I am sufficiently proud of my knowing something to be modest about my not knowing all.
The story goes, when the Delphic Oracle told Socrates he was the wisest man in Athens, his response was effectively, "There is no possibly way that is so." This was near to blasphemy, questioning the flattery of the gods' conduit, but he couldn't believe something so adulatory. He resolved to find men wiser to prove the gods wrong.
Every man he came to (if he consulted women, he did not in the version I heard) mistook pretense for intelligence, ego for abilities, sycophancy for objectivity. Socrates knew how little he knew, how little could and would ever know. All these self-righteous, smug men, certain they were wiser, crumbled when confronted with their ignorance.
Defeated, Socrates conceded to the edict of Apollo.
I relate not to Socrates, the cockiness of that, but the men who came up short while pretending to be giants.
My mother called me arrogant until I was into my late twenties, and she was not wrong to. It wasn't that I thought I was necessarily better than other people, but I was intellectually insecure, having achieved so little despite early assurances I was gifted, and this wall of superiority might mask the fear that I couldn't relate to other people. I mistook big words for big emotions.
When I see others hiding behind bluster now, I cringe. I recognize in them something I remember in myself, a delayed reflection like yearbook photos. This is not me, but it was me.
Socrates would not have suspected me wise and I would have found him a threat to the fictive assumptions I wanted to have for myself, not blessed by the gods with a simple superlative as he was.
I cannot long keep the company of my fellow impostors, because I might be suspected. Then, the gods will notice me enough to assign me a label I cannot stand to bear. When my pretenders to the throne come vomiting synonyms that do not fit the occasion, references to media of which they didn't and wouldn't partake or enjoy, jargon from fields they've never dared to visit, I scan for the nearest conversational or literal exit. No good will come of them thinking I sympathize.
I've encountered this condition in a friend's partner, for whom everything was an allusion to dusty books with creaseless spines he had on shelves and whose Cliff's Notes he had memorized verbatim. He was all haughtiness, all intellectual pissing contest, tedious in all conversations he took for competitions to prove to anyone in earshot that he was the best. His poetry was Vogon Postmodern Imagism, his prose, the synonym function of Word applied to Hemingway's LiveJournal from his emo period at thirteen. I found him hollow and annoying, because I wished to sit with people I liked and share things we loved, while he wanted to intrude to assure us he liked it before it was cool and that we were philistines for liking it now, since he had moved onto their earlier work before they sold out, or that we really needed to read it in the original Portuguese, a language he didn't know. His family crest was the phrase "Um, actually..." under a picture of an upturned nose.
Though he is the epitome of this affliction that leaps to mind, he is far from the first or last to disgrace my doorstep. They will come again, because intellectual scatteredness draws them to try to impress or correct, and I will know them by their desperate odor. Socrates would not have gone as far as asking them directions to the nearest temple before they would, unbidden, claim for themselves the burden of being the smartest man in the room, for which I would like to believe they would be served a hemlock shooter to accompany their repackaged box wine.
Working with under-performing, disadvantaged, felonious youth has cooled the fire of my own artifice. It is not that I am better than them - there is no means for comparison - but that I understand what it is to spend so much of one's energy trying to be something one truly is not. As trying as they are on a nearly daily basis, they - along with the bibliography I have built for myself - have provided a genuine bedrock for confidence. There is no need to pretend I am better than I am, because I know approximately how good I am, based on deeds and not merely misspent words uttered while looking around the room for approval.
Soon in Xenology: Meaning. Anxiety.