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The Virtue of Ignorance
Some say that ignorance is bliss, I say ignorance is blessed. I want to argue for ignorance as a virtue. One could probably make an easy case for the virtue of moral ignorance (the Pauline idea that we should be wise toward the good and simple concerning that which is evil) — indeed this ought to be done in order to combat the mindset which proposes that the best evangelists are necessarily those who rode with the Hell’s Angels for a quarter of a century—but I am thinking more precisely of the idea of intellectual ignorance as a virtue.
It should be noted that this is not one more anti-intellectual screed demonizing the role of education. There are plenty of those to be found on the interwebs. They are recognizable enough. Just look for a lot of misspelled words, SENTENCES IN ALL CAPS, and a superabundance of exclamation marks. I am not an advocate of divination, burning bosoms, fleece-flinging, or interpreting chicken entrails. I am an advocate of education, an ambassador for intellectual improvement. I believe that obedience to the First Great Commandment compels it, if for no other reason than for the proper undertaking of the Second Great Commandment. It is this commitment to the life of the mind that gives rise to my appreciation for ignorance as a virtue.
However, this does not imply that all forms of ignorance are virtuous. Every virtue carries with it its own attendant vices. This is no less true with ignorance. The most disconcerting, and I should say vicious, form of ignorance is that specimen which is ignorant of ignorance. It doesn't know and it doesn’t know that it doesn’t know. This affliction is usually accompanied by no small amount of arrogance. It doesn’t know, it doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, but it thinks that it knows virtually all that there is to know.
But this is not the primal state of man. We come into the world ignorant, but the ignorance with which we enter the world is a felicitous unknowing; a happy curiosity that wonders and questions and asks the incessant why at every turn. This is a virtuous ignorance because it does what ignorance is meant to do—it leads to knowledge. That knowledge, when nurtured and cultivated, then leads to wisdom. This ignorance is aware of its limitations. It is, therefore, a humble ignorance. It has not arrogated to itself some type of quasi-omniscience that too soon forgets what it is to be a creature in a vast creation. Virtuous ignorance is not static. It moves from one realm of unknowing to another, more complex, realm of of unknowing. It does this by learning. And at each stage of this educational process the default position is that happy humility that knows that it doesn’t know but longs to know by learning.
The vicious form of ignorance comes about by usurpation; it doesn't want to learn, it only wants to know. Hence, there is a perversion of the proper order of things. This form of ignorance wants to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil before the appointed time. It wants to rule the world before it has tended the garden. It grasps for the ends without the means and comes up empty handed, lacking both.
From time to time this happens with children. They want to skip the elementary education of obedience-unto-maturity in order to leap straight to “making decisions for themselves.” For such cases God has been gracious, fashioning us in such a way that the knowledge that we sought to bypass at the head can be instilled at the seat of our britches. Call it pedagogical osmosis.
In some cases the wrong form of ignorance shows up after eighteen years (and six hours of Greek). This is surely one of the worst forms. It has only enough knowledge to be dangerous. When it sets in at this stage it affects the ears and the mouth disproportionately, closing the former while opening the latter. Whereas virtuous ignorance is characterized by a happy humility, this perversion is characterized by angst and arrogance. A wise teacher will seek to remedy this by stimulating humility. This often occurs by answering a fool according to his folly so that he doesn’t think himself wise in his own conceit. This should also be considered a public service.
Experience doesn’t teach, it only provides opportunities for teaching. Time, left to itself, tutors no one. Education doesn't alleviate ignorance either, but it does concentrate it. A good education points out the holes in one’s knowledge. It shows the gulf between the gaps. A proper ignorance then seeks to build bridges between those gaps.
Virtuous ignorance never loses the sense of wonder because it is always wondering. It recognizes that the sheer volume of things to be known in a universe as vast as ours could never fit behind one’s eyes and between one’s ears. How much more is this the case as we contemplate the mysteries of our Infinite God? A God that cannot be comprehended by space and time certainly cannot be comprehended in space and time. This means that the best of us are always in a state of perpetual ignorance that doesn’t know, then learns, then is blissfully baffled all over again—from glory to glory.