Naas Energy

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Hamilton and Burr: Knowing vs. Doing

This post was originally published on on 21 August 2018.

I’ve been reading through Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, and I came upon this passage about Aaron Burr that got me thinking.
“It is puzzling that Aaron Burr is sometimes classified among the founding fathers. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Franklin, and Hamilton all left behind papers that run to dozens of thick volumes, packed with profound ruminations. They fought for high ideals. By contrast, Burr’s editors have been able to eke out just two volumes of his letters, many full of gossip, tittle-tattle, hilarious anecdotes, and racy asides about his sexual escapades. He produced no major papers on policy matters, constitutional issues, or government institutions. […] Hamilton asked rhetorically about Burr, “Is it a recommendation to have no theory? Can that man be a systematic or able statesman who has none? I believe not.” In a still more severe indictment, Hamilton said of Burr, “In civil life, he has never projected nor aided in producing a single measure of important public utility.”
“Burr’s failure to make any notable contribution in public policy is mystifying for such a bright, literate man. He was an omnivorous reader. The records of the New York Society Library show that in 1790 Burr read nine consecutive volumes of Voltaire. He then spent a year and a half poring over all forty-four volumes of Modern Universal History. How many men at the time both read and ardently recommended Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminist tract, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman? […]” (Chernow).
I see the contrast between Hamilton and Burr as a great example of knowing versus knowing and doing. I think it’s important to, if you’re hungry for knowledge, try and do something with that knowledge. Otherwise, what’s the point? What is the point in consuming books and learning a ton of different things if you don’t do anything with it? Write a blog post, write letters to imaginary people, even comment on Facebook (only as a last resort, of course). I don’t have a problem with learning for the sake of learning, but I don’t see the point of it. I say this as someone who loves consuming information but doesn’t love committing to one side or the other of an argument. When I read this passage, I realized that I was more like Aaron Burr than Alexander Hamilton, always reading but never writing, never using the things I learn in a constructive way. (I’m not trying to knock on Burr; Historically he was a great lawyer with Hamilton as one of his equals. I also haven’t read a whole lot else about him, so this one book’s description is what I’m going on right now. Risky, I know.)
If you don’t tell people what you know, or can’t take away applicable lessons from what you learn, what the point in knowing and learning?