Blessed Are the Enlightened Ignorant
Flooded by a deluge of online information, we need to separate the drinking water from the backwash. So to speak. By Eric Scheske.
It was 1991. I had just started working in downtown Detroit. I wasn’t raised in the Detroit area, but I had lived there for two summers. In addition, during my college years in Ann Arbor, I had regularly attended Red Wings hockey games, often taking the Lodge Freeway from I-94 to Joe Louis Arena.
Right before I exited for “The Joe,” a large used bookstore loomed up, John King Books, with a block-letter sign promising over 600,000 books.
In 1991, I finally got the opportunity to spend hours wandering the bookstore’s caverns. On my first trip, I walked away with The Great Books of the Western World, 54 volumes, from Homer to Freud, with Aquinas and Augustine, Darwin and Marx, Dante and Chaucer, and more than 60 others. It was a beautiful set, unmarked, only slightly worn. And only $200.
When I got home, I dived in. I figured I’d have the set read in about five years, if I skipped the science books by Galen, Copernicus and others. Sixteen years later, it’s still a beautiful set, unmarred by hardy reading.
Maybe I should be ashamed at my lack of follow-through, but I’m not. Those 54 volumes are thick. If I had spent the last 16 years reading them, I wouldn’t have had time to read many other great writers I’ve grown to love: Chesterton, Belloc, Pieper, O’Connor, Percy, Balthasar, and Newman, to name just a handful of Catholic ones.
By the time readers reach age 35, most become aware of a painful truth: They’ll never have time to read all the books they want to read. By age 40, I’d become aware of an ADD-like related truth: I’ll never have time to read all the books I’ve started to read.
The army of half-read books in my study has prompted me to think a lot about the problem of information and knowledge. How do we gain knowledge? What information should we seek? How do we know we can trust the information we find?
It’s an acute problem these days, with information hitting us every waking moment — cable TV, satellite radio, mobile feeds on our cellphones, newspapers, magazines and, of course, the Internet’s swarm of Web pages (8 billion pages from more than 100 million websites).
The Internet’s orc-like hordes of websites have helped many people realize a few fundamental truths about knowledge and information that I suspect most people 20 or more years ago didn’t appreciate: You never have all the facts. Whenever you trust a source of information, you are undertaking a leap of faith in the source’s authority. And no authority on factual matters is definitive.
As a younger man, I once wrote, “The redneck substitutes blanket skepticism for wisdom.” Now that I’m getting older, I’m beginning to think the redneck ain’t so dumb after all. In fact, the real wise man understands that he knows very little when contrasted with everything there is to know. I suspect the Internet and its suffocating avalanche of information makes every person a bit wiser in this respect.By the Light of the Blog
You can use this analysis however you want. You might dedicate yourself to finding a handful of websites that are as trustworthy as any. You might quit trying to figure things out altogether and suspend opinion on everything except the most obvious.
As a writer, this analysis helps me better appreciate the great Samuel Johnson’s observation: “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life.”
I also embrace the observation’s corollary: “The only end of reading is to enable the readers better to enjoy life.” If you’re reading and not enjoying it, you’re reading the wrong stuff. If your reading doesn’t increase your joy (through better living and happiness), redirect your eyes to greener pastures.
When it comes to my Internet surfing, I (obviously) have come to enjoy blogs. I don’t care if bloggers don’t have fact checkers. I don’t care that the work is less polished and un-edited. I’m happy they don’t consult the 15th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style. I’m looking for enjoyment, and the blogosphere’s kaleidoscope of personalities amuses me (in a good way) and frequently enlightens me.
Sure, a blogger might get something wrong, but so does Larry King. A blogger’s opinion might be stupid, but so are the opinions of syndicated columnists.
Next to God, we’re all ignorant. The best we can do is, enjoy our ignorance. The mere existence of 50 million blogs helps on both fronts: It highlights our cumulative ignorance and beckons us to enjoy the written word and not take everything so seriously.Thomistic Trance
Toward the end of his life, St. Thomas Aquinas became silent. It was 1273. He had just returned from Mass. He put aside his unfinished Summa Theologiae, right in the middle of his treatment of the sacrament of reconciliation, and stopped writing. His friend Reginald asked him why. St. Thomas simply said, “I can write no more. All that I have hitherto written seems to me nothing but straw.”
Straw? St. Thomas? Even the modern editors of the 54-volume Great Books of the Western World (hardly a gang of Catholic scholars) would disagree about that, devoting two of the set’s fattest volumes to St. Thomas.
What happened to St. Thomas? Nobody knows for sure, but most think he had a mystical experience. The great German philosopher Josef Pieper said it was because Thomas had been “allowed a glimpse into the inexpressible depths of that mystery that is not reached by any human thought or speech.” After that awesome glimpse, Thomas figured there was nothing to say.
But that doesn’t stop the Internet, a contraption that has converted a society of full-time TV watchers into a society of part-time readers and writers, where millions and millions (billions and billions?) of words are spilled every day.
Sometimes I fancy that this overwhelming glut of information and potential knowledge gives us a glimpse of whatever St. Thomas saw: What’s the point of trying to capture all, or even some, of it? I realize it’s ridiculous to compare one’s zombie trance after hours of Internet surfing to St. Thomas’ mystical calm after Mass. Still, I think there’s something there.
We’re all ignorant. Always will be. If the saint who occupies volumes 19 and 20 of The Great Books of the Western World thought he was essentially ignorant, who are we to think higher of ourselves?
But don’t despair. Ignorance is our natural state as limited creatures, but joy is also our natural state.
Enjoy the books, enjoy the bloggers. If the authors and bloggers are doing their jobs right, they’re increasing the sum total of joy in the world.
Who knows? They might take away a little bit of our ignorance, too.
Eric Scheske blogs at
The Daily Eudemon (ericscheske.com/blog).
- August 19-25, 2007