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.
The great skill of a teacher is to get and keep the attention of his scholar: whilst he has that, he is sure to advance as fast the learner’s abilities will carry him; and without that, all his bustle and pother will be to little or no purpose. To attain this, he should make the children comprehend, (as much as may be,) the usefulness of what he teaches him; and let him see, by what he has learned, that he can do something which he could not do before; something which gives him some power and real advantage above others, who are ignorant of it. To this he should add sweetness in all his instructions; and by a certain tenderness in his whole carriage, make the child sensible that he loves him, and designs nothing but his good; the only way to beget love in the child, which will make him hearken to his lessons, and relish what he teaches him.
John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, 161
Bald heads, forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.
All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?
When infant Reason first exerts her sway,
And new-formed thoughts their earliest charms display;
Then let the growing race employ your care
Then guard their opening minds from Folly’s snare;
Correct the rising passions of their youth,
Teach them each serious, each important truth;
Plant heavenly virtue in the tender breast,
Destroy each vice that might its growth molest;
Point out betimes the course they should pursue;
Then with redoubled pleasure shall you view
Their reason strengthen as their years increase,
Their virtue ripen and their follies cease;
Like corn sown early in the fertile soil,
The richest harvest shall repay your toil.
Human beings, by their nature, seek to understand themselves and the world around them. Each of us is placed into a world which we neither created nor comprehend. It is as if we have woken up in a dark room with no knowledge of who we are or how we got here. As our eyes gradually adjust to the dark, we glimpse a variety of unknown objects, clues to our origins, the origins of the room and the task we have been place into the room to complete. Before anything else can be done, we must answer the questions: who am I and what am I doing here? Throughout history, many answers to these questions, of varying validity, have been offered.
Today, and since the Enlightenment, one way of answering these questions, the scientific, has come to predominate to the detriment of other ways of answering. While the means provided by science have provided numerous benefits, they have proven incomplete and unsatisfactory at best. While the scientific method may be able to measure the speed and quantity of the water pouring over a waterfall, its chemical composition and its erosive effects, scientists can say relatively little about its beauty and its evocation of a sense of sublimity in its human observers. This, rather, is the place of the poet and the artist, whose ways of understanding do not contradict those of the scientist but do indeed complete and even surpass them. Knowledge is the imposition of human order onto otherwise apparently disorderly experience of disparate phenomena with the bodily senses and the faculties of the mind. Genius, then, is the ability to form connections between what appear to others to be entirely unrelated experiences. With these definitions in mind, the poet is the genius par excellence; he is a creator of cosmos out of chaos through the use of metaphor.
Richard Wilbur is undoubtedly an outstanding modern example of such a genius. For Wilbur, in his poetry, there is nothing that is not both significant and signifying; each experience is both valuable in itself and valuable in its ability to represent or otherwise point beyond itself to something else, entering thereby into the cohesive network of all created (and, perhaps, uncreated) things. With this dual relevance of each thing as his axiom, Wilbur is able to transform the mundane into the infinitely meaningful and thereby imbue the mundane itself with infinite meaning. In “Transit,” Wilbur begins with a chance sighting of “a woman I have never seen before” exiting her townhouse on a city street. He describes her as “so beautiful that she or time must fade,” thereby entering through an otherwise prosaic event into a poetic meditation on beauty and time. In “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” Wilbur again exhibits his ability to begin with the banal and end in the eternal. The poem begins as Wilbur sees laundry drying on the line “outside the open window.” He begins immediately to imagine that the drying laundry is “angels,” some of whom “are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses, some are in smocks.” Nearly at the climax of the poem, Wilbur records the cry of his soul: “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry, / Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam / And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.” In the poetic genius of Wilbur, the daily drudgery of cleaning clothes and sheets has become a celebration of life, a spotting of angelic beings and an affirmation of the inherent goodness of the created world as it stands.
That all of this may be far from the way most people experience the world, with all of its necessities and drudgeries, is precisely an argument in favor of Wilbur’s genius. He has taken up our shared sense impressions and the ideations they produce and reoriented them in an exuberant and original way. The laundry is indeed still laundry and the laundry must be done, but it is also something else; it is fuel for the often forgotten but most essential aspect of man: his eternal soul. Wilbur himself provides the most succinct, and, of course, poetical, description of his genius in his poem “A Wood”:
Given a source of light so far away
That nothing, short or tall, comes very near it,
Would it not take a proper fool to say
That any tree has not the proper spirit?
Air, water, earth and fire are to be blended,
But no one style, I think, is recommended.
Wilbur has here avoided an error reciprocal to scientism. He has not asserted the tyranny of his position but rather acknowledged that if his understanding is correct, if indeed each thing is both significant and signifying, there must, then, be as many ways of metaphoring, as establishing connections between apparently disparate elements, as many ways of knowing as there are ways of being human, which is to say, they must be as numerous as are human beings themselves.