Profiles in Pedantry, a Guide to Learned Braggarts, Learned Bullies, and Learned Bores.

“The haughty pedant, swoln with frothy name
Of learned man, big with his classic fame,
A thousand books read o’re and o’re again,
Does word for word most perfectly retain,
Heap’d in the lumber-office of his brain;
Yet this crammed skull, this undigested mass,
Does very often prove an arrant ass.”

Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, “The Fourth Satire” (1687)

The word pedant was first used among the French to name a man charged with the instruction of children.  A pedant was no different than a pedagogue.  But by the sixteenth century the word pedant had become the epithet of a poser who was stuffed to the tonsils with a mishmash of inexact, superficial, and ostentatious learning.  Montagne tells us that farcical plays of that day always brought a pedant in “for the fool of the play,” since there is no fool so farcical as a fool who pretends he is wise.

And this new sort of preposterous pedant was not simply a fool.  He was a hypocrite, a Pharisee, a whited sepulcher of spurious erudition.  What this new sort of pedant craved was not learning, but the show and reputation of being learned.  Thus his learning remained on the outside where it could be seen and admired.  It never entered his soul to make him wise.   The preposterous pedant’s inside was, in fact, like the inside of a Pharisee, a squalid horror of filth and dead men’s bones.  Montaigne, who admitted that he was himself a bit of a pedant, had this to say:

“We only toil and labor to stuff the memory, and in the meantime leave the conscience and the understanding unfurnished and void.”*

The taproot of this preposterous pedantry was therefore pride and the desire to shine more brightly than other men.  It was natural to call men given to this sort of pride pedants because they strutted their limited learning before the world much as a vainglorious village schoolmaster might strut his limited learning before the ignorant villagers and their even more ignorant children.  Writing a hundred years after Montaigne, Nicholas  Malebranche said,

“The word pedant is very equivocal; but use . . . will have it signify those who to make ostentation of their false science, quote all sorts of authors, right or wrong; talk merely for talking sake, and to be admired by the ignorant.”**

This sort of pedant was a braggart, a phony, and a fool.

* * * * *

In eighteenth-century Britain, the word pedant came to mean a hectoring bore who, inconsiderate of his audience, imparted information that was far more exact and copious than his audience desired.  This type of pedant therefore looked on every room as a classroom, every person as a pupil, and every minute in the day as a minute that could be improved by a lecture or a lesson from the pedant himself.

Among English writers of the eighteenth century, Jonathan Swift was very likely the most searching critic of this pedantic bore, which he deplored and ridiculed for his breach of good manners.  It may surprise those who have read Swift’s biting satire, but the author of Gulliver’s Travels believed that rudeness was wicked and that pedantry was rude.  In one of his earliest essays Swift wrote:

“Pedantry is the too frequent or unseasonable obtruding our own knowledge in common discourse, and placing too great a value upon it.”***

This sort of pedant was, as I have said, a hectoring bore who did not notice, and very likely did not care, when his audience took no pleasure in hearing what he, the pedant, took so much pleasure in saying.  Swift held to this definition throughout his life, and in an essay published after his death repeated the sentiment.

“Pedantry is properly the over-rating of any kind of knowledge we pretend to.  And if that kind of knowledge be a trifle in itself, the pedantry is the greater.”†

It did not require book-learning to be a pedantic bore, although anyone who has been subjected to unsought instruction by an officious scholar knows that the pedantry of an officious scholar is a uniquely boring sort of pedantry.  Swift in fact widened the definition of pedantry to include “unseasonable” displays of knowledge of all sorts, and indeed especially to include “unseasonable” displays of knowledge that was “trifling” and mundane.  For instance, Swift tells us that women in his day were guilty of pedantry, “when they are over copious upon the subjects of their petticoats, or their fans, or their china.”  I have myself been the victim of what Swift would have called pedantic sports fans, pedantic gun enthusiasts, pedantic oenophiles, pedantic television addicts, and pedantic interpreters of their own dreams.

This list is very far from exhaustive and I am sure you have met with pedantic bores I can scarcely imagine.

It is worth noting that Englishmen were at this same time just beginning to use the word bore with the meaning that to bore is to make oneself tedious by an unseasonable or over-copious display of knowledge.  The etymology of this word bore is uncertain, but some such word must have become necessity because the eighteenth century was suddenly abounding in bores and boredom.  Readers of this blog will wryly note that this proliferation of bores and boredom coincided with so-called enlightenment.

* * * *

So far we have seen that a pedant can be a braggart or a bore.  The braggart makes a vain show of his limited learning, much as a strutting village schoolmaster might have made a vain show before the yokels in his village and the children in his school.  The bore on the other hand tortures a captive audience with tedium, much as a tedious teacher might have tortured the students he held captive in his classroom.  But there is, additionally, a third form of pedantry that is found almost exclusively among higher academics and serious savants.  Because this pedantry seeks supremacy by hair-splitting, pettifogging, and bombast, because it is both pugnacious and cowardly, I wall call it pedantic bullying.

Here again our great guide is Jonathan Swift.  In his Battle of the Books (1704), Swift satirized a battle between a defender of classical learning, Sir William Temple, and his “modern” detractors, Richard Bentley and William Wotton.  Swift took the side of Temple and accused Bentley in particular of pedantry.  And by pedantry Swift meant the scholarly spleen of an overbearing but bookish bully.  This was not the ridiculous pedantry of the braggart or the tedious pedantry of the bore.  It was the pugnacious pedantry of a sneaking, spiteful and ambitious scholar.  In the hands of such a pedant, the instruments of scholarship are knives, pitfalls and poisons with which to destroy his scholarly enemies and lame his scholarly rivals.

Swift thus begins by saying,

“The first and surest mark of a pedant is to write without observing the received rules of civility and common decency . . . for pedantry in the pen is what clownishness is in conversation—it is written ill-breeding.”

Here again we see Swift’s disapproval of unnecessary rudeness.  His especial point, however, was to deny the pedant’s spurious claim that the scholarly search for truth is so important that scholars who search for truth must be permitted to get a little bit rough.  Swift knew that a bully wants to bully, and that reverence for the truth was just a pedantic bully’s excuse.

Swift continues by saying that pompous words are the roars and snarls with which a pedantic bully seeks to cow and terrify anyone who stands in his way.  Today’s pedantic bullies seek to crush their enemies and rivals beneath rolling juggernauts of jargon, or to tangle them in syntactic nets like a Roman retiarius in a gladiatorial fight.

“It is pedantry to affect the use of an hard word where there is an easy one, or of a Greek or Latin word, where there is an English one that signifies the very same thing.”

Pompous words and diction mix well with pettifogging quibbles over minutiae, which, Swift tells us, a pedantic bully magnifies into into a cosmic battle between St. Michael and the Devil.  This aggrandized hair-splitting and nit-picking is, of course, what most people understand by pedantry, but Swift shows us that it was only one of many weapons in the pedantic bully’s bag of wicked tricks.

“To over-rate the price of knowledge, and to make as great ado about the true rendering of a phrase or accenting of a word, as if an article of faith or the fortune of a kingdom depended upon it, is pedantry.”

A pedant loves to exaggerate the force and cogency of his own arguments. He is quick to declare his own victories.  He makes a pretense of certainty that no honest man can feel.  In other words, the pedantic bully is given to monstrous bluffing.  Swift shows, for instance, that Bentley always referred to his own arguments as “demonstrations,” a bluff by which he hoped to persuade imbeciles that only an imbecile could fail to agree with Bentley.

“And so is an assuming and positive way of delivering oneself, upon points, especially, not worth our concern, and not capable of being perfectly cleared.”

Many readers of this blog know that apostles of atheism are particularly fond of this sort of bullying pedantry, which ironically amounts to sheer dogmatism.

Pedants love to feign greatness by picking fights with a great man, most especially with a great man who is so great, or so dead, that there is no danger that the great man will fight back.  Pedants likewise love to quarrel with the consensus gentium, here again being reasonably assured that the consensus gentium will not quarrel with them.   Swift followed the French essayist Jean-Louis Guez Balzac in the opinion that this pedantic sniping was caused by narcissism, an inferiority complex, or which our forefathers recognized as Satanic rage against anything superior to the self.  In Swift’s words,

“An itch of contradicting great men, or established opinions, upon very slight grounds, is another instance of pedantry . . . . Castelvetro, an Italian pedant, was famous for such a snarling faculty as this. ‘He was,’ as Balzac says very well of him, ‘a public enemy, that could not endure anybody should have merit or reputation, but himself.’”

Swift tells us that his survey of the “marks and moles of pedantry” is not complete, but he ends his comments with one last item that cannot be omitted.  This is the pedant’s habit of bullying his enemies with a hail of false and spurious citations.   In Bentley’s case, these were ancient manuscripts that no longer existed, and that perhaps never existed, but this habit lives on in our age of science and peer-reviewed publications.  Indeed, I give it as a rule that ostentatious citation is almost always fraudulent citation.  When a pedant begins to throw citations as if they were stones, you may reasonably doubt that he knows what he has in his hand.

“The subject is fruitful, but I will confine myself to one particular more of the pedant’s character, and that is, a love of quoting books or passages not extant, or never seen by him, in order to amaze and confound his poor reader, and make himself terrible in the way of learning.”

* * * * *

This post is already overlong, not to mention redolent of the very pedantry it condemns.   So I will conclude by saying that every man of learning must occasionally fall into the vice of pedantry.  We can only ask that he blushes when he recovers himself and recalls how he has been a learned braggart, a learned bore, or a learned bully.

I will add that you should see that we are now living in a golden age of pedantry, when well nigh everyone pretends to know much more than he actually knows, pretends what he knows is much more interesting than it actually is, and pretends that his pugnaciously pedantic bullying is something more noble than a battle to dominate, humiliate and destroy.

*) Montagne, “On Pedantry” (c. 1580)
**) Nicholas  Malebranche, Search After Truth (1674-1675).
***) Jonathan Swift,“Hints Towards an Essay on Conversation” (1709)
†) Jonathan Swift, “A Treatise on Good Manners and Good Breeding” (1758)

18 thoughts on “Profiles in Pedantry, a Guide to Learned Braggarts, Learned Bullies, and Learned Bores.

  1. Hi, JMSmith: Our two published topics seem to admit of synchronicity. My piece hopes to avoid accusations of unwarranted conceit and dogmatism. Yours is precisely on that topic. It seems I should reiterate that I know, just a little, on very little, and mostly about what is NOT possible. As per usual, discovering what is NOT true, is easier than the obverse. I know that the really important stuff is largely mysterious and there is no performative contradiction in that.

    • I think your post expresses an attitude that is the very opposite of pedantry, or even dogmatism. Your state your own reasonable convictions clearly enough, but you do not pretend you have run a philosophic steamroller over your opponents. And, as you say, you freely admit that there is much you do not know or understand only darkly. I think you are also right to suspect that those who accuse you of dogmatism are really upset by your pessimism. There may be a certain amount of natural virtue in a scientific society, but there is noting in science to cultivate that natural virtue. As I understand it, a dogma is simply a premise from which a chain of logical inferences is made, but the word has become a name for any kind of stubborn resistance to the zeitgeist. I remember once reading that this arose because people confused the word with dogged, but I doubt one person in a thousand knows the meaning of dogged anymore.

      • That’s an interesting point about pessimism. I am indeed pessimistic about certain strains of thought. If it turns out that rejecting God and the transcendent is not catastrophic for thought and the continued existence of ordered society and we should be optimistic instead that would be great (I guess). Now, if I could just rid myself of the image of a giant lacuna and black hole devouring all Being…

  2. Current-day bores may suffer from various ailments mentioned in the DSM-V or similar. Getting at the cause(s) of their tendency to bore would seem a worthwhile inquiry. The article addresses briefly narcissism and an inferiority complex, so digging into those should lead to greater understanding of such behaviors and possible treatments.

    • The bore is a definite social type, but I think we should not confuse the bore with people who are simply not very interesting. The later would be interesting if they could, but they lead a dull life and lack the imagination and intelligence to invent and embellish. The bore really doesn’t;t care if he is interesting, or perhaps imagines he is interesting when he is not. In my experience, bores are themselves very easily bored. Even if you listen to a bore for an hour, he will check his watch and spring from his chair two minutes after you begin to talk.

  3. “I begin with the principle that all men are bores. Surely no one will prove himself so great a bore by contradicting me in this.” – Kierkegaard, or more precisely (at the risk of being pedantic), “A” from Either/Or, the Romantic aesthete contrasted with the solidly bourgeois Judge Wilhelm who wrote the other part of that strange book. Boredom is a genuinely strange thing when one examines it closely, but bores are a different subject. Heidegger looks at this when he examines something very basic but often overlooked: our moods. Sartre stole this approach from Heidegger, who (more or less) took it from Kierkegaard (especially “Two Ages: A Literary Review”). It’s very hard not to say that surely no one will prove so boring as to contradict me on this point.
    Swift and others (Pope of course) diagnosed this doltish condition very well, but there is something rather tragic about a classic bore – in fiction, in the following century, the figure of Edward Casaubon in Eliot’s Middlemarch. There is a sense in him of someone who completely missed the meaning of life itself. In a way, regarding this, we are all a bit like him.
    I trust no one will be so boring as to contradict me in this.

    • I suspect all men are inclined to be bores, although the drive in some is stronger than in others. A natural bore flourishes when he has the power to command attention for reasons other than his conversation. Old men often become bores because people listen out of respect for their age, and a talkative boss is very often a bore. I’ve become self-conscious of my liability to becoming a bore to my children, since filial piety will make them put up with a good deal. On the other hand, they may owe this to me. Fear of being a bore may be as bad as carelessness of being a bore, since this fear make a man very dull company.

      When K. asks us not to be a bore by contradicting him, isn’t asking us to let him be a bore?

      • I suspect the aesthete, A, is indulging in a trite rhetorical flourish by asserting that “no one will prove himself so great a bore as to contradict me in this” – a typically Romantic device, later popularized by Oscar Wilde. At the risk of being a bore, Kierkegaard’s famous “three stages” were (to simplify) the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious – he examined what it would mean to live in these modes of existence. (Apologies if you’re familiar with this.) The classic exemplars are A (the Aesthete) and Judge Wilhelm (the ethical) in Either/Or, and the figure of Abraham in Fear and Trembling. When Abraham prepares to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, and God stops him at the last moment, K. (notoriously) wrote that aesthetically, Abraham was mad; ethically, he was evil; but religiously, he was a hero.
        The aesthetic mode of life is in a way a rebellion against boredom.

      • If “the aesthetic mode of life is in a way a rebellion against boredom,” then it is also a “self-licking ice cream cone.” Aestheticism is just another word for sensuality, and sensuality causes boredom just as surely as boredom causes sensuality. That’s one important reason there was no word for boredom before the eighteenth century.

    • Hi, Andrew: I have some sympathy for Edward Casaubon. Writing “a key to all mythologies” reminds me of Rene Girard or perhaps Joseph Campbell. I loved the ambition and recognized some such impulse in myself.

      • I found that my sympathy with Casaubon when up as my sympathy with George Eliot went down. It comes of living in the decadence of the world that GE helped to make.

      • Yes, such monumental projects are destined to fail, but the impulse to start such a project is surely worthy of admiration. Perhaps Casaubon is just misunderstood by his creator and her characters? (Apologies if that sounds like Derrida.) I haven’t read Eliot for some time, and I understand JM Smith’s reservations about her. However, I think Silas Marner is a profoundly religious novel – one of the wonders of writing fiction is that the writer of it can be a medium for all sorts of things that they never consciously planned to create. There is an excellent television adaptation of it with Ben Kingsley, made when the BBC cared for such things.

      • I think I would have been on Eliot’s side if I were her contemporary. I have similarly mixed feelings about Emerson. I can only half blame these people for what their line of thinking turned into because I don’t think they would like it any more than I do.

  4. Americans have an opinion on everything, especially things they know nothing about. This is a flaw in the national character. I recall being in China, 25 years ago, and asking for opinions of my staff. Few had any, some for fear of retribution, but most honestly had no opinion, conceding they knew nothing about the subject at hand. This is an aspect of widespread — fake — pedantry in this country. It is especially keen in the universities, where the know-nothings reign supreme in their ignorance.

    • Americans took Emerson’s call for “Self Reliance” a little too much to heart. I also think we have taken to forming our own opinions as we have learned that most experts are just making it up. But that’s just my opinion.

  5. Richard @ Mass education is not education of the masses, but education that the uneducated masses demand. This turns out to be vocational training for the clever ones and rationalize grievances for the dull ones. I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, and neither were my children, so I do not scorn vocational training, but the raw philistinism of modern higher education beggars belief.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.