It’s Bliss | History Today - 6 minutes read

Hercules Protects Painting from Ignorance and Envy
Hercules Protects Painting from Ignorance and Envy, Andries Cornelis Lens c.1763. Royal Museum of Arts, Antwerp/Wiki Commons.

Ignorance can have its merits, not least for readers and critics of books. As the 18th-century satirist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg observed, ‘one of the greatest recent inventions of the human mind is the art of judging books without having read them’. Oscar Wilde elaborated on the same idea in his dialogue ‘The Critic as Artist’ in 1891, where he lets one of his characters pronounce that: ‘It must be perfectly easy in half an hour to say whether a book is worth anything or worth nothing. Ten minutes are really sufficient, if one has the instinct for form.’ The French literary scholar Pierre Bayard devoted a whole book to this idea in 2007. In How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Bayard reflected on books you don’t know, books you have skimmed, books you have heard of and books you have forgotten.

The point is that these authors are not cynics but lovers of books; they believe that partial ignorance, paradoxically, can stimulate both understanding and creativity, allowing unburdened readers to treat books as living organisms and to develop their own ideas about them. The absence of knowledge can mean the freedom to know. To cite another example, in business studies, ‘creative ignorance’ is thought to lead to innovation that is unhindered by the inhibitions caused by knowledge. In religion, the fact that God is unknowable has served to intensify the faith of many Christian believers.

Those who praise ignorance have been, since the Enlightenment at least, in the minority. In Ignorance: A Global History, Peter Burke sides with the majority of those who pay only scant attention to ignorance’s delights; he cautions his reader that ‘the negative consequences of ignorance generally outweigh the positive ones’. It is hard to argue with that, but it might, therefore, be telling that Burke does not mention the poetry of another Cambridge scholar, Thomas Gray (1716-71), who coined the phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’. Burke’s new book is complementary to his own previous work on the social history of knowledge: Ignorance is an Enlightenment-style book that sees knowledge as a useful remedy for ignorance. Nonetheless, Burke does not buy into the Whiggish conception that ignorance, as a whole, is on the wane. On the contrary, he shows that there are only shifts in knowledge: in different periods, societies have valued different kinds of knowledge, while the amount of knowledge held by individuals tends to remain roughly the same.

The logic behind the structure of Burke’s book is not immediately obvious, but its rhythm seems to proceed in a crescendo of warnings about the consequences of ignorance. After setting down a typology of ignorance (active versus passive; individual versus collective), Burke begins his thematic survey with religion, where, for many of those who believe, the lack of knowledge about their own faith is surpassed only by their ignorance of other religions. Science, on the other hand, has become so specialised that it is now inaccessible not only to the general public, but even to most scientists. In geography, the Earth has been successively explored, but understanding the environment is for many still the next frontier. During the Vietnam War, the US defeat resulted from a failure in understanding as well as a failure in communication. In business, the future is equally uncertain for both professionals and consumers; but those who possess inside knowledge have often been able to manipulate those without it. Politicians have benefited from professional specialisation, but there are notable examples of leaders lacking wide-ranging knowledge, with Donald Trump suffering ‘from ignorance in its acute form: that of not knowing that he does not know’.

Towards the end of the book, Burke turns away from specific areas of knowledge to examine some of the most catastrophic results of ignorance. Culpable ignorance and a lack of preparation exacerbated the impact of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, although the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 should have been a sufficient warning. The Great Irish Famine of 1845 is an example of ‘imperial ignorance’ made worse by a delayed response from the British government. Covid-19 was politicised before it was medically dealt with. Burke then observes how secrecy and lies have been instruments of statecraft from the early modern period to Trump and Bolsonaro, before turning to futurology and the limits of predictability. Threats to the environment, he argues, can be predicted with more certainty than the behaviour of humans.

As a historian, it is fitting for Burke to end with a chapter on ‘Ignoring the Past’. Historians have been acutely aware of the uncertainty of history (owing to a lack of evidence) and of the prejudices contained in the existing evidence (owing to the bias of writers) since at least the 17th century. Pupils are taught selective snippets. The full dangers of the ignorance of history, however, become apparent when decision-makers fail to learn from the past. The US, for example, repeated many of the mistakes of the British and Russians in Afghanistan.

Almost 60 years ago, Burke wrote an article for this magazine entitled ‘The Great Unmasker’. In it, he described how the Venetian friar Paolo Sarpi uncovered that religion was a cloak for political designs in the case of the papacy’s actions at the Council of Trent (1545-63). What Karl Mannheim termed the ‘unmasking turn of mind’ has been a guiding method for Peter Burke throughout his fruitful career. His latest book is a declaration of love for education which should be read by anyone who is keen to reflect on the relationship between deceptive populism and the absence of knowledge. Paraphrasing the French sociologist Michel Crozier, Burke concludes: ‘Those with power often lack the knowledges they need, while those who possess the knowledges lack power.’

Ignorance: A Global History
Peter Burke
Yale University Press 310pp £20
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Stefan Bauer is a lecturer in History at King’s College London. His The Invention of Papal History (Oxford University Press) is now available in paperback.

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