Richard Dowling.

Ignorant Essays


For a long time I have had it in my mind to write a guide to ignorance. I have been withheld partly by a feeling of diffidence and partly by a want of encouragement from those to whom I mentioned the scheme. I have submitted a plan of my book to a couple of publishers, but each of these assured me that such a work would not be popular. In their straightforward commercial way they told me they could see no money in the idea. I differ from them; I think the book would be greeted with acclaim and bought with avidity.

Novelties are, I know, always dangerous speculations except in the form of clothes, when they are certain of instant and immense adoption. The mind of man cannot conceive the pattern for trousers cloth or the design for a bonnet that will not be worn. There is nothing too high or too low to set the fashion to men and women in dress. Conquerors were crowned with mural wreaths, of which the chimney-pot hat is the lineal descendant; pigs started the notion of wearing rings in their noses, and man in the southern seas followed the example; kangaroos were the earliest pouch-makers and ladies took to carrying reticules.

But an innovation in the domain of education or thought is a widely different thing from a frolic in gear. It is easy to set going any craze which depends merely or mostly on the way of wearing the hair or the height of the cincture. Hence ?stheticism gained many followers in a little time. But remember it took ages and ages to reconcile people to wearing any clothes at all. Once you break the ice the immersion in a new custom may become as rapid as the descent of a round shot into the sea. The great step was, so to speak, from woad to wampum, with just an Atlantic of time between the two. If you went to Poole any day this week and asked him to make you a suit of wampum he would plead no insuperable difficulty. If you asked him to make you a suit of woad he would certainly detain you while he inquired as to your sanity and sent for your friends. Yet it is only one step, one film, from woad to wampum.

Up to this time in the history of man there has, with few exceptions, been an infatuated pursuit of this will-o-the-wisp, knowledge. Why should not man now turn his glance to ignorance, if it were only for a little while and for the sake of fair play? The idea is of course revolutionary, so also is every other new idea revolutionary, and (I am not now referring to politics) it is only from revolutionary ideas we derive what we regard as advantages. The earth and heavens themselves are revolutionary. Why then should we not fairly examine the chance of a revolution in the aim of man?

The disinclination to face new attitudes of thought comes from the inherent laziness of man, and hence at the outset of my career towards that guide I should find nearly the whole race against me. Humboldt, who met people of all climes and races and colours, declares laziness to be the most common vice of human nature.

Hence the initial obstacle is almost insuperable. But it is only almost, not quite insuperable. Men can be stirred from indolence only by a prospect of profit in some form. Even in the Civil Service they are incited to make the effort to continue living by the hope of greater leisure later in life, for with years comes promotion and promotion means less labour.

By a little industry in the pursuit of ignorance greater repose would be attained in the immediate future. It would be very difficult to prove that up to this hour progress has been of the slightest use or pleasure to man. Higher pleasures, higher pains. Complexities of consciousness are merely a source of distraction from centralisation. The jelly fish may, after all, be the highest ideal of living things, and we may, if the phrase be admitted, have been developing backward from him. Of all the creatures on earth man is the most stuck up. He arrogates everything to himself and because he can split a flint or make a bow or gun-barrel he thinks he centres the universe, and insists that the illimitable deeps of space are focused upon him. Astronomers, a highly respectable class of people, assert there are now visible to us one hundred million fixed stars, one hundred million suns like our own. Each may have its system of planets, such as earth, and each planet again its attendant satellites. With that splendid magnanimity characteristic of our race, man would rather pitch the hundred million suns into chaos than for a moment entertain the idea that he is a humbug and of no use whatever. And yet after all the jelly-fish may be a worthier fellow than the best of us.

I do not of course insist on reversion to the jelly-fish. In this climate his habits of life are too suggestive of ague and rheumatism. In fact I do not know that I am urging reversion to anything, even to the flocks of pastoral man. But I am saying that as myriads of facilities are given for acquiring knowledge, one humble means ought to be devised for acquiring ignorance. If I had anywhere met with the encouragement which I think I merited, I should have undertaken to write the book myself.

I should open by saying it was not until I had concluded a long and painful investigation that I considered myself in any way qualified to undertake so grave and important a task as writing a guide to ignorance: that I had not only inquired curiously into my own fitness, but had also looked about carefully among my friends in the hope of finding some one better qualified to carry out this important undertaking. But upon gauging the depth of my own knowledge and considering conscientiously the capacity of my acquaintances, I came to the conclusion that no man I knew personally had so close a personal intimacy with ignorance as myself. There are few branches, I may say no branch, of knowledge except that of ignorance in which any one of my friends was not more learned than myself. I was born in such profound ignorance that I had no personal knowledge of the fact at the time. I had existed for a long time before I could distinguish between myself and things which were not.

As a boy I was averse from study; and since I have grown to manhood I have acquired so little substantive information that I could write down in a bold hand on one page of this book every single fact, outside facts of personal experience, of which I am possessed.

I know that the Norman invasion occurred in 1066, and the Great Fire in 1666. I know that gunpowder is composed of saltpetre, sulphur, and charcoal, and sausages of minced meat and bread under the name of Tommy. I am aware Milton and Shakespeare were poets, and that needle-grinders are short lived. I know that the primest brands of three-shilling champagnes are made in London. I can give the Latin for seven words, and the French for four. I can repeat the multiplication table (with the pence) up to six times. I know the mere names of a number of people and things; but, as far as clear and definite information goes, I dont believe I could double the above brief list. I am, I think, therefore, warranted in concluding that few men can have a more close or exhaustive personal acquaintance with ignorance. If you want learning at secondhand you must go to the learned: if you want ignorance at first hand you cannot possibly do better than come to me.

In the first place let us consider the Injury of Knowledge. How much better off the king would be if he had no knowledge! Suppose his mental ken had never been directed to any period before the dawn of his own memory, he would have no disquieting thoughts of the trouble into which Charles I. or Richard II. drifted. He would be filled with no envy of the good old King John, who, from four or five ounces of iron in the form of thumb-screws, and a few hundredweight of rich Jew, filled up the royal pockets as often as they showed any signs of growing empty. And, above all, he would be spared the misery of committing dates to memory. How it must limit the happiness of a constitutional sovereign to know anything about the constitution! Why should he be burdened with the consciousness of rights and prerogatives? Would he not be much happier if he might smoke his cigar in his garden without the fear of the Speaker or the Lord Chancellor before his eyes? The Commons want their Speaker, the Lords want their Lord Chancellor let them have them. The king wants neither. Why should he be troubled with any knowledge of either? Although he is a king is he not a man and a brother also? Why should he be worried out of his life with reasons for all he does? The king feels he can do no wrong. That ought to be enough for him. Most men believe the same thing of themselves, but few others share the faith. The king can do no wrong, then in mercys name let the man alone. Suppose it is a part of my duty to look out of the oriel window at dawn, noon, and sunset, why should I be bored with cause, reason, and precedent for this? Let me look out of window if it is my duty to do so; but, before and after looking out of the window, let me enjoy my life.

Take the statesman. How knowledge must hamper him! He is absolutely precluded from acting with decision by the consciousness of the difficulties which lay in the path of his predecessors. He has to make up his subject, to get facts and figures from his subordinates and others. He has to arrange the party man?uvres before he launches his scheme, by which time all the energy is gone out of him, and he has not half as much faith in his bill as if he had never looked at the pros and cons. Never mind man?uvring, but go at them, said Nelson. The moment you begin to man?uvre you confess your doubtfulness of success, unless you can take your adversary at a disadvantage; but if you fly headlong at his throat, you terrify him by the display of your confidence and valour.

The words of Nelson apply still more closely to the general. His knowledge that fifty years ago the British army was worsted on this field, unnerves, paralyses him. If he did not know that shells are explosive and bullets deadly, he would make his dispositions with twice the confidence, and his temerity would fill the foe with panic. His simple duty is to defeat the enemy, and knowing anything beyond this only tends to distract his mind and weaken his arm. In the middle of one of his Indian battles, and when he thought the conflict had been decided in favour of British arms, a messenger rode hastily up to the general in command, who was wiping his reeking forehead on his coat-sleeve: A large fresh force of the enemy has appeared in such a place; what is to be done? Gough rubbed his forehead with the other sleeve, and shouted out, Beat em! Obviously no better command could have been given. What the English nation wanted the English army to do with the enemy was to beat em. In the pictures of the Victoria Cross there is one of a young dandy officer with an eyeglass in his eye and a sword in his hand, among the thick of the foe. He knows he is in that place to kill some one. He is quite ignorant of the fact that the enemy is there to kill him, and he is taking his time and looking through his eyeglass to try to find some enticing man through whom to run his sword. One of Wellingtons most fervent prayers was, Oh, spare me my dandy officers! Now dandies are never very full of knowledge, and yet the greatest Duke thought more of them than of your learning-begrimed sappers or your science-bespattered gunners.

If an advocate at the bar knew one quarter of the law of the land, he could never get on. In the first place, he would know more than the judges, and this would prejudice the bench against him. With regard to a barrister, the best position for him to assume, if he is addressing a jury, is, Gentlemen, the indisputable facts of the case, as stated to you by the witnesses, are so-and-so. In presence of so distinguished a lawyer as occupies the bench in this court, I do not feel myself qualified to tell you what the law is; that will be the easy duty of his lordship. Even in Chancery cases, the barrister would best insure success by merely citing the precedent cases, in an off-hand way, Does not your lordship think the case of Burke v. Hare meets the exact conditions of the one under consideration? The indices are all the pleader need look at. The judge will surely strain a point for one who does not bore him with extracts and arguments, but leaves all to himself, and lets the work of the court run smoothly and just as the president wishes.

Knowledge is an absolute hindrance to the doctor of medicine. Supposing he is a man of average intelligence (some doctors are), he is able to diagnose, let me say, fever. You or I could diagnose fever pretty well quick pulse, dry skin, thirst, and so on. But as the doctor leans over the patient, he is paralysed by the complication of his knowledge. Such a theory is against feeding up, such a theory against slops, such a theory against bleeding, such a theory in favour of phlebotomy; there are the wet and the dry, the hot and the cold methods; and while the doctor is deliberating, vacillating, or speculating, the patient has ample opportunity of dying, or nature of stepping in and curing the man, and thus foiling the doctor. Is there not much more sense and candour in the method adopted by the Irish hunting dispensary doctor, who, before starting with the hounds, locked up all drugs, except the Glaubers salts, a stone or two of which he left in charge of his servant, with instructions it was to be meted out impartially to all comers, each patient receiving an honest fistful as a dose? It is a remarkable fact that within this century hom?opathy has gained a firm hold on an important section of the community, and yet, notwithstanding the growth of what the allopathists or regular profession regard as ignorant quackery, the span of human life has had six years added to it in eighty years. Still hom?opathy is a practical confession of ignorance; for it says, in effect, We dont know exactly what Nature is trying to do, but let us give her a little help, and trust in luck. Whereas allopathy pretended to know everything and to fight Nature. Here, in the result of years added to mans life by the development of the ignorant system, we see once more the superiority of ignorance over knowledge.

How full of danger to the unwedded men is knowledge owned by the widow! She has knowledge of the married state, in which she was far removed from all the troubles and responsibilities of life. She had her pin-money, her bills paid, stalls taken for her at the opera, agreeable company around her board, no occasion to face money difficulties. Now all that is changed. There is no elasticity in her revenue, no margin for the gratification of her whims; she has to pay her own bills, secure her own stalls; she cannot very well entertain company often, and all the unpleasantnesses of business matters press her sorely. Her knowledge tells her that, if she could secure a second husband, all would be pleasant again. It may be said that here knowledge is in favour of the widow. Yes; but it is against the Community. Remember, the Community is always a male.

There is hardly any class or member of the community that does not suffer drawback or injury from knowledge. As I am giving only a crude outline of a design, I leave a great deal to the imagination of the reader. He will easily perceive how much happier and more free would be the man of business, the girl, the boy, the scientist, the controversialist, and, above all, the literary man, if each knew little or nothing, instead of having pressed upon the attention from youth accumulated experiences, traditions, discoveries, and reasonings of many centuries.

To the Delights of Ignorance, I should devote the consideration of man devoid of knowledge under various circumstances and in various positions.

By the sea who does not love to lie propt on beds of amaranth and moly, how sweet (while warm airs lull, blowing lowly), with half-dropt eyelids still, beneath a heaven dark and holy, to watch the long bright river drawing slowly his waters from the purple hill to hear the dewy echoes calling from cave to cave through the thick-twined vine to watch the emerald-coloured waters falling through many a woven acanthus wreath divine! Only to see and hear the far-off sparkling brine, only to hear were sweet, stretched out beneath the pine. Just so! Is not that much better than bothering about gravitation and that wretched old clinker the moon, and the tides, and how sea-water is made up of oxygen and hydrogen and chloride of sodium and bromide of something else, and fifty other things, not one of which has a tolerable smell when you meet it in a laboratory? Isnt it better than thinking of the number of lighthouses built on the coast of Albion, and the tonnage which yearly is reported and cleared at the custom-houses of London, Liverpool, and that prosperous seaport of Bohemia! Isnt it much better than improving the occasion by reading a hand-book on hydraulics or hydrostatics? Who on the seashore wants to know anything? There will always, down to the last syllable of recorded time, be finer things unknown about the sea than can be said about all other matters in the world. Trying to know anything about the sea is like shooting into the air an arrow attached to a pennyworth of string with a view to sounding space. If we threw all the knowledge we have into the ocean the Admiralty standards of high-water mark would not have to be altered one-millionth part of a line.

What a blessing ignorance would be in an inn! Who would not dispense with a knowledge of all the miseries that follow in the wake of the vat when one is thirsty, and has before him amber sunset-coloured ale, and in his hand a capacious, long, cool-meaning churchwarden? Who would at such a moment cumber his mind with the unit of specific gravity used by excisemen in testing beer? Who would at such a moment care to calculate the toll exacted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer before each cool gulp may thrill with amazing joy the parched gullet?

Who, when upon a journey, would care to know the precise pressure required to blow the boiler of the engine to pieces, or the number of people killed in collisions during the corresponding quarter of last year? Should we not be better in sickness for not knowing the exact percentage of deaths in cases of our class? In adversity should we not be infinitely happier were we in ignorance of the chance we ran of gaining a good position or of cutting our throats? Should we not enjoy our prosperity all the more if we were not, morning and evening, exercised by the fluctuations of the share-list, fluctuations in all likelihood destined never to increase or diminish our fortunes one penny? And oh, for ignorance in sleep! For sleep without dream, or nightmare, or memory! For sleep such as falls upon the body when the soul is done with it and away!

But all this is only rambling talk and likely to come to nothing. I fear I shall never find a publisher for my great work. Upon reading over what I have written I am impressed by the faintness of the outline it displays of the book. In fact there is hardly any outline at all. It is no more clear than the figures thrown by a magic-lantern upon a fog. I have done nothing more than wave the sacred lamp of ignorance before your eyes. I daresay my friend the jelly-fish would shake his fat sides with laughter if he became aware of this futile effort to show how far we are removed from his state of blissful calm. I feel infinitely depressed and discouraged. I feel that not only will I not be hailed as a prophet in my own country, but that the age will have nothing to do with my scheme. It may be thought by many that there is something like treason in thus enrolling oneself under the banner of the jelly-fish. Egypt, Assyria, Greece, Carthage, and Rome have gone back from knowledge, and even the jelly-fish does not flourish on their sites. But is the condition of their sites the worse for lacking the jelly-fish? Perhaps the silence, and desolation, and dim night are better in those places than the blare of trumpets and the tramp of man. So far as we know man is the only being capable of doing evil or offending heaven. His absence may by nature be considered very good company. Whatever part of earth he can handle and move he has turned topsy-turvy. One day earth will turn on him and wipe him out altogether.

For me and my great scheme for the book there is no hope. Man has always been accounted a poor creature when judged by a fellow man whom he does not appreciate. How can I be expected to go on taking an interest in man when not the most credulous or the most crafty publisher in London will as much as look at my Guide to Ignorance? I feel that my life is wasted and that my functions have been usurped by the School Board. I cool the air with sighs for the days when a philosopher might teach his disciples in the porch or the grove. I feel as if I could anticipate earth and turn on man. But some of the genial good nature of the jelly-fish still lingers in my veins. I will not finally desert man until man has finally deserted me. I had by me a few scattered essays in the style of the book I projected in vain. If in them the reader has not found ample proof of my fitness to inculcate the philosophy of Ignorance I shall abandon Man to his fate. I have relieved my mind of some of its teeming store of vacuity. I can scarcely hope I have added to the readers hoard. But it would be consoling to fancy that upon laying down this book the readers mind will if possible be still more empty than when he took it up.

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