On Ignorance

by Hilaire Belloc

There is not anything that can so suddenly flood the mind with shame as the conviction of ignorance, yet we are all ignorant of nearly everything there is to be known. Is it not wonderful, then, that we should be so sensitive upon the discovery of a fault which must of necessity be common to all, and that in its highest degree? The conviction of ignorance would not shame us thus if it were not for the public appreciation of our failure.

If a man proves us ignorant of German or the complicated order of English titles, or the rules of Bridge, or any other matter, we do not care for his proofs, so that we are alone with him: first because we can easily deny them all, and continue to wallow in our ignorance without fear, and secondly, because we can always counter with something we know, and that he knows nothing of, such as the Creed, or the history of Little Bukleton, or some favourite book. Then, again, if one is alone with one's opponent, it is quite easy to pretend that the subject on which one has shown ignorance is unimportant, peculiar, pedantic, hole in the corner, and this can be brazened out even about Greek or Latin. Or, again, one can turn the laugh against him, saying that he has just been cramming up the matter, and that he is airing his knowledge; or one can begin making jokes about him till he grows angry, and so forth. There is no necessity to be ashamed.

But if there be others present? Ah! Hoc est aliad rem, that is another matter, for then the biting shame of ignorance suddenly displayed conquers and bewilders us. We have no defence left. We are at the mercy of the discoverer, we own and confess, and become insignificant: we slink away.

Note that all this depends upon what the audience conceive ignorance to be. It is very certain that if a man should betray in some cheap club that he did not know how to ride a horse, he would be broken down and lost, and similarly, if you are in a country house among the rich you are shipwrecked unless you can show acquaintance with the Press, and among the poor you must be very careful, not only to wear good cloth and to talk gently as though you owned them, but also to know all about the rich. Among very young men to seem ignorant of vice is the ruin of you, and you had better not have been born than appear doubtful of die effects of strong drink when you are in the company of Patriots. There was a man who died of shame this very year in a village of Savoy because he did not know the name of the King reigning over France to-day, and it is a common thing to see men utterly cast down in the bar-rooms off the Strand because they cannot correctly recite the opening words of "Boys of the Empire." There are schoolgirls who fall ill and pine away because they are shown to have misplaced the name of Dagobert III in the list of Merovingian Monarchs, and quite fearless men will blush if they are found ignoring the family name of some peer. Indeed, there is nothing so contemptible or insignificant but that in some society or other it is required to be known, and that the ignorance of it may not at any moment cover one with confusion. Nevertheless we should not on that account attempt to learn everything there is to know (for that is manifestly impossible), nor even to learn everything that is known, for that would soon prove a tedious and heart-breaking task; we should rather study the means to be employed for warding off those sudden and public convictions of Ignorance which are the ruin of so many.

These methods of defence are very numerous and are for the most part easy of acquirement. The most powerful of them by far (but the most dangerous) is to fly into a passion and marvel how anyone can be such a fool as to pay attention to wretched trifles. "Powerful," because it appeals to that strongest of all passions in men by which they are predisposed to cringe before what they think to be a superior station in society. "Dangerous," because if it fail in its objects this method does not save you from pain, and secures you in addition a bad quarrel, and perhaps a heavy beating. Still it has many votaries, and is more often carried off than any other. Thus, if in Bedfordshire, someone catches you erring on a matter of crops, you profess that in London such things are thought mere rubbish and despised; or again, in the society of professors at the Universities, an ignorance of letters can easily be turned by an allusion to that vapid life of the rich, where letters grow insignificant; so at sea, if you slip on common terms, speak a little of your luxurious occupations on land and you will usually be safe.

There are other and better defences. One of these is to turn the attack by showing great knowledge on a cognate point, or by remembering that the knowledge your opponent boasts has been somewhere contradicted by an authority. Thus, if some day a friend should say, as continually happens in a London club:

"Come, let us hear you decline [Greek: tetummenos on]," you can answer carelessly:

"You know as well as I do that the form is purely Paradigmatic: it is never found."

Or again, if you put the Wrekin by an error into Staffordshire, you can say, "I was thinking of the Jurassic formation which is the basis of the formation of——" etc. Or, "Well, Shrewsbury -•- Staffordshire?.., Oh! I had got my mind mixed up with the graves of the Staffords." Very few people will dispute this, none will follow it. There is indeed this difficulty attached to such a method, that it needs the knowledge of a good many things, and a ready imagination and a stiff face: but it is a good way.

Yet another way is to cover your retreat with buffoonery, pretending to be ignorant of the most ordinary things, so as to seem to have been playing the fool only when you made your first error. There is a special form of this method which has always seemed to me the most excellent by far of all known ways of escape. It is to show a steady and crass ignorance of very nearly everything that can be mentioned, and with all this to keep a steady mouth, a determined eye, and (this is essential) to show by a hundred allusions that you have on your own ground an excellent store of knowledge.

This is the true offensive-defensive in this kind of assault, and therefore the perfection of tactics.

Thus if one should say:

"Well, it was the old story. [Greek: Anankae]."

It might happen to anyone to answer: "I never read the play."

This you will think perhaps an irremediable fall, but it is not, as will appear from this dialogue, in which the method is developed:

Sapiens. But, Good Heavens, it isn't a play!

Ignoramus. Of course not. I know that as well as you, but the character of [Greek: Anankae] dominates the play. You won't deny that?

Sapiens. You don't seem to have much acquaintance with Liddell and Scott.

Ignoramus. I didn't know there was anyone called Liddell in it, but I knew Scott intimately, both before and after he succeeded to the estate.

Sapiens. But I mean the dictionary.

Ignoramus. I'm quite certain that his father wouldn't let him write a dictionary. Why, the library at Bynton hasn't been opened for years.

If, after five minutes of that, Ignoramus cannot get Sapiens floundering about in a world he knows nothing of, it is his own fault.

But if Sapiens is over-tenacious there is a final method which may not be the most perfect, but which I have often tried myself, and usually with very considerable success:

Sapiens. Nonsense, man. The Dictionary. The Greek dictionary.

Ignoramus. What has Ananti to do with Greek?

Sapiens. I said [Greek: Anankae].

Ignoramus. Oh! h——h! you said [Greek: anankae], did you? I thought you said Ananti. Of course, Scott didn't call the play Ananti, but Ananti was the principal character, and one always calls it that in the family. It is very well written. If he hadn't that shyness about publishing ... and so forth.

Lastly, or rather Penultimalely, there is the method of upsetting the plates and dishes, breaking your chair, setting fire to the house, shooting yourself, or otherwise swallowing all the memory of your shame in a great catastrophe.

But that is a method for cowards; the brave man goes out into the hall, comes back with a stick, and says firmly, "You have just deliberately and cruelly exposed my ignorance before this company; I shall, therefore, beat you soundly with this stick in the presence of them all."

This you then do to him or he to you, mutatis mutandis, ceteris paribus; and that is all I have to say on Ignorance.

This wonderful essay, published in 1907, is taken from On Nothing and Kindred Subjects, a volume, as it happens, on nothing and kindred subjects.

On Ignorance - The modern traveller