Dao Du Jour II, Day 71: The Power of Ignorance

Chapter 71: The Sick Mind

“To know without knowing is best.
Not knowing without knowing it is sick.
To be sick of sickness is the only cure.
The wise aren’t sick.
They’re sick of sickness,
So they’re well.”

~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

There is more to this than Socrates’ famous insight that his wisdom consisted in knowing what he did not know. That is what you might call existential ignorance. Socrates connected this with self-knowledge: he realized he was not just grasping some fact about his own psychology through introspection, but gaining insight into human nature and, beyond this, into the relationship between humanity and the cosmos. To “know thyself” is not to acquire comprehensive knowledge of your own psychology, but to discover where you are in the cosmic order.

The question is how you are to proceed in light of—or, rather, in the darkness of—that realization. This leads to what we might call ethical ignorance. Nietzsche thought it entailed a kind of imperative:

“It does not suffice that you realize the ignorance in which humans and animals live, you also have to have the will to be ignorant and learn more. You need to comprehend that without this kind of ignorance life would become impossible, that only on condition of this ignorance can what lives preserve itself and flourish.”

“The will to be ignorant” sounds at odds with Nietzsche’s other, more well known concept of the “will to power.” In our modern, data-driven world, information is power, and the more the better. There is no holy of holies, no boundary we recognize and respect as sacred and forever beyond our ken (besides, say, black holes, whose center exerts a kind of spiritual gravity over the secular imagination). The deliberate cultivation of ignorance, then, sounds like weakness. Moreover, Nietzsche connects ignorance with learning, and learning, we tend to think, is about acquiring more knowledge, converting more of the terra incognita into our map of the world. What gives?

When we describe patterns of thought or action as “pathological,” what we are really saying is that they are governed by sick (pathos) ideas (logos); ideas that are either false or harmful or both. Some of them we develop on our own, but most of them we absorb osmotically from our culture. They are the skeleton of the stories our culture tells about itself—tells us about us. What is weird about our WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) culture is that it does not know that the story it tells about itself is a story. It is said that we live in an “Information Age” because of the prevalence of “information technology,” but information is meaningless without context. Put another way, a society organized around the production, distribution, and consumption of information is not organized around anything. Put simply, it it nihilistic. We haven’t just deregulated the economy; we’ve deregulated meaning itself.

It is easy for us to look back at pre-modern cultures and regard them as backward, simplistic, ignorant, “primitive,” and so on. But what if they knew something we didn’t? What if the sacred canopies of their cultures—their myths and rituals that, to us, seem irrational and superstitious—were sturdy psychological scaffolds that showed them what was worth paying attention to? What if such cultural “blinders” helped them walk straight, precisely by narrowing their field of vision?

Granted, much of their ignorance, while useful, was surely unconscious. Now that all such blinders have been “disrupted” by our information technology, our task is different: the cultivation of conscious ignorance. The will to ignorance is not at odds with Nietzsche’s will to power, but an enlightened form of it. It is the will not just to know oneself, but to master oneself: to not be a slave to the sick ideas we have absorbed from our culture, to gain power over the impulse to know what isn’t worth knowing. Just as not eating too much leads to a healthy body, not knowing too much leads to a healthy mind.

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

What Do You Think?