughts, even if you reject the conclusion, you’ll come to learn how good thinkers think.
Example: James Howard Kunstler
Rule 3: Pick honest people
It’s easy to find people who are partisans, whether MAGA hatters or MAGA haters. It’s easy to find “thinkers” who will tell you why everything Trump does is wrong (or how everything Obama did was wrong), even if Trump’s position is the opposite of what it was yesterday.
Such people are intellectual whores, and you’re not reading thoughts, but advertisements.
If you find someone who is brutalized for telling the truth, yet tells it anyway, that person is possibly worth listening to. If you find someone who is intellectually consistent even as the partisan winds change around them, that person is possibly worth listening to.
In today’s intellectual hellscape, they are difficult to find.
Example: the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Sen. Rand Paul
Rule 4: Look outside the mainstream.
The political and intellectual mainstream is where lazy and frightened people sit. Of all the possible political positions that a human could hold, how likely is it that the truth just happens to fall within that little semi-capitalist, pro-democracy, post-Christian band that most 21st century Americans inhabit? Not likely at all.
People who develop and promote opinions that lie outside that mainstream are occasionally particularly insightful, or at least well-read. They are also occasionally lunatics. Choose wisely.
Example: William S. Lind
Rule 5: Step outside your time and place.
As CS Lewis noted in his masterful essay “On the Reading of Old Books”, people living in the same time and place naturally develop the same blind spots. That’s why it’s critical to read influences from outside modern America.
In addition to solid and historical Christian influence (the Bible, Bunyan, Chesterton, Pascal), I recommend reading old history books on occasion. I don’t mean modern history books about old subjects, but old history books about the same subjects you read new ones about. The change of perspective you note will shock you.
Then realize the blindness you see in them, your grandkids will see in you.
Rule 6: Cast your net wide and cycle quickly.
You can’t read every book or every author. In fact, to have true intellectual influences, you should read relatively few, but read them deeply. A man who understands 20 great authors will find himself far more intellectually developed than the man who skims 200. He’s just less fun at dinner parties.
Don’t be afraid to read someone new. Be quick to cast the unworthy aside and not look back.
Solomon wrote three millennia ago that the writing of books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body (Eccl, 12:12). It can be wearying to the brain as well, unless you are interacting, stretching, growing.
That type of reading does for the mind what stacking more weight on the bar does for the body.
* Of course, it’s not critical to have an opinion on everything. In fact, it’s a good exercise to purposely not have (or at least express) an opinion on anything you have not truly studied. Try it some time at a dinner party.
** “Sufficiently advanced intelligence is indistinguishable from insanity.” – Vox Day