This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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You don’t know much, and that’s okay

We’ve already mentioned this point in our section on democracy and knowledge, but it is intertwined with our current subject that we cannot avoid mentioning it again. It may, however, be the most unpleasant and the most difficult to accept.

Democracy asks much of the men and women within it; so much, in fact, that it is difficult to imagine anyone answering the call with success. It is no insult to admit that a single person is not capable of achieving a level of knowledge we would term “competent” in very many areas. Some of us can fix any small motor problem that is put in front of them; some of us can code an operating system that is intuitive and powerful; some of us can perform heart transplants. Very few of us, if any, can do all of these things. We are limited. Our brains are limited. This is a fact. We can’t know everything.

Now, the names on a ballot really represent a number of very complex questions. These are questions pertaining to regulatory difficulties, infrastructure, foreign policy, etc. Very, very, very few people have the time, resources, energy, and aptitudes necessary to study those questions properly. It would take almost a lifetime, in fact, to give them the attention they deserve–to really understand them. Yet this is the expectation when one fills out a ballot. One should “be informed” about “the issues”, whatever that means.

In a democracy, during a national election, it is suggested to each and every voter that they must take a stance on all of these things, even if only indirectly through the choice of one name over another. They must do this whether or not they are properly equipped to do so and despite the fact that many of them may have never even cared to think about such things. And as we’ve already mentioned, democratic civilization goes even to the point of imputing a sort of negligence to those who, perhaps out of simple honesty, choose not to pronounce on these far-reaching issues by filling out a ballot.

Every voter is under immense pressure to make a choice, regardless of mental preparation or any intellectual qualification whatsoever. If you do not know, it does not matter. You must guess.

Can you sense the peril of such a situation? Masses of men being crowded into ballot boxes and asked to fill out questionnaires about men they do not know and who, ironically, may be as ill-equipped for the task of governance as themselves? Such conditions leave society ripe for exploitation. Deprived of knowledge, pressured into an act of irresponsible hypocrisy, the voter is just as likely to answer one way as another. The modern election, carried out in this fashion, becomes a large-scale expression of incompetence.

But now we must ask an ever more frightening question. What, if not knowledge, determines which way a person votes? He has to get an opinion from somewhere, and since he cannot properly formulate one himself, he turns to what he hears around him. He cannot help it, and he should not be expected to help it. He is helpless.

Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote the famous Democracy in America, explained how even though Americans proclaimed an adamant belief in “freedom of thought,” they almost immediately became slaves to the opinions of the crowd. His explanation is insightful:

“In democratic nations, the general public possesses an unusual power which aristocracies could not imagine. It does not impose its beliefs by persuasion but inserts them in men’s souls by the immense pressure of corporate thinking upon the intelligence of each single man.

“This very equality which makes him independent of each of his fellow men delivers him alone and defenseless into the hands of the majority.

“In the United States, the majority takes upon itself the task of supplying to the individual a mass of ready-made opinions, thus relieving him of the necessity to take the proper responsibility of arriving at his own.”[1]

This is why Thomas Jefferson himself lamented that “the inquisition of public opinion overwhelms, in practice, the freedom asserted by the law in theory.”

Of course, in Tocqueville’s time there was no television and no internet. Today we do not have to turn to the general public: we can turn to the media.

Considering the fact that American homes today have more televisions inside them than human beings, it is clear that the media has probably overwhelmed the power of the general public. In our world, we only encounter the general public in small doses, at work or at the gym, but the radio can talk at us all day long, and the faces on the television speak at us late into the night. Add to this the fact that whatever appears on television is imbued with an appearance of authority, and it is no surprise that most people simply adopt whatever they here on the news as their personal opinion on things.

The educator, Mortimer Adler, once observed how the media is able to give a man the satisfying feeling of having made up his own mind when, in actuality, he “does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and ‘plays back’ the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so.”

Thomas Merton, the Christian mystic, observed the same thing, saying that this situation creates an unthinking man: “He does not talk, he produces conventional sounds when stimulated by the appropriate noises. He does not think, he secretes clichés.”

The point of all this is simply to illustrate that if you place undue moral pressure on a person to “know” something, and if this person has neither the time nor opportunity to study and understand what you have told him he must “know,” then he will wind up picking up a ready-made opinion from somewhere else. It’s just human nature. It isn’t because he is dishonest. In most cases, he will actually believe that he arrived at his opinion all on his own. He isn’t a liar. He is simply a victim of the unrealistic demands of a system that ignores the limits of humanity.

We’ve already mentioned a couple of times how this plays out with the ideas of the Founding Fathers. Americans everywhere talk as if they had spent years studying the writings of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, when in reality most of them have never read a single page. Yet they persistently refer to “what this country was founded on,” and “what the founders wanted,” all without blinking an eye. They really think they know.

If you want to see how far this has progressed, and how real the problem actually is, just consider the following observations about the average American voter:

He thinks he knows what’s going on with global warming, whether the science is valid or not.

He thinks he knows what sort of effect a tax adjustment will have on the national economy.

He thinks he knows how immunizations work.

He thinks he knows what ‘organic’ means.

He thinks he knows what should be done about the conflict in the Middle East.

The list could go on—from Benghazi to the Big Bang—but that shouldn’t be necessary.

It’s obvious that the number of people alive in the world who are truly competent on any one of the issues listed above is undoubtedly very small. And it also certainly true that no one on earth has the time, experience, intelligence, and information necessary to become truly competent on all of these issues at once. So what gives? How can a man believe he knows so much about something when in fact he knows almost nothing?

In short, how could we be so ignorant?—for ignorance, according to St. Augustine of Hippo, is what occurs when a man “believes himself to know that which he does not know.”

You are already ignorant. But it’s okay. Ignorance is mostly benign, so long as we acknowledge it. As long as I do not burst into an operating room and try my hand at a heart transplant, it isn’t really a big deal that I don’t know how to do one. But in American politics, especially when it comes to voting, our ignorance becomes malignant, and one of these days it might prove fatal. From a certain point of view, it already has.

[1] Democracy in America, 2.1.2.

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