Bliss Is Ignorance
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about climate ignorance. That’s my new term for the refusal or rejection of the reality of climate change. I’ve come to prefer this term to the more common “climate skepticism” or “climate denial,” both of which, I fear, tend to validate the naysayers’ position. To be a “skeptic” suggests that you’ve thought the issues through and come to a reasoned position of doubt; to “deny” can suggest heroic opposition or resistance to the status quo. To be “ignorant,” by contrast, is simply to be oblivious to the truth. Climate ignorance, then, means remaining blind, willfully or not, to the worsening state of our planet’s climate.
Someone out there, I’m sure, will retort: “But ignorance is bliss!” This cliché, taken from the concluding lines of Thomas Gray’s 1747 poem “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” has passed into popular culture as a philosophical defense of not knowing, an argument, even, for the superiority of ignorance. Who, after all, would choose knowledge if, in so doing, one forfeits bliss?
Fair enough. But as my father is fond of pointing out, Gray’s words have been misquoted--or at least, quoted badly out of context. Restoring that context, it becomes evident that Gray’s dictum is conditional, not absolute. The relevant portion of the poem’s final two lines reads: “where ignorance is bliss, / ‘Tis folly to be wise.” Now, it’s still possible to read this as a celebration of ignorance--but only under very clearly defined and delimited circumstances. And the poem’s setting--an idyllic schoolyard--clarifies these circumstances: the aging speaker, “distant” from the scene not only in space but in time, has good reason to long for the blissful ignorance of childhood days:
Ah happy hills, ah pleasing
Ah fields beloved in vain,
Where once my careless childhood strayed,
A stranger yet to pain!
I feel the gales, that from ye blow,
A momentary bliss bestow,
As waving fresh their gladsome wing,
My weary soul they seem to soothe,
And, redolent of joy and youth,
To breathe a second spring.
Seen in this light, the schoolyard of Eton--the aural resemblance to “Eden” is surely not coincidental--represents a momentary oasis of childish ignorance that life will soon enough destroy:
Alas, regardless of their doom,
The little victims play!
No sense have they of ills to come,
Nor care beyond today:
Yet see how all around ‘em wait
The ministers of human fate,
And black Misfortune’s baleful train!
Ah, show them where in ambush stand
To seize their prey the murtherous band!
Ah, tell them, they are men!
No wonder, then, that the poem concludes with a wish that the children might remain unaware of the evils that await them; no wonder that the speaker beseeches the listener (God? or Man?) to allow this charmed space to stand a little longer:
Yet ah! why should they know
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
‘Tis folly to be wise.
A powerful wish: the wish for the young to remain young, the ignorant of Eden not to fall into the world’s cruel knowledge.
But as Gray's speaker knows very well, we don’t live in Eden. And a wish, however powerful, is a poor program for living. I wish our climate weren’t collapsing; I wish we weren’t driving its collapse. I also wish I didn’t have a bad back, I wish my daughter hadn’t developed a mysterious stomach ailment this past year, I wish my father weren’t growing feebler by the day. Being human, sometimes I indulge not only those individual wishes but the larger wish behind them: the wish of ignorance, the wish simply to sit and wish.
Most times, though, I act. I exercise. I seek medical advice for myself and my daughter. I spend what time I can with my dad. Wishing without acting is, as Gray’s poem makes clear, the province of childhood, or of adults sentimentalizing childhood. Where ignorance is bliss, it is indeed folly to be wise: no one should force children to confront the ills of the adult world, and it is criminal that so many children are in fact forced to do so. But where wisdom is needed, it is far greater folly to be ignorant; where adults are called on to protect and preserve the world our children must inherit, it is the height of folly to seek cover in some utopian dream of childhood ignorance and innocence. Our bliss then becomes their woe; serving our own wish to be children once more, we deprive our own children of their sole chance to be so.
We’ve had our turn to be ignorant. Now it’s our time to be wise.