Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/January 1881/The Advantages of Ignorance


By Professor F. W. CLARKE.

THE occasional blissfulness of ignorance has long been the subject of one of our most popular proverbs. Coupled with a positive statement as to the folly of wisdom, it passes from mouth to mouth with the authority of an oracle. But the support given to the dogma is usually of a passive kind. The doctrine is stated, but not defended; while on the other hand our journals teem with arguments in favor of education, upon the importance of schools, and about the best methods of electing school trustees. The fact that the latter represent in their own persons the advantages of ignorance—that educated men can rarely attain to such superior positions—is never urged with anything like proper vigor. Education in one's self imbues one with prejudices concerning the education of others; and such prejudices, with their attendant partialities, ought to be rigidly excluded from the management of public institutions. Accordingly, in actual practice, uneducated men are placed as supervisors above thousands of cultivated teachers; and thus, in spite of the schools, the superiority of ignorance is clearly demonstrated.

In every walk of life, in all professions, a similar superiority is daily manifest. At the polls, the trained and intelligent statesman is defeated by the loud-mouthed stump-speaker, who knows nothing of jurisprudence, less of political economy, and only enough of finance to be able to draw and spend his salary with commendable regularity. The broadly educated, highly cultivated theologian is surpassed in popular esteem by the swaggering revivalist, who tears up human feelings by the roots as a child pulls up sprouting beans for growing the wrong way. In medicine, the quack has five times the patronage of the well-informed physician, and makes a fat living where the latter would only starve. Sick people are fond of liberal treatment, and like to be thought worse off than they really are. You have a slight cold, and a good doctor charges five dollars for curing you. But the brilliant empiric calls it congestion of the lungs, diphtheria, or pneumonia, visits you twice as often, and charges three times as much, and you feel that you have got a great deal more for your money. Your own ignorance chimes in with his, and both are better satisfied. Your stomach-ache is magnified into gastric fever; your boil becomes an incipient cancer; a slight chill indicates approaching typhoid. The quack flatters your self-love, exalts your own importance in exaggerating that of your disease, comforts you with a good, sympathetic scare, and depletes your veins and your pockets with admirable equanimity.

The old saying that "fools rush in where angels fear to tread" affords another argument in behalf of the fools. To be sure, the natural history of the angel species has been but imperfectly studied; yet here again our very ignorance helps us. Theoretically, we should all like to be angels; but, practically, we prefer to stay where we are. Besides, familiarity with angels might be exceedingly uncomfortable; especially if they should take it into the ghosts of their late heads to visit us in spook-fashion, with the accompaniments of blue-fire and winding-sheets. But to the point again. Education makes men cautious and calculating; careful of precedents; afraid of mistakes. Many a time the brilliant audacity of a daring ignoramus has achieved successes which would have been unattainable to orderly skill and training. Lord Timothy Dexter, that most inspired of idiots, sent a cargo of warming-pans to the West Indies. The natives took the bottoms for sugar-scoops and the perforated lids for strainers, and Dexter gained a fortune out of his ridiculous venture. Zachary Taylor, whipped by a Mexican army, was too bad a soldier to be conscious of his defeat, and kept on fighting. His adversaries, astonished at his perseverance, thought he must have hidden reserves, and incontinently ran away. Thus Taylor won the battle, as contemporaries say, "by sheer pluck and awkwardness." "Against stupidity the gods themselves fight powerless." Stupidity, therefore, by all the rules of logic, must be superior to sense, and truly deserves, over all competitors, the crown of laurel.

The advantages of ignorance may be further illustrated by a reference to the disadvantages of omniscience. Suppose one of us. could know everything, past, present, and future—how uncomfortable he would be! Looking backward into remote antiquity, he would behold his ancestral ape engaged in the undignified performance of catching fleas. Turning with disgust from the past, he would find in the present many things as humiliating. Misunderstandings, bickerings, hatreds, and slanders, unknown to ordinary men, would stand revealed before him. And from the coming time he would anticipate trouble and misfortune; he would see approaching evils far off in the dim distance; and not even the knowledge of attendant pleasures could quite unsadden him. To know everything would be to learn nothing—to have no hopes and no desires, since both would become equally futile. After the first excitement, one would harden into a mere automaton—an omniscient machine—with consciousness worthless, and volition a farce. Had Shakespeare been able to foresee his commentators, his greatest works would never have been written.

There are two sides to every question. Like the god Janus, all things are double-faced. Knowledge is not unalloyed good; neither is ignorance unadulterated evil. If ignorance were abolished, how many teachers would starve for want of occupation! Were all fools to become sensible, what would the knaves do for a living? The ignoramus, so long as he is ignorant of his ignorance, is comfortable and self-satisfied. The educated man sees how slender his attainments really are, and discontentedly strives for deeper knowledge. Let us be impartial, whether we praise, blame, or satirize. Blessed be stupidity, for it shall not be conscious of its own deficiencies.