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Saturday, 12 January 2008

The Importance of Ignorance

In the Preface to his recent collection of essays The Way of Ignorance and other essays (Counterpoint, 2005) The farmer, theologian, poet Wendell Berry makes the following observations:

But the essays and speeches in this book have been written with the understanding, hardly novelty, that our ignorance is irremediable, that some problems are unsolvable, and some questions unanswerable - that, do what we will, we are never going to be free of mortality, partiality,, fallibility and error. The extent of our knowledge will always be at the same time, the measure of the extent of our ignorance.

Because ignorance is thus a part of our creaturely definition, we need an appropriate way: a way of ignorance, which is the way of neighborly love, kindness, caution, care, appropriate scale, thrift, good work, right livelihood.Creatures who have armed themselves with the power of limitless destruction should not be following any way laid out by their limited knowledge and their unseemly pride in it.

The way of ignorance, is to be careful, to know the limits and the efficacy of our knowledge. It is to be humble and to work on an appropriate scale. (pp.ix-x)

Who says a virtue ethic is necessarily politically conservative? Berry is issuing a radical social and economic critique of contemporary society expressed in clear probing prose and rooted in close involvement with a particular place, land that he has farmed and a region that he has observed closely for most of his life. He is calling for a profound conversion in our way of life, and of our politics and economics.

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