History and Faith
by Richard D. Poll
Of Ignorance and Action
I take as my text two quotations that I have used in at least a hundred college courses. One is a call for action. The other is a word of caution about how—and how not—to respond to that call.
The first comes from Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” I believe that many people place too much responsibility for the human predicament upon the evil designs of cunning and crafty men and women. I suggest that they are abetted in their designs by good people who do not know how to express the goodness they feel within themselves. So they do nothing.
If we resolve to act against the evil in this world, then the second quotation—from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—becomes relevant: “There is nothing so terrible as ignorance in action.” I suspect that the human predicament is as much a product of ignorance about the nature and goals of life, or stupidity in pursuing them, as it is of cunning, conspiratorial craftiness. And I further suggest that good people are as much responsible for this ignorance and stupidity as the bad guys. It is conventional for righteous people to feel that they are at a disadvantage in most “worldly” contexts because the bad are cleverer than they. This may or may not be true, but it is no excuse for contributing to the kinds of action against which Goethe warned.
How may we as Latter-day Saints effectively implement our concern for a better world, using the intellectual and spiritual resources that all have? My hope—and conviction—is that we can accept Burke’s challenge while avoiding Goethe’s pitfall.
[p.54] To expand upon this challenge, I refer to a familiar Persian proverb about ignorance: “He who knows not and knows not that he knows not is a fool; shun him. He who knows not and knows that he knows not is a child; teach him. He who knows and knows not that he knows is asleep; wake him. He who knows and knows that he knows is wise; follow him.” I wish to comment briefly on these four combinations of ignorance and knowledge, then add and comment on a fifth type.
As for the person who “knows not and knows not that he knows not,” he represents the apathetic masses in most of human history. He made many wise men of the past fearful about democracy; because uninformed people, if somehow provoked to action, often produce Goethe’s consequences. The followers in a mob usually come from the ranks of such foolish ones. They know not and know not that they know not until someone proposes a line of action which is intriguing and uncomplicated, which rolls well off the tongue or fits dramatically on a placard or banner.
Another “knows not and knows not that he knows not” manifestation is the sophomore syndrome, in which the possession of vast knowledge is assumed. We have, I trust, passed through that phase, but we should be on guard lest the syndrome reassert itself in later life. The key, of course, is knowing the limits of our knowledge, because all of us “know not” in some areas, and if we “know not that we know not,” we may make the mistake of tackling enterprises which had better be left to those with superior skills or information. We ought, as educated people, to know when we need to call in a mechanic, a doctor, a psychiatrist, or a public administrator rather than to seek a solution through intuition or illusions of competency.
The second type in the proverb, who “knows not and knows that he knows not,” is the individual with quickening awareness of intellectual possibilities—like Adam or Eve in the Garden of Eden. Formal education has carried us, I hope, beyond the point where we are plastic intellectual material to be molded or written upon. As we face oral or written job-related examinations or questions from teenagers, however, we will find ourselves again in the predicament of knowing that we know not. Good will and steadfastness in seeking knowledge, and modesty in asserting only that knowledge which we truly possess, will help us to deal with the problem of ignorance in ourselves and others.
[p.55] As for the type who “knows but knows not that he knows,” this is a rare phenomenon. So I shall pass it with the observation that those who speak humbly of their knowledge may, in fact, be genuinely modest. On the other hand, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, “They may have a good deal about which to be modest.” Humility becomes us all in proper measure.
I turn now to the person who “knows and knows that he knows.” He also is rare, but he is a pearl of great price, and the challenge to each of us is to qualify in his own sphere to be such a pearl. One problem is to develop the capacity to recognize those who have effective knowledge in the areas of our weakness, so that we can follow their leadership. An even more formidable responsibility is to recognize when we possess sufficient knowledge so that we are entitled—and obligated—to move out in front and offer leadership for others.
How can we recognize the person with sufficient knowledge to lead? Academic pedigrees are possible clues, but anyone who has been through four years of college should know that you cannot rely on them 100 percent. Practical experience is sometimes a clue; a person who has been involved in the action is likely to have more insight than someone who has viewed from afar. But some people have been trapped in such a rut that their perspective is limited. Office holding, particularly offices of prominence, may entitle persons for respect as possessors of the knowledge which deserves followers, but there are many exceptions. Latter-day Saints have some comfort in the fact that the prophetic office, through which much vital knowledge is transmitted, almost always offers dependable leadership. After all, God knows and knows that he knows; in his counsel we can confidently direct our steps.
As a general response to the Persian proverb, I conclude that we avoid the pitfalls of ignorance by learning for ourselves and by learning how to identify those upon whose knowledge and experience we can rely.
I turn now to another category of ignorance which is, I think, formidable in our world today. Paralleling the proverb, I will characterize it in this language: “He who knows not but knows that he knows is a fanatic; resist him.”
The professed knowledge of zealots, crusaders, and leaders of mobs has produced much mischief. Among the murderers of Jesus [p.56] Christ, I suggest that those who stood in the crowd shouting, “Crucify him, crucify him,” were mostly people who “knew not and knew not that they knew not.” It is possible that their leaders “knew and knew that they knew,” yet denied their witness of Jesus. But I suspect that they knew not, but were confident that “they knew that they knew” who Jesus was—a heretic and revolutionary who deserved to die.
Two definitions of the term “fanatic” come to mind: “A fanatic is a person who redoubles his efforts after he has lost sight of his goal.” Also, “a fanatic is a person who is doing what God would do if God had all the facts.”
Of such people another wit once remarked, “It isn’t what people don’t know that makes the trouble; it’s what people know that ain’t so.”
Professors and promoters of false knowledge are to be found at both ends of any ideological spectrum—in politics, economics, sociology, family-rearing, religion. Push far enough in the direction of commitment to almost any cause and one will find those whose unexpressed slogan is, “My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with the facts.” Communist and other radical leftist organizations, at one end of the line, are convinced that the American establishment has nothing of salvage value in it, not uncommonly because of unhappy personal experiences or a visceral response to the abundant evil in the world. White supremacists and professional anti-Communists are comparable in temper and often in motivation; they vent their own frustrations on the society whose directions of evolution pose threats to their security and self-image. These are manifestations of ignorance to which, I think, Goethe’s statement particularly applies.
There are at least three types of “know not but know that they know” people, or three directions through which people move toward this unhappy and unserviceable condition.
First are the people who are knowledgeable in one area, but who project themselves as authority figures into other areas where their competence is not comparable. Examples are engineers and doctors who know all about Keynes and public finance; child rearing specialists who become experts on national defense; generals who, because they are specialists on “hot” wars, think that they are experts on “cold” wars. Certainly a word of caution is in order against the person who [p.57] has earned and is entitled to respect in his field but who seeks status and aspires to leadership a long way from his knowledge base.
Second are the people with myopic preoccupations with one area of knowledge, like the blind man who intensively studies the ear of the elephant and offers himself as an authority on elephants. Here are people who produce elaborately footnoted documents to support propositions they knew were true before they began collecting the footnotes from sources which share their predispositions. You can find their hallmarks in the authorized commentaries on the teachings of Chairman Mao and Comrade Lenin, and in books such as None Dare Call It Treason and The Naked Communist.
A special problem for Latter-day Saints stems, I think, from our confidence that our religion embraces all truth. It leads—or can lead—us to approach all knowledge from a narrow, parochial perspective. I wonder about the confidence with which some of us make sweeping generalizations about what the Catholics believe or what the “religions of the world” believe on the basis of having read nothing more than Mormon publications. Let me make this suggestion about expanding one’s knowledge: If everything we read agrees with us, we should enlarge the scope of our reading.
There is a third manifestation of the “knows not-knows-knows” phenomenon, illustrated by an episode that occurred among my colleagues several years ago. We sometimes write memoranda to each other, and if our differences are pronounced, the memos may become at first voluminous and then terse. This particular exchange about a contemporary political question came abruptly to an end when one of the correspondents wrote as his last sentence, “God is my authority, who’s yours?”
Because revealed truth is the knowledge upon which Latter-day Saints most confidently rely, and upon which we have a moral obligation to act, it becomes important that our natural yearning for security, for answers, for solutions, does not lead us to project the revelations of God into contexts where they may not apply. Without laboring the point, I suggest that we should all make prayerful private judgment of any dogmatic assertion that “God is my authority” on any question or problem not clearly, categorically, and consistently covered by prophetic teaching.
Assuming that we have resolved with Burke to go into action and with Goethe to avoid the pitfalls of ignorant action, let us take [p.58] counsel from two passages of scripture. The first is from Doctrine and Covenants 88:118: “Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom. Seek knowledge by study and also by faith.” The second is also from the Doctrine and Covenants. Everyone has responsibilities for action in home, family, church, and vocation which they must not shirk. But as we move daily into a wide and perplexing world—where the challenges are greatest and, in many respects, the knowledge is least secure—let us face it in the spirit of Doctrine and Covenants 58:26-27: “For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; therefore he receiveth no reward. Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; for the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they will in no wise lose their reward.”[p.59]