Andries Cornelis Lens, 1737)
A superficial reading of Plato's writings encourages the "learned" scholar to suppose that Socrates' claim that he was ignorant was merely a ploy, a pretense, nothing but word-play. Scholastics refuse to take seriously what Socrates himself said: that he possessed only the knowledge of what he did not know, that he had only the advantage of being aware of his own ignorance.
The hideous visage of evil is clearly perceptible in our time. Behind it lurks the perpetual conspiracy of ignorance, threatening to overwhelm all noble elements of human culture. At present, the flood of ignorance endangers the very foundations of civilization.
"Evil actions are the result of ignorance."
Ignorance is not merely the lack of knowledge, but self-destructive turning away from truth in all areas of life. Persons develop a taste for ignorance, the predisposition to embrace erroneous beliefs based on presumption or mere authority. The ignorant person believes he knows what he actually doesn't know; he becomes delusional. He is deranged.
We find it difficult to understand how people today deliberately refuse to look at what is actually happening in the world, believing the lies and distortions their leaders tell them. With a straight face, political, economic, religious, and media figures tell the people that black is white, war is peace, lies are truths, joblessness is economic recovery, ignorance is intelligence.
"While in our private life nobody except a mad person would remain passive in view of a threat to our total existence, those who are in charge of public affairs do practically nothing, and those who have entrusted their fate to them let them continue to do nothing.
"How is it possible that the strongest of all instincts, that for survival, seems to have ceased to motivate us? One of the most obvious explanations is that the leaders undertake many actions that make it possible for them to pretend they are doing something effective to avoid a catastrophe: endless conferences, resolutions, disarmament talks, all give the impression that the problems are recognized and something is being done to resolve them. Yet nothing of real importance happens; but both the leaders and the led anesthetize their consciences and their wish for survival by giving the appearance of knowing the road and marching in the right direction."
Erich Fromm. (1976). To Have or To Be?
Throughout history, ignorance has destroyed millions of lives:
- Lives lost in idle pursuit of wealth and pleasure, with no thought for others
- Lives lost in senseless wars
- Lives lost in criminal actions by rulers
- Lives lost because people cannot secure essential human necessities
Clearly, we must gain an understanding of this pandemic of ignorance. What is its nature? From where does it spring? How does it lead to evils of all kinds?
The Nature of Ignorance
The worst feature of ignorance, Plato tells us, is self-satisfaction. "For herein is the evil of ignorance, that he who is neither good nor wise is nevertheless satisfied with himself: he has no desire for that of which he feels no want." (Symposium)
Self-love, Plato recognizes, sees its own ignorance as wisdom; it seeks no cure, "the soul wallowing in the mire of every sort of ignorance and by reason of lust becomes the principal accomplice in her own captivity." (Phaedo) It will not let a more competent person perform what he can. Ignorance can only be overcome by an outside force of true wisdom.
Plato describes ignorance as the "greatest of diseases" and says that "the excessive love of self is in reality the source in each man of all offences; for the lover is blinded about the beloved, so that he judges wrongly of the just, the good, and the honorable, and thinks that he ought always to prefer himself to the truth." (Phaedo)
"The narcissistic orientation is one in which one experiences as real only that which exists within oneself, while the phenomena in the outside world have no reality in themsleves, but are experienced only from the viewpoint of their being useful or dangerous to one. The opposite pole to narcissism is objectivity; it is the faculty to see people and things as they are, objectively, and to be able to separate this objective picture from a picture which is formed by one's desires and fears."
Erich Fromm. The Art of Loving
Ignorance of the true value of things and people leads us to deal only with our illusions of these elements, not what they really are. We chase false values, wasting our lives, experiencing misfortunes brought on by incorrect thinking and behavior.
Plato distinguished clearly between "simple ignorance," the mere lack of information, and "double ignorance," the absence of knowledge coupled with the delusion of having genuine knowledge.
"Ignorance may be conveniently divided by the legislator into two sorts: there is simple ignorance, which is the source of lighter offences, and double ignorance, which is accompanied by a conceit of wisdom; and he who is under the influence of the latter fancies that he knows all about matters of which he knows nothing."
The doubly ignorant person believes not only that he knows everything but that he can do everything. His ignorance keeps the truth from others and his incompetent assumption of authority keeps out those truly qualified to lead. Throughout human history--including the present time--humankind has experienced the horror of rulers who are doubly-ignorant, destroying the very foundation principles of civilized society.
"And surely struggle against him we must in every possible way who would annihilate knowledge and reason and mind, and yet ventures to speak confidently about anything."
Through reliance on the preachments of others and on our own unfounded opinions, we construct a delusory physical and social world. Plato claimed that our customary consciousness constructs a confusing chimera--a world of illusion.
"What again shall we say of the actual acquisition of knowledge?--is the body, if invited to share in the inquiry, a hinderer or a helper? I mean to say, have sight and hearing any truth in them? Are they not, as the poets are always telling us, inaccurate witnesses? and yet, if even they are inaccurate and indistinct, what is to be said of the other senses?--for you will allow that they are the best of them?
"For in attempting to consider anything in company with the body she is obviously deceived."
It's difficult to understand just what Plato is getting at when he says our senses deceive us, creating a delusory world. Clearly, the ordinary universe of cabbages and kings and non-flying pigs is a coherent system to which we all consent, allowing us to build better bombs as well as more effective means of self-transformation.
Part of what Plato is referring to is that if we are to break through to a higher understanding, we must somehow stop this "big blooming buzzing confusion" (as William James called it) and leap to an entirely discontinuous mode of experience.
What Plato is speaking of is the dogmatic certainty we all share that our interpretation of reality is the only interpretation. We become so inured to consensus reality, that we're unable to discern its fabricated nature: a world put together by our minds out of sense impressions.
Plato points to the same element that appeared in the teachings of don Juan, in which Carlos Casteneda was forced to learn a new description of the world in a total sense and pit it against the old description, breaking the bewitchment of his ordinary sense of reality.
Employing extraordinary procedures when he interacted with people, Socrates stopped their world:
- Encouraging them to see (comprehend and acknowledge) their ignorance of their own ignorance
- Encouraging them to see the delusory nature of their sense world
"As to my being a torpedo fish, if the torpedo fish stops his world as well as is the cause of stopping the world of others, then indeed I am a torpedo fish in your simile, but not otherwise; for I perplex others, not because I am clear, but because I am utterly perplexed myself."
Socrates quite honestly believed that he was ignorant, because he was seeking not just knowledge but wisdom: the art of discovering what things really are, what are their true relationships, their true value, and living in harmony with this wisdom.
In the infinite realm of wisdom, it would be preposterous to think that one had ever reached the limit. A true seeker of wisdom reminds himself constantly that at an earlier stage he had assumed that he knew things of which he was actually ignorant. Also, he had assumed that he had reached the limit of what he could understand. He can expect a repetition of those experiences throughout his life. Each person, at whatever level of understanding he may be, must vanquish his own ignorance as he ascends the pathway to wisdom.
"I imagine that a few hundred years hence people will also discover in the intellectual ideas which we shall have left behind us much that is contradictory, and they will wonder how we put up with it. They will find much hard and dry husk in what we took for kernel; they will be unable to understand how we could be so short-sighted, or have failed to get a sound grasp of what was essential and separate it from the rest. Some day the knife will be applied and pieces will be cut away where as yet we do not feel the slightest inclination to distinguish. Let us hope that we may then find fair judges, who will measure our ideas, not by what we have unwittingly taken over from tradition and are neither able nor called upon to correct, but by what was born of our very own, by the changes and improvements which we have effected in what was handed down to us or was commonly prevalent in our day."
Adolf Harnack, What Is Christianity?
Achieving a glimpse of wisdom reveals how much more ignorance one has to overcome, how much more there is to understand and practice. Socrates could honestly say of himself that the range of his ignorance grew in proportion to the extent of his awareness.
Socrates produced a definite psychic upheaval in his fellow-conversationalists by helping them to see that they not only did not know what they thought they knew, they also were ignorant of their own ignorance in this regard.
A Perennialist sage met a ruler. The ruler said: "If you wish, you may ask a favor of me."
The sage replied: "I cannot seek favors from a slave of my slaves."
"How is that?" asked the ruler.
The sage replied: "I have two slaves who are your masters: greed and self-love."
To immature people, helping them to become aware of their own ignorance doesn't seem to be help, but ridicule. Such assistance in recognizing their incorrect appraisal of themselves and the world seems to them a repudiation of their very selves and consequently terrible and unjustified.
Because contemporary "philosophy" is merely the husk of what it once was with Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato, we find it difficult to realize that for Plato the search for wisdom was no mere intellectual pursuit but a total way of life. Each of Plato's dialogues was a part of his teaching in regard to the pursuit of wisdom; the Republic, for example, was the investigation into what was the best way for humans and nations to order their lives, and how the philosopher tries to bring about that state of affairs.
"It may not be uninteresting to observe that the validity of this Platonic theory on the essence of philosophy is in a way borne out even by experience. For if there is, as there is in fact, something like a brotherhood of true philosophers who, for all their disagreements with regard to particular questions, nevertheless feel drawn together as partakers in one and the same spiritual adventure, does this not indicate that the deepest thing in philosophy is not the conclusions that we may arrive at, but rather the very resolution to lead a philosophical life, i.e. the decision not to accept without examination any traditional beliefs and customs, but to try throughout to give an account before the tribunal of our moral and intellectual conscience for every step we may decide to take during our pilgrimage through this life?"
Hermann Gauss, Plato's Conception of Philosophy, 1974
Genuine seekers of wisdom possess a deep, sincere love of truth, relentlessly striving for it. This dedication to truth means that they do not accept any conventional belief or custom without examining it and determining if it has some form of verification or value.
They do not presume to have apprehended fully-formed, final truth, but are always "reaching forth unto those things which are before." Along with the love of truth, a true philosopher such as Socrates wages an unending struggle against error and ignorance wherever it's found.
Plato recognizes that there are some kinds of humans who have no interest in the search for wisdom:
- Those who have already achieved wisdom, "whether Gods or men"
- Those "who are ignorant to the extent of being evil"
Those who have need of philosophy are "those who have the misfortune to be ignorant, but are not yet hardened in their ignorance, or void of understanding, and do not as yet fancy that they know what they do not know." (Lysis)
The doubly-ignorant person not only views things in a distorted way but possesses no capacity for self-correction; no truth can get through the delusory mind-set. Delusion feeds on itself and becomes a totally closed system of egomania.
"But by far the worst feature of this 'double ignorance' is that, on the one hand, it stands in the way of its own cure, and on the other, if unchecked, it is constantly aggravating itself. For if we look at things with a distorted view, these things will present themselves to us in a distorted manner too; and thus, instead of reaping from our experiences new impressions which might help us in restoring a healthy spirit within ourselves, we shall only add nourishment to the ulcer within our mind. And on the other side, if we should try to cure our ignorance, we see that for so doing it is required that we look away from ourselves and from our habitual ways of thinking, which seems to us tantamount to a flat repudiation of our very selves and consequently impossible."
Hermann Gauss, Plato's Conception of Philosophy, 1974
Overcoming the Fatal Malady of Ignorance
Ignorance leads to death; the ignorant become like dead persons. This is no mere metaphor, as you discover by carefully observing persons who have committed themselves to ignorance and falsehood. They stumble through their phantom lives, their speech and behavior are incoherent and emotionally flattened. Embracing ignorance kills that element in humans which motivates them to turn to the truth and take pleasure in knowledge and learning.
"Knowledge is the life of the heart, which delivers it from the death of ignorance." Thaqafi
The wise teacher is able to bring the ignorant back from the dead by showing them their fatal maladies which led them to embrace falsehood and deliberately turn away from truth. The teacher encourages persons overcome by ignorance to begin to investigate their fatal disorders and overcome them.
The very act of acknowledging their ignorance is the beginning of the recovery of a true life, recognizing that ignorance is a form of death. The teacher shows them how exciting and rewarding the discovery of truth can be and how enabling knowledge is. Only when these persons begin to recover are they able to appreciate how ill they were.
"Give me more of this medicine because it has cured my malady, and my hope and desire to answer my problem is now intensified. And save me by your kindly treatment and your gentle wisdom from the confusion which you know so well to be hidden in my secret soul, from those deadly disorders concealed within me. In the past up till now there was concealed from me those hidden things within me which I denied. You have revealed them to me by your excellent description of them. . . .
"And with the limited knowledge at my disposal I realize how very much more there is to be known which I have not attained. There are recondite and hidden mysteries which I have neither seen nor known. So, O wise man, reveal to me my present spiritual state which you know better than I do. For surely the physician knows more about the ailment of the sick man than the sick man himself, and is in a better position to diagnose the cause of the illness and prescribe the treatment to cure him."
It is only if we understand ignorance in this light that we can feel its deadly force. Ignorance is not some harmless lack of the opportunity to gain information. It is, as Plato says, a fundamental corruption in which "all evils are rooted." In today's world, as has happened throughout man's past, we have the misfortune to see our culture being steadily destroyed by persons who are not only ignorant but whose ignorance has steadily corrupted them to the point of evil.
"The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men."
The perfidious, destructive nature of ignorance is such that the beginning of a cure can only be administered through a very powerful psychic shock: the stopping of one's world.
This can sometimes come about, as with Socrates, through dialectic, when the person is confronted with his own delusions. He is made to see that what he believes he knows he does not actually know; that what he believes are truths are in fact delusions. This can sometimes produce sufficient psychic upheaval that it will stop his usual world of self-justification and presumptuousness.
Certainly, this kind of psychic shock from Socrates appears to have been what turned Plato's life upside down, leading him from a public life as an artist and a politician to a dedicated philosopher (seeker of wisdom). Socrates' single act of stopping Plato's world--providing him with the requisite psychic upheaval--is one of the most important accomplishments of this esteemed Perennialist teacher.
In the very process of searching for wisdom--the Golden Way of philosophy--seekers vanquish ignorance, learning how to respond to the challenges of their lives. The shock of recognizing their own ignorance awakens them to an awareness of the deeper realities of human existence.
But very often the only psychic shock that produces a stopping of the delusory world is catastrophe or crisis. As Benjamin Franklin reminded us, "Experience is a dear teacher, and only fools will learn from no other."
A striking example of people being shaken out of ignorance by catastrophe is the story of four wives of 9/11 victims: Kristen Breitweiser, Patty Casazza, Mindy Kleinberg and Lorie van Auken. Recognizing they knew virtually nothing about how their government worked--Lorie says, "I must have slept through that civics class"--they informed themselves and became, for a short time, a formidable force for an investigation of the 9/11 tragedy.
"For the last 20 months they have clipped and Googled, rallied and lobbied, charmed and intimidated top officials all the way to the White House. In the process, they have made themselves arguably the most effective force in dancing around the obstacle course by which the administration continues to block a transparent investigation of what went wrong with the country's defenses on Sept. 11 and what we should be doing about it. They have no political clout, no money, no powerful husbands--no husbands at all since Sept. 11--and they are up against a White House, an Attorney General, a Defense Secretary, a National Security Advisor and an F.B.I. director who have worked out an ingenious bait-and-switch game to thwart their efforts and those of any investigative body."
Gail Sheehy, "Four 9/11 Moms Battle Bush," New York Observer, November 2, 2003
In the case of these four brave women, catastrophe aroused them from some of their ignorance. Unfortunately, their awakening did not extend far enough, and they have now allowed themselves to be completely taken in by a fake investigation into the 9/11 tragedy.
We can only hope that America will shake itself from its present stupor and stop the destruction of Constitutional liberties that is now running rampant. It may be that Americans will only wake up 1 when the devastation of our nation and our world is 2 so far advanced that it can no longer be ignored and thinking persons will join together to replace the present totalitarian dictatorship with cooperative commonwealth communities.
"Thus truth progresses openly in spite of scepticism, when her advocates bear witness together, and over the mists of error and false interests establish her domain."
Mary A. Atwood, Hermetic Philosophy and Alchemy, 1850
1 This is one of the major themes of the author's recently published book, America, Awake!
2 See the essay, "Contemporary America Is Nazi Germany"