The Use of Letters

Published on March 5, 2021

Great teachers are very rare. The best in the profession have an infectious enthusiasm for their subject and view their work as a higher calling rather than just a way to earn a paycheck. I was lucky enough to have great teachers in business which sparked my interest in finance and investing. But I was not so lucky in subjects such as history and literature. I did what was needed to scrape by in high school and in college I became an expert at acing tests, but going through the motions doesn’t result in any lasting benefit.

I still remember my first Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting in 2000. I kept wondering about “the other guy” up there on the stage with Warren Buffett. His wisdom was obvious from the brief comments he made. Buffett and Munger are both great teachers, but Munger’s interests are broader and extend way beyond the business world. I am not sure where I first read the following Munger quote but it made quite an impression:

“In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time — none, zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads–and at how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.”

Charlie Munger

The point is pretty simple. If you want to be wise, you must read. And you must read widely. And you must read constantly.

No excuses.

Why is this the case?

It is not complicated: Human beings live a finite life and we are products of the times in which we live. If our entire view of the world is based only on what we see and observe during our life, we have failed to understand and benefit from all of the life experiences of the people who came before us.

What could be more breathtakingly stupid than to insist on relearning all of the hard lessons prior generations had to figure out for themselves?

During my formal education, I was in a hurry and I only cared about really learning subjects that were in some way related to business and investing. History, literature, and the humanities flew by in a blur as I did what was needed to ace tests and promptly erased what I learned from memory after finals.

This experience was the polar opposite of the St. John’s College great books program. But it is never too late to begin and in recent years I have spent an increasing amount of time focusing on reading.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon is, of course, one of the great books, and I have been working my way through this six volume classic. When I came across the following passage, I immediately thought of Charlie Munger:

The Germans, in the age of Tacitus, were unacquainted with the use of letters; and the use of letters is the principal circumstance that distinguishes a civilised people from a herd of savages incapable of knowledge or reflection. 

Without that artificial help, the human memory soon dissipates or corrupts the ideas intrusted to her charge; and the nobler faculties of the mind, no longer supplied with models or with materials, gradually forget their powers; the judgment becomes feeble and lethargic, the imagination languid or irregular. 

Fully to apprehend this important truth, let us attempt, in an improved society, to calculate the immense distance between the man of learning and the illiterate peasant. The former, by reading and reflection, multiplies his own experience, and lives in distant ages and remote countries; whilst the latter, rooted to a single spot, and confined to a few years of existence, surpasses, but very little, his fellow-labourer the ox in the exercise of his mental faculties. 

The same, and even a greater, difference will be found between nations than between individuals; and we may safely pronounce that, without some species of writing, no people has ever preserved the faithful annals of their history, ever made any considerable progress in the abstract sciences, or ever possessed, in any tolerable degree of perfection, the useful and agreeable arts of life.


Individuals who do not read leave on the table all of the lessons of human history. They insist on learning everything from themselves rather than vicariously. This is what Gibbon observed when he wrote this passage in the late eighteenth century and his words ring just as true today.

But more troubling than the effect on any individual is the effect on a society where the population is oblivious of history. Such a society will fall victim to the same downfalls that plagued people who didn’t even know how to read or write!

As Mark Twain said, a person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.

And a society that fails to learn from history is doomed to repeat many of the same mistakes.

Obviously, our early twenty-first century society is mostly literate and never before has more information been available to more people than today. But the availability of information is of no value if people fail to take advantage of it. Clicking on the latest tabloid headline or clever meme tweet does absolutely nothing other than indulge in the endorphin boosting practice of context switching. We flit from one headline to the next which fosters the illusion that we are getting more informed even as we become more blind through an ignorance of the past.

Perhaps this is too negative. Clearly, a subset of society is very much interested in learning from the past and leveraging all that the internet has to offer. Charlie Munger jokes about the “cultists” who come to hear him speak, but the fact that the vast majority of his followers are on a real quest for wisdom is no joke at all. There are people who have seen the light when it comes to learning from the past, but I suspect the percentage of people who fall into this category is in the low to mid-single digits at best.

The Use of Letters
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