Ignorance in its literal sense simply means absence of knowledge, as in the Latin, legal term ‘ignoramus’ – meaning ‘we do not know’. But ‘ignorance’ also means pig-headedness – albeit I hope with apologies to pigs: crass, uncouth, but also – most important – wilful denial of what ought to be obvious.
The two meanings are quite different. We are all of us ignoramuses in the neutral, legal sense because, quite simply, complete and certain knowledge is beyond us, and always must be. All our nuggets of supposed knowledge are partial: we know, or think we know, only what it has occurred to us to look at – and we are able to look what we choose to look at only with our imperfect senses, and seek to understand only with our imperfect brains. Indeed, as Immanuel Kant pointed out in the eighteenth century, we can never know the world as it really is. Absolute insight is not within the gift of mere mortals. When we do feel certain of anything we can never be certain that our certainty is justified. So ignorance in the ‘neutral’ sense — the state of not knowing – is not itself reprehensible. It is just the way things are. It goes with being human, or indeed with being mortal. We just have to accept our unknowingness, and make the best of it. Wisdom, said Socrates (according to Plato), is knowing that you know nothing. Confucius apparently said roughly the same thing.
Indeed, to deny our innate ignorance and to claim knowledge that we do not have – and, worse, to act upon it! – is to be guilty of hubris, which to the Ancient Greeks was the greatest folly and sin of all; a prime theme of Greek tragedy, exemplified best of all perhaps by King Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone. On the other hand, and in sharpest contrast, wilful denial of what should be undeniable – and, worse, refusal even to consider whatever is inconvenient – is bigotry. Hubris and bigotry both are vile; the twin pillars of unwisdom. But alas they seem largely to define the modern world.