Definitions, Distinctions and Ignorance

There is a huge difference between words like truth, belief, faith, hope and trust. The definitions of these words matter because distinctions matter. However, we can only make distinctions when we recover the definitions of terms and we acknowledge and embrace our humility by admitting there are a lot of things that we do not know. Wendell Berry’s The Way of Ignorance is a beautiful reminder of these truths.

“Arrogance cannot be cured by greater arrogance, or ignorance by greater ignorance. To counter the ignorant use of knowledge and power we have, I am afraid, only a proper humility, and this is laughable. But it is only partly laughable. In his political pastoral “Build Soil,” as if responding to Yeats, Robert Frost has one of his rustics say,

I bid you to a one-man revolution—
The only revolution that is coming.

If we find the consequences of our arrogant ignorance to be humbling, and we are humbled, then we have at hand the first fact of hope: We can change ourselves. We, each of us severally, can remove our minds from the corporate ignorance and arrogance that is leading the world to destruction; we can honestly confront our ignorance and our need; we can take guidance from the knowledge we most authentically possess, from experience, from tradition, and from the inward promptings of affection, conscience, decency, compassion, even inspiration.

This change can be called by several names—change of heart, rebirth, metanoia, enlightenment—and it belongs, I think, to all the religions, but I like the practical way it is defined in the Confucian Great Digest. This is from Ezra Pound’s translation:

The men of old wanting to clarify and diffuse throughout the empire that light which comes from looking straight into the heart and then acting, first set up good government in their own states; wanting good government in their states, they first established order in their own families; wanting order in the home, they first disciplined themselves; desiring self-discipline, they rectified their own hearts; and wanting to rectify their hearts, they sought precise verbal definitions of their inarticulate thoughts [the tones given off by the heart]; wishing to attain precise verbal definitions, they set to extend their knowledge to the utmost.

This curriculum does not rule out science—it does not rule out knowledge of any kind—but it begins with the recognition of ignorance and of need, of being in a bad situation.”

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