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The Diffusion of Useful Ignorance: Thoreau on the Hubris of Our Knowledge and the Transcendent Humility of Not-Knowing

“My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant.”

A century and a half before the wise and wonderful Wendell Berry championed the way of ignorance, long before Jacob Bronowski admonished against the dark side of certainty and scientists came to recognize “thoroughly conscious ignorance” as central to human progress, another sage of the ages made this point with enormous elegance and piercing precision.

A year before his death and seven years after Walden, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) penned his equally ennobling treatise Walking (free ebook | public library) — a magnificent manifesto for “the spirit of sauntering,” tucked into which is a larger meditation on life’s ample complexities.

In one particularly incisive passage, Thoreau considers our blind cult of concrete answers — something arguably exacerbated today, in an age when we continually mistake information for wisdom — and writes:

We have heard of a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. It is said that knowledge is power, and the like. Methinks there is equal need of a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance, what we will call Beautiful Knowledge, a knowledge useful in a higher sense: for what is most of our boasted so-called knowledge but a conceit that we know something, which robs us of the advantage of our actual ignorance? What we call knowledge is often our positive ignorance; ignorance our negative knowledge. By long years of patient industry and reading of the newspapers … a man accumulates a myriad facts, lays them up in his memory, and then when in some spring of his life he saunters abroad into the Great Fields of thought, he, as it were, goes to grass like a horse and leaves all his harness behind in the stable.

With his penchant for evocative metaphor, Thoreau illustrates this alternative way of knowing the world:

I would say to the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, sometimes, — Go to grass. You have eaten hay long enough. The spring has come with its green crop. The very cows are driven to their country pastures before the end of May; though I have heard of one unnatural farmer who kept his cow in the barn and fed her on hay all the year round. So, frequently, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge treats its cattle.

Thoreau’s chief concern is the hubris that knowledge breeds, to which conscious not-knowing offers a counterpoint of humility:

A man’s ignorance sometimes is not only useful, but beautiful — while his knowledge, so called, is oftentimes worse than useless, besides being ugly. Which is the best man to deal with — he who knows nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all?

Illustration by D. B. Johnson from ‘Henry Hikes to Fitchburg,’ a children’s book about Thoreau’s philosophy. Click image for more.

In a passage that calls to mind the singular wisdom of moss, Thoreau contemplates the self-transcendence that embracing ignorance makes possible:

My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant. The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence. I do not know that this higher knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel and grand surprise on a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called Knowledge before — a discovery that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. It is the lighting up of the mist by the sun. Man cannot know in any higher sense than this, any more than he can look serenely and with impunity in the face of the sun: “You will not perceive that, as perceiving a particular thing,” say the Chaldean Oracles.

Complement the wholly wonderful Walking with Thoreau on optimism, the deepest measure of “success”, the greatest gift of growing old, what it really means to be awake, and the creative benefits of keeping a diary, then revisit this charming children’s book about his philosophy.

Published May 14, 2015




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