The pursuit of ignorance

The desire to leap to a conclusion, on the basis of some passing observation, which may not even be accurate, appears to be shared by all human beings. It is shared, too, with other members of that Animal Kingdom, of which we are the indisputable Monarch. It can be seen most clearly in the behaviour of the more intelligent birds & beasts, who obviously draw inferences, or draw obvious inferences, from what they can sense. For instance, smoke means fire means get out of there. For instance, food source lying undefended, get it while you can. For instance, tiny impossible-looking gap but I can fly through it without adjusting my cruising speed, for I am a swallow & swallows can just do that.

The art of hunting, before the invention of firearms & other dirty game-changing tricks, consisted mostly of the art of entrapment. As clever humans, we could outwit the lesser animals, & con them into taking our bait. They could infer step one; we could contrive step two.

In politics, the clever human uses similar tactics, at a slightly more sophisticated level — rhetorical “bait & switch” — to sucker voters into supporting schemes that could not possibly be in their own best interests; & thereby obtain the “food” of power.

Yet it is not power that corrupts, contra Lord Acton. The humans are corrupt to start with, & power is one of the things we want. The desire for it is not equally distributed, as nothing seems to be equally distributed in our kind. Some seem born almost indifferent to power; others think of little else, no matter what the environment or their circumstances. At an entry level, such as office politics, we may observe power hunger in action: persons of mediocre intelligence & skill nevertheless getting ahead by doing things others might think of, but would be too shy to try. Or in rare cases, too decent to consider.

The higher levels simply develop from the lower. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, were not corrupted by power. Not even slightly. They were what they were from the start. Power introduces temptations not available on the humbler scales of human activity, which is a good reason for preventing our corrupt fellow humans from getting too much of it. It may go to the head of a person who has never had much power before, but then, it is going to the head of a person who had that kind of head, & never made the effort to get it cured.

Similarly, it is not money that corrupts, per se. Observe the behaviour of the winners of lotteries, who are often, if not usually, destroyed by their sudden prizes. Money gave them the ability to buy what they always wanted. The problem was with what they always wanted.

The attribution of catastrophe to some inanimate “corrupting agency,” such as power or money, like the attribution of a stubbed toe to the malice of a bedpost, is itself an example of the point from which I began. We, even learned & thoughtful types like Lord Acton, are too easily satisfied by the proximate cause. And having taken that bait, we proceed ever more gravely through easily posited levels of abstraction to the worship of our various false gods. In Acton’s case, as for many other old-fashioned liberals, that god was Liberty. It blinded him even to the distinction between “power” & “authority.” He found himself explaining — brilliantly, but to my mind essentially falsely — all historical process in terms of the struggle for, & advance of, Liberty. (Thank God he was Catholic, or nothing would have restrained him.)

Not that such an account of history yields entirely useless results. Any light shined from an oblique angle may uncover truths invisible from other angles; & Karl Marx, too, found a few things out that weren’t entirely untrue, from his scopic device of dialectical materialism, & his obsession with class warfare. Even Darwin made a few serviceable observations, & not even Freud struck out.

There is a use for heretics, in the larger economy of salvation, perhaps. Still, we should beware the man of one idea, & be the more on our guard against what presents itself as pursuit of knowledge, but is a flight in the opposite direction. And always (to be Catholic again) one should start by turning one’s suspicion on oneself, & removing the timber from one’s own eye, before addressing one’s neighbour’s opacificities. (Christ didn’t say don’t do it; He said try it on yourself first. “Judge not that ye be not judged,” applies on another plain of Damnation.)

This takes us to the matter of wisdom. It involves (as my hero Aristotle knew) that “mysterious” quality of common sense: of seeing things in the round; of observing the tendency of facts “in the main” & not in partial selection; of avoiding dependency on the single filter. We must keep returning to our topic from new angles, & building from them a comprehensive view.

It is no accident that, as they grow older, & until they lose their wits, the sane become more “conservative” in this way; in the sense of, less apt to jump to conclusions. Pain is the great teacher in this respect; or more broadly, pain & failure. And the exception proves the rule: for those who have found success by chance, without meeting obstacles sufficient to “humiliate” them, tend almost invariably to be stupid jerks.


A member of the Commentariat has instructed us, up here in the High Doganate, to think faster about what should be done, since the present generation of politicians are multiplying our problems quickly, & enlarging them, past the possibility of retrieval. Yet all our Departments report back the same: that speed will only encourage them to Error.

I am reminded of a big fat irascible American who once worked with me in Asia, on the descending arc from an earlier career in advanced physics. Let us call him “Harold” for that was his name; a good man, with a lively sense of his own corruption, when he wasn’t indulging it. Like most people, he had a few prejudices, & one of them was against “Brits” — a category into which he would subtly insinuate me, by parody of my rather fluffy accent.

He had once worked with “the little snobs” on the Manhattan Project. And what he disliked most about them, he confessed, was their basically unAmerican patience. While the Americans were all queueing to use the latest super-advanced computer (the ENIAC, a room-filling device with the computational ability of a latter-day desk calculator), these Brits persisted in doing all their calculations by hand. It was time-consuming work to program the computer to find a result that could then be delivered at electronic speed; but laziness was not the Brits’ motive. At least one of them was familiar with the even more advanced British Colossus computer, which had been used to break German codes. They could generally understand the use of computers.

But no, the little snobs did things by hand so they could “get the feel of the problem,” & detect critical points where an assumption might be wrong. Harold said, by the time he left the project, the very sight of them would fill him with disgust, & the sound of their “nasal rat-like voices” gave him migraines.

I loved Harold, for he was an honest man — larger than life & twice as crass. Time & again, he added, these insufferable be-tweeded Oxonian creatures “saved the bacon” of their American colleagues. They kept finding overlooked flaws. And in the end, he thought Truman would never have had something impressive to drop on Hiroshima, had the Brits not been there slowing things down.

Not that H-bombs or A-bombs or any other letter-bombs are, necessarily, a good thing. Gentle reader knows what I think of Progress. So I would not have him jump to that conclusion; nor to the opposite, more intuitive one, that nuclear weapons are the work of the devil. We use them, up here in the High Doganate, only to illustrate a point.