The Great Conversation:
By Gabriel Blanchard
If there is any single father of the Western tradition, it is surely Socrates; and the only thing Socrates claimed to know was that he knew nothing.
Throughout this series, almost every divergent synonym of wisdom has been positive, so to speak. It is knowledge; it is clarity; it is virtue; it is cunning; it is wonder; it is mysticism. But the final kind of wisdom we must address is instead a negative quality—not the mystical negation found in the Catholic monk or the Sufi dervish, nor yet the “had it right the first time” of simplicity. It is consciousness of what we do not know.
7. Wisdom is recognizing our ignorance.
In one way, this is obvious. Many a teacher has cited the “fact” to their students that one cannot listen with one’s mouth open. Most people who have expertise, or even competence, in any subject, will recognize the hair-raising aggravation of hearing someone who knows little or nothing about that subject confidently holding forth upon it; and many of us, whether the matter in question was grave or trivial, can remember at least one experience of realizing suddenly that we had been running our mouths about something we thought we understood. T. S. Eliot evokes both feelings in Four Quartets:
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Then fools’ approval stings, and honor stains.
—”Little Gidding” III.82-90
But there are deeper subtleties concealed in this branch of wisdom. Three are worthy of note: ignorance involved in drawing implications from facts or statements; ignorance inevitably imposed on us by individual perspective; and ignorance fostered by people whose interests it serves. This third is the easiest to grasp, so let us begin there.
In 1998, the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement concluded a lawsuit brought against the four largest tobacco companies in the US by all fifty states.* The suit had been brought four years earlier; Mike Moore, the Attorney General of Mississippi, famously said that “the lawsuit is premised on a simple notion: you caused the health crisis; you pay for it.” This may sound a bit strange today. They’ve been putting those health warnings on cigarette packaging forever; isn’t it the consumer’s choice, and thus the consumer’s fault, if they smoked the things anyway? Or is this just a typical example of the public using the government to offload responsibility?
Well—no. The warning labels as we know them are relatively recent; when they were first imposed in 1966, they said only that “smoking may be hazardous to your health” (which could be truthfully said of nearly anything, given the right context or quantity). Before then, it was common for tobacco companies to brag of the health benefits of smoking in their advertisements; and from the mid-60s until 1998, the tobacco industry disputed and cast doubt on the mounting evidence linking smoking to a multitude of diseases. Pennsylvania in particular charged cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris Inc. with “conspiracy in concealing and misrepresenting the addictive and harmful nature of tobacco/nicotine” and “control and manipulation of nicotine to foster addiction and thus profits,” among many other forms of conspiracy, fraud, and negligence. In plain English: the tobacco industry knew their product was hurting and even killing people, and, rather than simply get new jobs, they spent decades promoting lies and confusion—about something they knew the clear truth of—all so they could keep profiting by hurting and killing people.
Okay, so where is the lesson about ignorance, if the tycoons in question were not ignorant? The lesson lies in the public’s ignorance. The reader may wish to protest here, as their ignorance was not their fault; they were lied to, led to believe the issue was uncertain; what were they supposed to do, conduct their longitudinal studies on the weekends? But their relative innocence is the point. For many people, it simply never crossed their minds to question the origins of the Such-and-Such Study saying tobacco was harmless. If it had, they might have realized that they did not know who paid for it; and if they had dug into that, they might have discovered that the people footing the bill for Such-and-Such were all tobacco company executives. And another fraction of the populace, who had a feeling in their gut that something was off here but didn’t want to give up smoking, probably seized on the Such-and-Such Study not because they sincerely believed it was a good source of knowledge, but as a pretext not to learn more—indulging themselves through what Catholics used to call “vincible ignorance.” Or, as the seventeenth-century Catholic scientist Blaise Pascal put it, there is light enough for those who want to see, and darkness enough for those who don’t.
This kind of knowledge-of-ignorance is closely related to the first kind, the sort involved in working out the implications of a fact or statement. Human beings are so hardwired to see patterns, we often find patterns in places they not only are not, but could not be (faces are a good example). Likewise, we are hardwired interpreters of facts and statements—so much so that we often add to them without noticing it.
The resurrection narratives of the Gospels furnish a famous example of this tendency. The characters concerned are the same in all four—Jesus, a number of women who followed him, the Twelve Apostles minus one Judas—as is the broad narrative, going from “Jesus dead and entombed one day, risen and moving freely the next.” Exactly who saw what and in what order is a notoriously difficult issue; but sometimes, the text is less complicated than meets the eye. The present author has read an esteemed commentator on the Gospel of John asserting as fact that in that Gospel, St. Mary Magdalene comes “alone” to the tomb, and that this contradicts the account of the Synoptics—yet John says nothing of the kind. True, the text mentions only her in chapter 20, while the corresponding chapters in Matthew, Mark, and Luke imply a company of at least five women, which we are surely entitled to find puzzling and even call a discrepancy. But there is a great difference between only mentioning one person doing something and stating that they did it alone! nor do discrepancies in this sense qualify as contradictions.**
From here, the transition is easy into considering the third and final kind of ignorance we must all account for: our own subjectivity—but perhaps perspective would be a better word. No one is without a point of view; and no point of view is equally good at seeing everything. That said, this doesn’t need to be a bad thing. What else is listening to people for? (Incidentally, when you come to think of it, it is a little strange that “objective” has become a synonym for “impartial, fair”: objects cannot be impartial, because they cannot be partial. Only persons, only subjects, can do that.) A single point of view may not suffice to know the contours of a rose; but we need not make do with only one point of view—that is, we do not need to for one thing, and we positively need not to for another. The whole idea of the Great Conversation is that in it, we can hear dozens, hundreds of voices; thus, maybe, we can be vouchsafed whatever glimpse mere knowledge can give of the Rose as Dante saw it …
Then the Byzantine ritual, the Epiclesis, began;
then their voices in Ours invoked the making of man;
petal on petal floated out of the blossom of the Host,
and all ways the Theotokos conceived by the Holy Ghost.
Over the altar, flame of anatomized fire,
the High Prince stood, gyre in burning gyre;
day level before him, night massed behind;
the Table ascended; the glories intertwined.
—Charles Williams, “Taliessin at Lancelot’s Mass,” ll. 33-36, 41-44
Plato, The Apologia of Socrates
Aristotle, The Organon
St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel
Franz Kafka, “The Problem of Our Laws”
Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt
David Dunning, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 44, Chapter 5: The Dunning-Kruger Effect
*The District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands were also parties to the suit. At the time the deal was signed, four states (Florida, Minnesota, Mississippi, and Texas) had already reached agreements with representatives of the tobacco industry. The remaining forty-six states, along with the District and the two territories, were actual signatories.
**This should not be taken for an apologetic; many details of the canonical Gospels are exceedingly hard to reconcile, and in some cases, error (whether on the part of the original author or of a later copyist) does appear to be the most economical explanation. But there is certainly nothing to be gained from muddying the waters further by creating fresh errors the texts plainly do not contain.
Gabriel Blanchard knows nothing.
Thank you for reading the Journal. If you enjoyed this final installment of our series on wisdom—the last topic of our Great Conversation series!—you might like to check out some of our previous topics, ranging from art to democracy to games to magic to relation, and many more. Happy reading.
Published on 26th October, 2023. Page image of a Pacific barn owl (source); owls are traditional symbols of wisdom in Western culture, going back to the owl being held sacred to the goddess Athene, but—perhaps due to being nocturnal, or to their severe farsightedness—they are occasionally also used to represent ignorance.