Knowledge, Ignorance, and Happiness

John Stuart Mill once famously asserted that “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.” Mill’s assertions, however, are highly questionable. Whether it is the case that knowledge is the more satisfying condition or, as the saying has it, that “ignorance is bliss” is more of an open question than Mill is willing to acknowledge. Furthermore, it must remain an open question as whether the knowledgeable really “knows both sides” as Mill insists is as questionable as his central claim.

There are, of course, numerous voices who argue on Mill’s side in the history of thought. Aristotle, Plutarch, and Thomas Aquinas, for example, argue in favor of the necessity of knowledge to the happy life.  Aristotle, in fact, insists that contemplation is an essential ingredient of the happy life. Plutarch echoes Aristotle in his assertion that “our intellectual vision must be applied to such objects as, by their very charm, invite it onward to its own proper good.” Continuing in the line of thought developed by Aristotle, Plutarch insists on the need for intellectual contemplation of good works in addition to their performance. Similarly, Aquinas, building on Aristotle’s thought, asserts that “the contemplative life is more excellent than the active.”

While these many and various voices argue in favor of Mill’s famous assertion, there are those, however, who have dared to oppose it. Michel de Montaigne, in his Apology for Raymond Sebond, argues that “man’s knowledge cannot make him happy” and may, perhaps, even be a source of unhappiness. Referring to the native peoples of the Amazon, Montaigne attributes the reported “tranquility and serenity of their souls” to “their admirable simplicity and ignorance” as they are a people “without letters, without law, without king, without religion of any kind.” Perhaps, then, the pig and the fool are indeed happier than the wise Socrates.

There is no small irony, however, in that all of these statements come from highly educated men. Aristotle, Plutarch, Aquinas, and Montaigne surely rank among the most knowledgeable minds of their own and any other times. The voice of the intellectual innocent, the primitive, and the ignorant is nowhere to be heard on the subject. Of course, this latter group lacks the very means by which to consider and to discuss whether their state is superior to that of the philosopher. By the very nature of the question, to engage with the subject in any way is to pass from the one side—the side of the ignorant—to the other—the side of the educated.

It seems safe to aver that this in itself renders the problem insoluble. There is no means by which the side of the ignorant can defend itself and it is impossible to have the experience of both sides in such a way that one would be able to offer a comparison. Socrates has no means of experiencing the life of the pig any more than the pig has the means by which to experience the life of Socrates. Montaigne must forever view the life of the native Amazonian from the outside; his only experience is as an educated Frenchman. What is left are educated men arguing over the question of whether it is better to be educated or ignorant.

Training for greater pleasures

Men often, from infirmity of character, make their election for the nearer good, though they know it to be less valuable; and this no less when the choice is between two bodily pleasures than when it is between bodily and mental. They pursue sensual indulgences to the injury of health, though perfectly aware that health is the greater good. It may be further objected that many who begin with youthful enthusiasm for everything noble, as they advance in years, sink into indolence and selfishness. But I do not believe that those who undergo this very common change voluntarily choose the lower description of pleasures in preference to the higher. I believe that, before they devote themselves exclusively to the one, they have already become incapable of the other. Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favorable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise. Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying. It may be questioned whether anyone who has remained equally susceptible to both classes of pleasures ever knowingly and calmly preferred the lower, though many, in all ages, have broken down in an ineffectual attempt to combine both.

John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter 2