An Honorable Point of Ignorance


To add anything to Mr. Crothers’s invaluable plea for the protection of ignorance would seem to be as unfitting as to attach footnotes to Charles Lamb. I shrink from doing it, but a hardened missionary spirit within me makes me yearn that his message should prevail to the largest possible extent. I fear that too many will look upon his delightful achievements in not knowing too much, long for the same freedom and happiness, and then fall back discouraged again into the old ways, as defenseless against knowledge as poor Robert Elsmere was said to have been against the truth.

Mr. Crothers has lifted up the vision. Our hearts have gone out to it and been lifted up to it, but when we came back to the common life again we hardly knew how to go to work to keep the vision permanent. Of the actual disciplines which are to produce in others his own freedom Mr. Crothers has hardly a word to say. He acts as if it were perfectly easy and perfectly feasible for any one to be ignorant, and as if all one has to do is to let himself go. Not so easily, however, does one escape from the lifelong habit of knowledge. It would have been kinder had he furnished us a few hints as to how to begin. I have begun, and should my experience be of use to others it is freely offered.

I was looking about for some good chance to begin over again, and I found it. It was New Zealand. It was the only subject I could think of which could be taken in time. It was the only one which so far had not intruded on me to the point of making ignorance ever after impossible. Without the least intention I had gotten implicated in the China business before I was aware of it, and it is now too late to withdraw. I cannot shake off what I know of China, — it has gotten a right of way in me, and I am resigned to it. No one knows what I have suffered from the Philippines. Five years ago I should have said that of all things in this world the Philippines were the least likely ever to invade my ignorance, but now I can never hope to shake them off. I shall go through life knowing about the Philippines. I have no use for them, but must act as if I had. Our old religious weekly, which for years had been a faithful protector of ignorance, suddenly capitulated to the enemy and went over. After that we were fortunate to get off with one editorial a week on these distant islands. We now speak of the paper at our house as The Philippine Weekly. Occasionally the editor gives us something of the old sort, but it is manifest that he does not like it. Henceforth my mental background is full of unwelcome bolomen and friars and tariffs. Nothing can be done about it now.

But New Zealand is my providential opportunity, and with gratitude I take it. I am determined not to know anything about New Zealand. New Zealand shall have a fair chance. My mistake hitherto has been in supposing that my ignorance would take care of itself, hence I was always endangering it and risking it here and there too carelessly. Now I know that one must watch it with all diligence as too good a thing to be left to chance. Whenever, therefore, I see anything about New Zealand I say to myself, “ Now is the time to put your professions and aspirations to the test,” and I deliberately turn away. Temptation comes to me in many forms, but I remain resolute. No matter if nearly everybody in our club does know about it, what is that to me? Ignorance ought to cost something. There are weeks in which it seems as if the whole magazine and newspaper world were in a conspiracy to make New Zealand gain a footing in my soul. At such times I fight it off hour by hour, as the mariner does the storm, and when after a day of it a fine glow suffuses my soul, as I go down to join the family at dinner, they wonder what has happened to me. But, alas, it would be useless to tell them, for such things are best confessed only to “ the great congregation.” I could never get any of my family to believe that it cost me anything to remain ignorant. They suspect nothing of what I suffer.

Once or twice I have recklessly imperiled all. In a moment of wool-gathering one evening I had allowed a friend of sociological tendencies to get going without noticing what he was about. I was trimming the wick at the time, and when I sat down I found him launched out into a full course of the wonders of New Zealand. I shut my inward ears and professed to be bored, when in reality I was frightened. Finally, I said that I was not interested in New Zealand. A sociological friend needs no more than this to set him going. “ What,” said he, " are n’t you interested in the finest specimen of economic freedom and courage in the world ? ” “Not a bit,” I replied. Then, scornfully, “What are you interested in, may I ask ? ” That particular day I had been dwelling with profound delight upon Charles Lamb’s aunt at Calne, whom he had never seen engaged in any more arduous occupation than dropping large beans into a fair basin of cool water, and I confessed it. When he recovered his speech he asked if it was not true, as he had heard, that I once had an uncle living in Australia. This was true, but I cut off this method of approach by telling him of a native in the backwoods of Connecticut who, on hearing that I came from Bangor, said he thought we ought to get on finely together as he was well acquainted up in those parts, having a daughter living in Fitchburg, and five or six sisters buried in Prince Edward Island.

On another occasion I nearly succumbed to temptation through my innate love of what Dean Stanley called an ecclesiastical curiosity. It was just a line in some paper, which began by stating that in New Zealand there was a movement toward the union of Presbyterians and Congregationalists. There I stopped and painfully examined my resolutions. Had the tempter caught me at last ? If it had been a scientific announcement that at last some way had been discovered of blending oil and vinegar, it would have left me without surprise, because I was accustomed to the thought that in nature almost anything was possible : but when it was a case of two kinds of ecclesiastical oil being coaxed into unity, I confess it was a great temptation to go on and know more no matter what happened. But I turned toward another page, and to this day remain guiltless of any knowledge as to the reunion of our brothers in Australia.

What Mr. Crothers speaks of so gently and winningly is heroic business down at the bottom. It demands ways and means coolly planned and relentlessly carried out. I thought to drift pleasantly into it, but found that for me the only way to it was strenuously to let New Zealand remain new. It is only a beginning, yet it has made me feel that I have read the fine essay on The Honorable Points of Ignorance as Augustine advises when he says, “ So read that you may deserve to understand.”