Gavan Daws, in his Prisoners of the Japanese, recounts many harrowing stories of suffering and survival in the Asian prison camps of the Second World War. I recall one anecdote.
Western prisoners were, of course, forbidden to listen to radio broadcasts. But some of the men were able to build crystal radio sets from scrounged parts. Anyone who has ever experimented with radios knows that it is not uncommon to need an extended wire antenna for good signal reception. One day, a Japanese guard unexpectedly happened to walk into the prisoners’ squad bay at a time when a radio listening session was in progress.
An antenna had been strung across the hut; the guard’s bayonet, attached to the rifle slung over his shoulder, even brushed up against it. Yet the guard did not see it for what it was. He was completely oblivious. Had the radio been discovered, the men would have—at a minimum—received a serious beating. They may even have been executed. But the prisoners had learned from experience that the guards usually saw only what they wanted to see; and whatever crossed their fields of vision that was not part of this preconstructed reality, did not register with them. They simply did not see it.
It seems to me that this happens to us very often. What we want to see, we see; and what falls outside of this expectancy, does not register with us. There are two reasons for this blindness. The first reason is our own willful choice. Either by habit, or by a process of deliberate denial, we fail to notice what is directly before us. Regular habit conditions the mind, and lulls it into a state of stupefied lassitude. In other cases, deliberate denial is at work: some psychological impediment blocks our appreciation of what is starkly obvious. There are many who refuse to confront unpleasant truths, even when evidence of the truth is directly in view. They refuse to abandon their cherished illusions, and are brought to ruin as a consequence. It is not enough to have open eyes: we must make use of the senses Nature has gifted us. Sight is of no use if we cannot comprehend what is seen. As the poet Lucan says,
O, the divine gifts that are not yet understood!
The second reason for our blindness may be some external factor that obfuscates the truth of what is happening around us. We commonly encounter this in cases of rulers, managers, or others in leadership roles. They rely on information filtered through other parties that may have agendas and interests of their own. As a result, the leader drifts ignorantly through his responsibilities, acting on flawed or incomplete information. The results, of course, are usually calamitous.
The historian Ammianus Marcellinus (XXII.4) provides an amusing illustration. During the reign of the emperor Maximianus (A.D. 286—305), one of the Persian king’s fortified positions was overrun by the victorious Romans. As the soldiers were engaged in the joy of plunder, one of the emperor’s men found a small bag made of beautiful leather. He noticed that it was filled with white beads. Believing these beads to be worthless ornaments, he discarded them and kept the bag. Only later was it discovered that the bag was filled with precious pearls. The uncouth soldier, ignorant of the identity of the bag’s contents, had no idea what he was holding.
The emperor Diocletian, nearing the end of his reign and exhausted with the burdens of command, is said to have bitterly lamented the quality of his ministers. According to the unreliable Historia Augusta (XXVI.43), the old emperor is said to have cried,
How often is it the interest of four or five ministers to combine together to deceive their sovereign! Secluded from mankind by his exalted dignity, the truth is concealed from his knowledge; he can see only with their eyes, [and] he hears nothing but their misrepresentations. He confers the most important offices upon vice and weakness, and disgraces the most virtuous and deserving among his subjects. By such infamous arts the best and wisest princes are sold to the venal corruption of their courtiers.
[Gibbon’s trans.; Decline and Fall, Ch. XIII]
It does not matter for our purposes here whether Diocletian actually uttered these words. He certainly would have agreed with the thrust of their sentiment. This was a man who despised ignorance and superstition. In Egypt, for example, concerned that men of learning were wasting time in futile attempts to transmute base metals into gold and silver, he ordered all books relating to alchemy to be collected and burned. The fact that an ancient historian made a point of inserting these words in his mouth, meant he was trying to pass on a moral point to his readers. With antique writers, rigid historical accuracy is sometimes relaxed to accommodate moral instruction.
In his treatise On Animals (XVII.37), the writer Aelian provides us with a final, and most charming, relevant story. Sixteen men were once engaged in reaping crops in a field. Exhausted and tired, they sent one of their number to fetch drinking water from a nearby well. So the assigned man dropped his sickle and left for the well. As he approached it, he could see an eagle and a snake engaged in a desperate fight for survival. Apparently the eagle had swooped down to attack the snake, but had misjudged the descent. The snake had escaped the eagle’s talons, and had coiled itself around the bird, slowly throttling it.
The man, knowing that the eagle was a creature favored by Zeus, drew his knife and managed to cut the snake in two. The eagle flew away; and the man, pleased with himself at this good deed, fetched the water and brought it back to his companions in a vessel suited to this purpose. The man distributed the refreshing drink to his friends. All of them drank deeply. The man himself filled his own cup with water, and then raised it to his lips. Suddenly, and with almost blinding speed, the eagle he had just rescued swooped down upon him, and knocked the water-cup from his hand. The water spilled out on the ground.
The man became irate at this. Yelling at the eagle, which was now perched on a nearby tree, he cried out, “Is this how you reward a friend who just saved your life? How could I ever want to do something good again for a creature beloved by Zeus?” Yet as soon as these words escaped his mouth, he noticed that he was surrounded by stark silence.
Turning around, he saw his blue-faced companions lying prostrate on the ground, stone dead. Their empty cups lay scattered on the ground. In an instant he realized what had happened. Unknown to him, the snake had disgorged its venom into the well before its death. This had happened right before his eyes, but he had not noticed it, so intent was he on retrieving water for his comrades. The grateful eagle had saved him from a miserable and agonizing death.
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