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Here’s the sure-fire antidote to cocksure stupidity

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This includes the chief executives and politicians, who are polled about their reading. This year, an honourable mention goes to Westpac chief executive Brian Hartzer, whose best book for 2018 was Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. According to Hartzer, “it’s a classic reminder of the dangers of mob rule”. Did a fear of the masses out to lynch bankers prompt his pick?

With all that’s been uncovered by the banking royal commission, we can only hope their chief executives are swotting up on some ethics. And given some of the eye-watering salaries and bonuses to chief executives (Alan Joyce of Qantas is among the leading earners, with an annual package of $10.2 million), some reading on inequality also wouldn’t go astray.

As for the rest of us, summer reading shouldn’t be about moral penance or rehabilitation. Nor must it be degraded into another form of competitive consumption. But it should be a time to return to first principles or to re-read the classics.

If you’re like me, and struggle to finish novels, there’s much to be said for indulging in the essay. It’s a form that might appear unfashionable; memoirs with a political message seem to be the rage, as befits an age of authenticity.

But there’s a good case for defying the current trend. An elegant essay is like tonic for the brain. The good essayist has the virtuosity to write just about anything, from politics and literature to the mundane details of living. They offer their readers not just their felicity, but also their discernment.

There are the latter-day greats of the form: writers such as Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion, Ta-Nehisi Coates. But there remains no finer exponent than the man who invented the essay, the 16th century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne.

To read Montaigne is to get reacquainted with an old and wise friend. His essays are counsels in moderation and self-awareness. Take his advice, and you’ll seek to live in temperate happiness and abide by the virtue of humility. As Montaigne wrote, “manners and opinions contrary to mine do not so much displease me as instruct me”.

Montaigne’s most celebrated quality was his scepticism. He was always questioning his views, always accepting of the “infinite confusion” of life. In order to lead a happy life, he believed, we needed to understand that we frequently alter our judgments. What we, one day, confidently assert as truth, we may later come to judge to be false.

This seems out of step with our times. Authenticity for us is about “being true to ourselves”. It’s something revealed through our instinctive reactions, and to be realised through instant gratification.

We’ve lost in all this something much more important: character.

We often think of character as being about strength. In fact, a good character has the quality of a paradox. Its strength comes through its admission of vulnerability. It’s the mark of a strong character that someone is prepared to acknowledge their insecurity.

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Michelle Obama recently hit on this when she said that she still suffers from “impostor syndrome”. Not everyone will admit it, but just about everyone, at some stage or somewhere, will feel that they’re out of their depth or don’t belong.

Needless to say, too much doubt, and you end up with paralysis. But in the right dose, some doubt helps to restrain us from folly.

Don’t be fooled by those who present themselves as free from doubt. Only sociopaths think they can never be wrong. Stopping them is another thing, though. All too often, the sociopaths are the ones who are in charge.

It wasn’t Montaigne, but the English philosopher Bertrand Russell said it like the master when he warned: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

I don’t know what 2019 has in store, but read up and don’t be afraid of doubting. Because there sure is enough cocksure stupidity out there.

Tim Soutphommasane is a political theorist and former race discrimination commissioner.

Tim Soutphommasane is a political philosopher at Monash University, and regular columnist.

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