The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance

Henry David Thoreau

I’m turning over the blog today to Henry David Thoreau, who has kindly taken a break from running his pencil factory to blog for free:

We have heard of a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. It is said that Knowledge is power; and the like. Methinks there is equal need of a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance, what we will call Beautiful Knowledge, a knowledge useful in a higher sense; for what is most of our boasted so — called knowledge but a conceit that we know something, which robs us of the advantage of our actual ignorance? What we call knowledge is often our positive ignorance; ignorance our negative knowledge. By long years of patient industry and reading of the newspapers, — for what are the libraries of science but files of newspapers? — a man accumulates a myriad facts, lays them up in his memory, and then when in some spring of his life he saunters abroad into the great Fields of thought, he as it were goes to grass like a horse, and leaves all his harness behind in the stable. I would say to the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, sometimes — Go to grass. You have eaten hay long enough. The Spring has come with its green crop. The very cows are driven to their country pastures before the end of May; though I have heard of one unnatural farmer who kept his cow in the barn and fed her on hay all the year round. So, frequently the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge treats its cattle.

A man’s ignorance sometimes is not only useful, but beautiful, while his knowledge, so called, is oftentimes worse than useless beside being ugly. Which is the best man to deal with, he who knows nothing about a subject, and what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, — or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all?

My desire for knowledge is intermittent; but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant. The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence. I do not know that this higher knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel and grand surprise on a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called Knowledge before — a discovery that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. It is the lighting up of the mist by the sun. Man cannot know in any higher sense than this, any more than he can look serenely and with impunity in the face of the sun: “You will not perceive that as perceiving a particular thing,” say the Chaldean Oracles

–From Walking, written in 1862. Read the rest here.

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3 Comments

  1. The American Transcendentalists is the area of my interest and expertise and Studies.

    Walking, part 2:
    “I do not know of any poetry to quote which adequately expresses this yearning for the Wild.”

    I know Thoreau read the English Romantics, so how could he say this? I suppose the key is “adequately.” The Romantics were all intensely interested in the wild or “romantic.” He surely had read “Lines Composed a Few miles above Tintern Abbey.”

    Here, Thoreau shows a sensitive attitude about women and walking or their lack of walking. In other places, he displays a great lack of understanding why women were not out walking, traipsing in the woods. Maybe Emerson’s wife straightened him out.

    He is not a fan of heating manure for fertilizer. Where would we find muck today? I suppose we destroyed the mucky places.

    I really enjoyed reading “Walking” again.

  2. You can never go wrong when you quote Thoreau.
    He is one of the greatest thinkers and writers America has produced, yet there are too many who have never read anything he wrote. What a pity.

  3. Thanks for posting this little twist of the mind. It is a focus of my daily meditation to check ego at the door – if at least temporarily – to just be comfortable in the present moment, acknowledging that I can’t know it all. Having an ever-inquisitive mind is an important reminder, thanks!

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