The Inescapable Limitations Of Knowledge

As we become older, we are more conscious of the limitations of knowledge.  Nothing is so frustratingly difficult as its attainment.  It is like trying to look up at a star or planet in the night sky.  Every time we look directly at one of these points of light, it seems to disappear; only by shifting away our eyes can we perceive it. 

I am perfectly aware that this is due to the operation of the human cornea; but the point still stands that knowledge of things is elusive, slippery, shifty.  Certainly it is an illusion.  There is a saying attributed to that old Ionian, Thales of Miletus, which one scholar has translated as:

Give a pledge, and disaster is near.

This quote caught my eye when I first saw it in a book, for to me it confirmed one of the main cautionary principles I have learned from practicing law and dealing with clients for twenty-one years.  And this is:  be very careful with the statements you make.  Manage expectations.  Anything that even smells like a promise or a pledge will be taken as such.  The minute such words escape your mouth, something unpleasant will happen to make you appear to be a fool. 

Now I asked a friend the meaning of the original Greek of this quote, and he told me that the thrust of the saying is that we should be wary of certainty.  I admire Cicero’s adherence to philosophical skepticism:  the idea that we cannot know things with certainty, and should only seek what may be the most probable answer under the circumstances.  But even the skeptics in time may become skeptical of their skepticism; Antiochus of Ascalon, the instructor in Athens from whom Cicero learned so much, himself abandoned skepticism for dogmatism later in life.  Perhaps the inquisitive mind eventually grows weary with discussion and debate, and seeks repose in the comfort of certitude.    

When D.H. Lawrence analyzed Poe’s gothic tales in his Studies in Classic American Literature, he saw stories like Fall of the House of Usher as primarily love stories; that is, he saw them as parables that would describe the corrosive effects of the excesses of love.  The tale Ligeia, he says, is a “tale of love pushed over a verge.”  Love that exceeds all bounds, love that transcends what is normal, love that seeks to know what should not be known:  these are unholy things, Lawrence maintained, and things that violate nature’s law.  Hence a terrible fate awaited the characters of the Fall of the House of Usher.  Lawrence says,

There is a limit to everything.  There is a limit to love…What he wants to do with Ligeia is to analyze her, till he knows all her component parts, tell he has got her all in his consciousness…It is so easy to see why each man kills the thing he loves.  To know a living thing is to kill it.  You have to kill a thing to know it satisfactorily.  For this reason, the desirous consciousness, the SPIRIT, is a vampire. 

And so it is true.  We cannot know everything.  We cannot know even a fraction’s fraction of anything, really.  The awareness of this fact does not so much come as a shock, as it does a disappointment:  for we are bounded by time, our physical limitations, and a hundred other barriers imposed by geography and history.  While we are speaking of Poe, I suppose I should mention the epigram he chooses for his story The Murders in the Rue Morgue:  “What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, although puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture.”  The quote is from Chapter 5 of Sir Thomas Browne’s essay Hydriotaphia (Urn-Burial).  True enough, these things may not be beyond conjecture; but they are certainly beyond certainty.  Conjecture is the helpless bleating of the sheep aware of its ignorance.  And the quote is never placed in context.  Browne is ruminating on the futility of human vanity, and how pointless it all becomes, when looked at against the span of time.  Much better would it have been for Poe to use this quote as his epigram, which appears in Browne’s very next paragraph:

And therefore restlesse inquietude for the diuturnity of our memories unto present considerations, seems a vanity almost out of date, and superanuated peece of folly.  We cannot hope to live so long in our names, as some have done in their persons, one face of Janus holds no proportion unto the other.  ‘Tis too late to be ambitious.  The great mutations of the world are acted, or time may be too short for our designs. 

Not only can we not know most things, but even to attempt to do so would be an act of presumption and vanity.  The great mutations of the world have acted:  and all we have left is the hope of an Eternal Recurrence long after our bones have become dust.  It is ultimately a futile gesture on our part, of course:  but what a nobility exists in this futility!  Is not man possessed of an incomparable grandeur in his quest for knowledge, as he shuffled his sandaled feet through the Ionian sands thousands of years ago, speculating on everything under the sun?  Is there any death in mythology more noble than that of Icarus, who sought the secret of flight, unless it be that of Prometheus, who sought to transmit secret knowledge despite knowing what consequences it would bring?  There is this unresolved tension in man’s nature between the quest for knowledge and the awareness that its untampered pursuit might bring ruin.     

Lately I have begun to read some of the old Norse canon. One of the poems in the Poetic Edda is called the Vafthruthnismal, or Odin’s Contest With Riddle-Weaver.  It involves a visit that the god Odin makes to a giant named Vafthruthnir, which scholar Jackson Crawford translates as “Riddle-Weaver.”  The purpose of the visit is to engage the giant in a debate to see which of the two was more wise.  After some preliminary banter in which Riddle-Weaver successfully answers all of Odin’s challenges, Odin finally says to him,

“I have traveled so much,

I have tried much,

And I have often tested the mighty.

What did Odin whisper

In Balder’s ear,

Before he placed him on the pyre?”

Riddle-Weaver said:

“No one knows what you said

In those ancient days, in your son’s ear.

I have spoken my aged wisdom,

I have told you of Ragnarok,

I have spoken with a doomed mouth.

Now I know that I wagered

My head against Odin’s in wisdom—

But you, Odin, are forever the wisest of all.”  [Trans. by Jackson Crawford]

The purpose of verses like this, I think, to remind us that we have inherent limitations on what we can know, should want to know, and will ever grasp in the future.  It is no accident that gods like Zeus or Odin are depicted as somewhat aloof and elusive; for they represent Knowledge itself, and no one can ever apprehend all things.  Such a realization should not be a cause of distress, any more than we should be distressed by not being able to lift a two-ton rock.  It should be enough for us in this life to attempt to seek that End of Goods, namely virtue, that destination which enables us to enjoy a good life.  A fragment of the poet Pindar carries the point:

What do you expect wisdom to be, if it is only

By a little that one man possesses it more than another?

For it is impossible for him to discover the gods’ plans

With a human mind. He was born of a mortal mother. 

The way to reconcile oneself to the limitations of knowledge is this:  one must know what it is essential to know, and one must know what is not essential to know.  This awareness takes years of trial and effort, of false starts, errors, mistakes, and blunders. The accumulation of facts may be useful in a job or for some specific tasks; but it is not the art of life.  The only knowledge that provides us information on how to live is found in philosophy.  And the only branches of philosophy that concentrate on these subjects are ethical and moral philosophy:  that is, the study of virtue, behavior, and conduct.  He who is, as Pindar says, “born of mortal mother,” can hope for nothing more valuable or transcendent than this. 

Read more in On Moral Ends:

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