Before Hippocrates (the famous ancient Greek physician) came along, people believed that all diseases were caused by gods and supernatural forces.
If you got sick in a time earlier than 460 BC, there wasn’t much you could do but pray and hope for the best. Maybe try a plant remedy or two. No matter your intelligence, if you’d been raised in such a society, you almost certainly wouldn’t have guessed that medicine would become a distinct field — one separate from religion, pointing to natural causes as culprits.
But as Hippocrates’ work was passed around and as we learned more about the human body, this began to change. The physical environment, individual diets, and daily habits all began to shape how we understood our health.
In a few short centuries, the utility of this knowledge ensured that it spread far and wide. Gods and spirits still had their role to play, of course, but this role wasn’t as dominating as it had been in the past. In fact, somewhere along the path of history, the fact that natural causes could result in illnesses become obvious. It became common sense.
The cultures that surrounded societies of the day turned this wisdom into implicit knowledge. Anyone who grew up in them couldn’t help but be exposed to this knowledge, whether through customs, socioeconomic systems, or simply through the education they received.
This example actually explains how much of our knowledge grows. We discover something, and if it’s useful, we build societal systems to accommodate that discovery. Finally, these systems make that knowledge available to everyone within the culture as it flows and pollinates.
Much of what is obvious today is only so because we are born into an existing system that contains this knowledge. The hard work has been done for us.
This fact, however, poses an issue. Because we don’t have to do the work of discovering many things for ourselves, we often overlook their value.
As a result, we are surrounded by important truths that we simply ignore.
The Counter-Intuitiveness of Clichés
An idea — also referred to as a meme — spreads in culture just like genes do in our bodies: the effective endure; those with utility survive.
Technically, the success of a meme is defined by its ability to replicate and reproduce. The more memorable and “sticky” a meme is, the more likely it is to stay around. This explains, for example, why many memes we wouldn’t consider particularly effective from a utility perspective can linger on the internet or in our culture at large.
That said, when we take a broader view of history, over the course of centuries and millennia it seems human cultures are particularly good at removing many of these “sticky” but useless short-term memes.
That funny cat video may absorb our attention for a day or a week and capture millions of page views in the process, but it’s unlikely to have a significant impact on our culture 100 years from today due to its limited utility.
Cliches are essentially memes that have survived this test of time. They get repeated again and again, after generations and generations, because they provide utility. There is some truth to many of them.
In fact, it isn’t a stretch to make the argument that when it comes to wisdom about how to live well — and the core nature of reality and the human condition — much of it is encoded in cliches that are all around us.
This begs a question: If that truly is the case, then why do we ignore them?
The problem is that many of the cliches we hear — like “love is all you need” or “all you have is the present” or “money and power don’t fulfill” — are actually profoundly counter-intuitive. But because we have heard them so many times, we assume that they are obvious, thus ignoring them.
But hearing something many times doesn’t make it obvious. Even if you can reason its importance on a surface level, that doesn’t mean you understand it. You only truly understand it if it shocks you in a way that it might have shocked the first person to ever discover it.
As with the case of Hippocrates and ancient medicine, there was a time when what we take for granted wasn’t obvious. It only became so after repeated exposure. To discover its profundity, we have to dig below that surface.
The Different Layers of Truth and Wisdom
The American philosopher Ken Wilber has a heuristic he applies to non-conventional opinions and experiences called the pre/trans fallacy, and I think it’s quite useful in this discussion, too.
His use of the expression relates more to rational and non-rational claims, but we can apply it to the different levels at which we can understand “the obvious”.
The first level — which we can call the pre-understanding level — is where a cliche is exactly what we commonly associate it with: a tired trope.
The second level, however — which we can call the post-understanding level and which corresponds with the “trans” part of the expression — is where a cliche is actually a profoundly meaningful truth passed on after generations and generations of application and experimentation.
Most people see many common cultural memes at only the first level. As a result, they have a very shallow understanding that is masked by the assumption that just because they’ve heard it often, they know it and thus have a right to overlook it because it just doesn’t apply to them. They confuse pre-understanding for post-understanding.
In reality, the only way to know if you have fully understood a common truth is if — at some point — an experience or a particular kind of knowledge moved you in such a way that you felt the effect of that truth to the very core of your being. Subsequently, the effect of that truth changed you in some way.
Having an experience at that level doesn’t necessarily mean you will find yourself agreeing with every cliche, but it does mean you will have at least captured its significance in the way that it was first understood before it became a cliche or before it came to be considered common knowledge.
The point here is that it takes a lot of work to understand the obvious. It takes even more work to understand it in such a way that you have a right to dismiss it as something that isn’t all that meaningful to you.
In one domain or another, all of us confuse our limited pre-understanding for post-understanding, and we arrogantly dismiss important knowledge that we have no right to dismiss. We think we know more than we do, and we then build a problematic foundation based on this belief.
True wisdom sees what is important at the level that it is meant to be seen at. If it isn’t yet at that level, it does the intellectual work required to get there.
We all underestimate how much of what we know is dictated by culture. Even more so, we neglect the profundity of what is now obvious.
The story of Hippocrates is a perfect example: Before his discoveries, it would have been natural to believe that gods were the only ones responsible for disease and illness. After them, however, anyone who didn’t see how nature interacts with the human body would have been deemed foolish.
Many enduring cliches — especially those informing us on how to live — contain more worth than we assign to them at first glance.
Naturally, not everything from the past will apply tomorrow, but even so, before you have a right to dismiss something, you should first understand it.
It takes a lot of intellectual work and effort to go from a pre-understanding level to a post-understanding level, but it’s precisely this work that distinguishes those who can recognize wisdom and those who can’t.
I’ll end with the words of the great mathematician Alfred North Whitehead:
The aim of science is to seek the simplest explanations of complex facts. We are apt to fall into the error of thinking that the facts are simple because simplicity is the goal of our quest. The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, “Seek simplicity and distrust it.”
The truth is all around us, waiting to be found, and this truth is often simple. But that simplicity hides behind even simpler explanations.
It’s our job to dissect these explanations to uncover the real gift of knowledge.