Dao Du Jour, Day 71: The Philosopher’s Disease

Chapter 71:

“Not knowing is true knowledge.

Presuming to know is a disease.

First realize that you are sick;

then you can move toward health.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Huston Smith, the late great scholar of world religions, told a story of when he was studying Zen Buddhism in Japan. One day during a private interview with a master, sitting face to face, cushion to cushion, he asked a question about the nature of the self. The master looked at him intently, leaned forward, and said sternly: “You are suffering from the philosopher’s disease.”

One of the great ironies of Western philosophy—which Alfred North Whitehead summed up as a series of footnotes to Plato—is that though its mythic founder, Socrates, wrote nothing and claimed to know nothing, the tradition he initiated came to be associated with the idea that our minds can grasp the truth of things. Philosophy became about building conceptual castles and trying to know it all. It became more about grasping than letting go, more scientific and less spiritual, more head-centered and less heart- and body-centered. Nietzsche pinned the blame on Socrates himself for poo-pooing the poets and throttling the creative spirit with an over-emphasis on the rational side of human nature. But whoever is to blame—and Nietzsche is probably wrong about Socrates, and Plato, and even Christianity—it’s fair to say that in the West, the path of knowing has been much more cleared and cultivated than the path of not-knowing.

We need both. Another way of interpreting the yin/yang symbol is with knowing/non-knowing, or knowledge/wisdom, or knowledge/ignorance. Treating ignorance as something to cultivate rather than eliminate is counterintuitive, akin to a judo move. But it is essential to working with others and the world as they are, rather than as we “know” them to be. The awareness of one’s ignorance awakens the desire to learn.

In Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Tenet, the good guys’ only weapon is “ignorance”—only by not knowing the true nature of the threat they face can they hope to defeat it. This forces them to trust each other. The “philosopher’s disease” with which we are all somewhat afflicted living in the West leads us to misconstrue “faith” in intellectual terms—as though it’s about believing certain propositions or ideas. Yet as Alan Watts pithily puts it, where belief clings, faith lets go. Faith actually means a certain disposition of heart, an attitude toward the world that we might best call trust. In Tenet, the fate of the world hinges on the good guys trusting one another.

In America today, as Pete Buttigieg argues in his latest book, Trust, the restoration of trust is the key ingredient to healing our society. If we hope to avoid a descent into Idiocracy, perhaps what we need to steer our information economy in the right direction is a “wisdom economy.” In an information rich society, meaning becomes the scarce resource. Just as we need to decarbonize our energy economy and remove CO2 from the atmosphere, perhaps we need to de-clutter our minds, to lay down what Nietzsche called the “knowledge stones” that weigh us down and drag us toward folly. In the future, it may turn out that wisdom, that most “impractical” of things, may be the most valuable resource.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”