In almost every culture, there is a version of the fable of the wise man atop the mountain, to whom visitors pilgrimage, seeking the meaning of life. Invariably, in response to probing, the wise man offers some riddle or nonsense, or sometimes a joke. “What is the secret to happiness?” the seeker asks the wise man on the mountain top. “First,” he responds, “find someone to blame”.
His light-hearted countenance and humour are a clue to what might be the only appropriate response to the absurdity of life, (“lighten up, that’s what enlightenment is after all” Darryl Anka), but they also belie a greater truth about the nature of existence itself; that it is, after all, a mystery.
Perhaps the figure to most famously embody the wisdom of ignorance is Socrates. When the Oracle at Delphi was asked, “is anyone wiser than Socrates?”, she answered “No one.” Socrates, knowing himself to be most unwise, was perplexed. Determined to prove the Oracle wrong, he travelled the length and breadth of Athens, only to discover that while many were decorated, none were wise. “We do not know — neither the sophists, nor the orators, nor the artists, nor I — what the True, the Good, and the Beautiful are.” And yet, there was one difference between Socrates and his fellow Athenians, Socrates had understood his ignorance, and in this small way, was wiser. From this the famous dictum “ipse se nihil scire id unum sciat”, or “I know that I know nothing” came, and down through the centuries it echoed.
But Socrates is by no means a lone figure in this regard. Einstein famously claimed, “the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know,” as did Beckett lament, “nothing is nameable, nothing can be told”. Even in Corinthians 8:2; “Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought”. Apprehension of ones ignorance has given ever, sweet respite to the sore mind of the seeker.
So why is such an obvious thing so difficult to concede? Perhaps it is an affront to the ego that resists humiliation more than any other thing. Or perhaps the compulsion toward the comfort of absolutisms, which is the dogma of fascism. This is Aryan and that is Jew, he is clean and she is foul, we are saved and they are not. Surety is an invigorating way-station from the chaos of the world, but, according to the Delphic Maxims, corrosive. After “Know Thyself” and “Nothing in Excess”, comes, “Surety Brings Ruin”.
In these days of fading Empires and surging demagogues, Socrates and the Delphic Maxims seem out of reach. Gurus and pontificators speak of mission and solution, not of the wisdom of knowing nothing, or the nonsense-making sage atop the mountain. Writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time”. I reflect on the paradox of genius in ignorance, less of a hold and more of a dance, swaying somewhere gently between Shakespeares’ “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy” and Ecclesiastes, “nothing new under the sun”.