Within the human species, it is a rarity to find anyone who will willingly admit that he/she knows, what they don’t know. The global village and in particular the business and corporate sector has a very large number of “ Mr/Ms Know-all’s” Even the most introvert of the human kind, by choosing not to express, is actually saying, he knows it all. If you know not, you know not; but how many of us are even willing to admit, clearly and publicly, we don’t know. The best and immediate example that rushes to the mind is to hear on a TV talk show, the minister of agriculture spilling words of wisdom, on the architecture of the country’s foreign policy; a subject he/she may have never been exposed to, however, a straight refusal to accept, and state “I don’t know A to B of foreign policy” is never forthcoming (This is not to suggest that he/she would be an expert on agriculture, either). But comment; they must!
Recognition of not knowing everything is a virtue. JFKennedy in an address to university students remarked, “The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.” In these columns under a different subject I had written about a colleague who during my Hong Kong days, was a senior credit officer, from a neighbouring country; he invariably began all conversation with the prelude, “that I know, but ………” He knew nothing of what he did not know!
The education/knowledge we receive at school, college and university is limited to a few subjects, and even the knowledge of subjects chosen is constricted, in depth, context and coverage, by the requirements of what forms the curriculum, on which the students are tested, for the limited knowledge requirement they ought to possess. The inquiry therefore, if not entirely superficial, is at best, only skin deep. Knowledge is one big onion; one can go on for centuries peeling one layer after another; but none can arrive at its nucleus. Even specialisation in any particular area is essentially, getting more and more of less and less. Many facets of the subject remain obscured and undiscovered. Sir Issac Newton, on his death bed, wrote the following lines, “I don’t know what I may seem to the world, but, as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me”. A poignant admission of a dying man, that he knew not all. The unending ploughing into the fields of the known; ushers the best understanding of the unknown.
Knowledge is a tool that polishes good nature into good behaviour/manners and in its pristine state it covertly corrects the bad habits, attitude and disposition. The magnificent dimensions and manifestations of knowledge are inherently dynamic; each new discovery leads to another probe, another pursuit of discovery, inquiry, etc. Upon, after an arduous journey, landing on what is now island of Cuba, Christopher Columbus, wrote a letter to Emperor Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, that he had discovered India on the East Indies! He did not know, what he thought he knew, he had discovered.
Knowledge has bitter roots and sweet fruits. A sub-continental adage is, rain of tears is necessary to harvest the fruits of learning. Deprived of knowledge, even those born with silver spoons, will remain unblest, even if they be the aptest, to their times and sphere of work. Knowledge is profound. It inhabits without limitations of any real or even imaginary boundaries. In fact with each new set of knowledge discovered, it co-extends itself, further. It has to be hunted, before one can think of taming it for useful and profitable application.
From the educational institutions we attend, the intent is to acquire knowledge of what is in demand in the market place; a subject that will surely beget us a good career; but rarely would we find harmony between love for money and materials against love for learning. A choice has to be exercised. Knowledge is power. Even greater power is to know, we have no knowledge, or inadequate knowledge. Partial knowledge brings disgrace and ridicule. Chuang Tzu, in his essay, “The Music of Heaven and Earth”, wrote the following, “that knowledge which stops at what it does not know, is the highest knowledge”. In a similar vein, from the same geographic orient, the famous philosopher, Confucius had this to say, “When you know a thing, to hold you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it: this is knowledge”.
The beguiling ego refuses to accept absence of full knowledge of things. Ego restrains acquisition of wisdom; and it is only through the medium of wisdom, we acquire our knowledge of our compounding and growing ignorance.
It is never too late to know, that one doesn’t know. Once this reality dawns and is recognised as a continuing weakness, the quest for more knowledge grows multi-folds. But getting there is most difficult, because ego dominates, especially those who have little knowledge. Have my readers, ever wondered why are sages or learned men, so humble? Humility permits them to accept, they don’t know. Since they live by the precept of this thought, they are like empty vessels, willing and able to take and absorb, what they don’t know- and this is done with no regard to where the knowledge comes from; either from the lowliest of the low or from the most royal.
Hazrat Ali (RA) had said, listen to what you are being told, not by whom, you are being told. The source is unimportant. The knowledge, if it is worthy, is important. Knowledge, that I know, leads to arrogance. The appreciation of lack of knowledge, that I don’t know, leads to wisdom and humility. Ptolemy I, asked Euclid (BC era) if there is an easy way to master the science of geometry, he said, there is no royal road to learning. What is a better attitude; bragging about knowing or not knowing? There is always something new about an old subject that most likely we may not know; so, how can any claim full knowledge of anything.
Any one who subscribes that he/she can teach oneself, has surely hired, a fool to teach. Wisdom teaches us that we are inadequate in knowledge and skills; and contrarily, knowledge if expunged of wisdom is a spectacle of load of books on a donkey’s back.
Little knowledge is dangerous, just as, much knowledge makes men mad; in fact possession of little knowledge in the breast of an impious soul is akin to giving a sword in the hands of an unfettered lunatic. Since we cannot get to a state of knowing everything about a subject, our knowledge consistently remains superficial and at best imperfect.
The light of humility dims and stuns the brightness of arrogance of knowledge. “The more I read the more I meditate; and the more I acquire, the more I am enabled to affirm that I know nothing”, wrote the French philosophiser, Voltaire. The pursuit of knowledge must remain a compelling quest. The horizon of ignorance appears stately once we have knowledge that we don’t know.
My father, a voracious reader, would often involuntarily remark, “Neem Hakeem, Khatra-e-Jaan; Neem Mullah, khatra-e-Imman”. Loosely rendered in English, “Half-baked knowledge of the messiah and the priest, endangers, health and faith”. Stay clear of those who claim full knowledge, because they don’t know!
The writer is a banker and freelance contributor