Ignorance Is Bliss

An English poet, Thomas Grey, ended his 1742 poem, Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, with what has become a well-known aphorism: “where ignorance is bliss, / ‘Tis folly to be wise.” The part that’s quoted most often is, “Ignorance is bliss.” Considering ignorance bliss has a long history. One of the central stories of both Judaism and Christianity is Eve’s being tempted by Satan to eat the fruit of knowledge and then persuading Adam to do the same.

The theme has been important to me for a long time. The title of my 1974 Ph.D. dissertation was “Consciousness as Disease in Early Nineteenth-Century English Literature” (University of Illinois, 1974). Many writers during the nineteenth century had concerns about what we learn as we become increasingly “conscious.” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is perhaps the best-known example of the consequences of human “overreach.” Being able to distinguish between what is “good” and what is “evil” makes us responsible for choosing. That need to choose provides the impetus and foundation for religion. Different religions have different concepts of “sin” based on what practitioners of the religion believe about what “God” wants. Christians who look to the Bible for inspiration find a mixed message: The message of the Old Testament is very different from the message delivered by Jesus, and the message of the New Testament isn’t consistent.

A century before Mary Shelley, Alexander Pope said France and Russia the disparity between rich and poor led to revolution. (The Chinese Communist Revolution came later, but had its roots in essentially the same social problems. It is important to recognize that it is not the problems themselves that lead to revolution. It is rather the awareness of the problems that leads to revolution.

One of my major disappointments in “modern times” is what I think of as a reversion to ignorance. In the States, and I suspect the same may be true elsewhere as well, we have way too many people who basically say, “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts. Victor Frankenstein was guilty of overreach. Too many today are guilty of “underreach,” deliberately choosing to remain ignorant of reality. It seems to me that this is a little like children who hear a bump in the night and hide under the covers hoping that whatever monster created the bump will not see them. If the “monster” is real, it won’t go away, and while hiding might serve in the short-run, it is not an effective “escape plan.”

Naziism didn’t work in the past. People who don’t want to live like that will resist. In the “old days,” tribes of people were typically separated by geographical distance and by natural land barriers (rivers, oceans, mountains, deserts, etc.), and major conflicts between tribes were limited. As populations increased in size, territorial conflicts increased in number and duration. In spite of their increasingly global nature, such conflicts remain essentially “tribal.” Who is in your “tribe,” and who belongs to other “tribes”? Tribes are no longer identified with territories, but with those who share similar values—even if they don’t speak the same language or have the same color skin.

It seems to me that what we are seeing in the States today is a conflict between those who want to move past tribal differences and those who want to strengthen them, to ensure that their tribe “wins.” Some of us would like to think that we learned so much from Hitler and Nazism that we are exempt from the consequences, but that’s not necessarily true. The philosopher, George Santayana, is perhaps best known for saying, Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. An often repeated saying is, “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’re going to keep getting what you’ve been getting.” We know what happens when we follow the blood and soil route. Perhaps it’s time to give peace chance. I admit to being an aging hippie who still clings to the major tenets of that time. One of those tenets was to give peace a chance:

What would it take? I’m not sure how we can get from where we are now to the point where we can start making rational decisions about our political systems and domestic and international relationships. We would all be better off.

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