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The Slenderest Knowledge


by E.F. Schumacher
 

On a visit to Leningrad some years ago, I consulted a map to find out where I was, but I could not make it out. From where I stood, I could see several enormous churches, yet there was no trace of them on my map. When finally an interpreter came to help me, he said: "We don't show churches on our maps." Contradicting him, I pointed to one that was very clearly marked. "That is a museum," he said, "not what we call a 'living church.' It is only the 'living churches' we don't show."

It then occurred to me that this was not the first time I had been given a map which failed to show many things I could see right in front of my eyes. All through school and university I had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things that I most cared about and that seemed to me to be of the greatest possible importance to the conduct of my life. I remembered that for many years my perplexity had been complete; and no interpreter had come along to help me. It remained complete until I ceased to suspect the sanity of my perceptions and began, instead, to suspect the soundness of the maps.

The maps I was given advised me that virtually all my ancestors, until quite recently, had been rather pathetic illusionists who conducted their lives on the basis of irrational beliefs and absurd superstitions. Even illustrious scientists, like Johannes Kepler or Isaac Newton, apparently spent most of their time and energy on nonsensical studies of nonexisting things. These philosophical maps also conveyed that enormous amounts of hard-earned wealth had been squandered throughout history to the honor and glory of imaginary deities, not only by my European forebears, but by all peoples, in all parts of the world, at all times. Everywhere thousands of seemingly healthy men and women had wasted their time on pilgrimages, fantastic rituals, reiterated prayers, and so forth; turning their backs on reality—and some do it even in this enlightened age—all for nothing, all out of ignorance and stupidity; none of it to be taken seriously today, except of course as museum pieces. From what a history of error we had emerged! What a history of taking for real what every modern child knew to be totally unreal and imaginary! Our entire past, until quite recently, was today only fit for museums, where people could satisfy their curiosity about the oddity and incompetence of earlier generations. What our ancestors had written, also, was in the main fit only for storage in libraries, the knowledge of the past being considered interesting and occasionally thrilling but of no particular value for learning to cope with the problems of the present.

All this and many other similar things I was taught at school and university. It was still permissible, on suitable occasions, to refer to God the Creator, although every educated person knew that there was not really a God, certainly not one capable of creating anything, and that the things around us had come into existence by a process of mindless evolution, that is, by chance and natural selection. Our ancestors, unfortunately, did not know about evolution, and so they invented all these fanciful myths.

The maps of real knowledge, designed for real life, showed nothing except things which allegedly could be proved to exist. The first principle of the philosophical mapmakers seemed to be, "If in doubt, leave it out," or put it into a museum. It occurred to me, however, that the question of what constitutes proof was a very subtle and difficult one. Would it not be wiser to turn the principle into its opposite and say: "If in doubt, show it prominently"? After all, matters that are beyond doubt are, in a sense, dead; they constitute no challenge to the living.

To accept anything as true means to incur the risk of error. If I limit myself to knowledge that I consider true beyond doubt, I minimize the risk of error, but at the same time I maximize the risk of missing out on what may be the subtlest, most important and most rewarding things in life. Saint Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, taught that "The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things." "Slender" knowledge is here put in opposition to "certain" knowledge, and indicates uncertainty. Maybe it is necessarily so that the higher things cannot be known with the same degree of certainty as can the lesser things, in which case it would be a very great loss indeed if knowledge were limited to things beyond the possibility of doubt.

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