Detail from The Temple of Time, 1846, created by American girls’ educator Emma Willard, drawing on Renaissance “memory palaces”

Casting light in dark corners

No other historian can provide a better introduction to a big subject


This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Between school and university in 1956, young Peter Burke was doing his military service in Singapore. The officers were only on base from six in the morning till four in the afternoon. After that, Her Majesty’s Service was replaced by self-service: black market scams, protection rackets, beds for the night. Young Burke assumed the officers had no idea what was going on, though one might wonder if their strategic withdrawal to their quarters wasn’t intended precisely to give their men a free hand.

Ignorance: A Global History, Peter Burke (Yale, £20)

Ignorance takes many forms — there is, here, the officers’ blind ignorance and Burke’s wilful ignorance. Ignorance ends with an extended glossary of 59 terms, though many are synonyms. They can quickly be reduced to asymmetrical, invincible, culpable, conscious, creative, group — along with a few other key concepts, such as known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Ignorance, inevitably, now has its specialist literature: this book is a contribution to agnoiology. 

Through all his many books on early modern history, of which the most influential has been Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (1978), Burke has exhibited a constant character: he likes very big subjects, and he believes in (to quote the subtitle of an early book) “a sociological approach”. This has always made his work distinctive, for where much important work (by Keith Thomas, Natalie Zemon Davis and Robert Darnton, amongst others) has been written under the influence of anthropology, few of his generation have shared Burke’s love of sociology.

This book shows Burke’s characteristic strengths, and his weaknesses. It’s incredibly learned, based on reading in an extraordinary range of languages. Its notes provide endless suggestions for further reading. Yet, it is written from such a high altitude that we never get far into the detail. Montaigne gets two sentences. Tolstoy’s account of the battle of Borodino gets four sentences in the 16 pages which illustrate the fog of war. 

Because we never get into the detail, Burke never plays to what are usually the historian’s strengths: the elaborated narrative, the thick description, the evocation of a lost world, the triumph and tragedy of lives — whether everyday or distinguished. No contrast could be more striking than that between Burke’s Popular Culture and Edward Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class (1963).

With this loss of detail goes a puzzle about originality: Burke’s books are unlike anyone else’s, but it is hard to say just what is original about them. They are not built around discoveries or even arguments. They have the strengths and weaknesses of surveys, surveys depending heavily on assembling in one place other people’s arguments. Nonetheless, they are indispensable: no one else can provide a better introduction to a big subject.

Sociology and history are often held to represent conflicting forms of knowledge, and there is something profoundly ahistorical about this book. It is an exploration of cultural constants, and it refuses to engage with change. There is a striking paragraph on what Braudel called “the tyranny of distance” — in the 16th century it took a minimum of a year for a letter from Madrid to reach Manila, which was under Spanish rule — but no proper consideration of what successive technologies (the telegraph, the railway, the telephone, the aeroplane, the internet) have done to abolish distance. 

Burke carefully avoids a Whig history of progress, but as a result we get no discussion of the impact of technology in transforming knowledge — no mention of the printing press or of the invention of the index or the encyclopaedia. Google Maps are here, and Google Earth, but not plain, simple Google. Nor is there any discussion of knowledge before printing: Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy (1982) isn’t mentioned, nor Frances Yates’s Art of Memory (1966). Matteo Ricci is, but not his memory palace. Paolo Sarpi’s History of the Council of Trent makes a fleeting appearance, but Sarpi’s photographic (as we would say) memory doesn’t. 

“Collectively,” writes Burke, “humanity knows more than ever before, but individually, we do not know more than our predecessors.” Individually we have access to almost infinite quantities of knowledge, but each one of us knows an awful lot less than our predecessors. How many of us can recite the periodic table or the regnal years of the kings and queens of England? Knowledge used to be hard-won; now it is carried lightly because it can be instantly refreshed.

Keen to avoid discussing “progress”, Burke misses (except for two brief paragraphs) its invention during the clash between the supporters of the Ancients and of the Moderns: the subject of Swift’s Battle of the Books (1704). Newton, bizarrely, convinced himself that everything he had discovered had been known to the ancient Greeks. All he had managed to do was make their esoteric learning exoteric. 

In this denial of progress, this insistence that all discovery is merely rediscovery, Newton was the last spokesperson for the Ancients — but his history of gravity was only published after his death in 1727, by which time the Ancients had been resoundingly defeated by the Moderns. “Ignorance”, along with superstition, had been identified as a crucial characteristic of all pre-Enlightenment cultures.

There’s a serious defence to be made of ignorance

With increasingly rapid technological change, there comes a new relationship to the future. Burke provides a brief survey of the work of the German sociologist Ulrich Beck, who argues that technological change now creates problems more rapidly than it solves them. We can’t calculate the risks that accompany progress because we can’t foresee the possible catastrophes lurking in the future. The future has always been unknown; never before has it been so terrifying. 

After just two short paragraphs Burke returns to safer ground: “A study of risk from an anthropological point of view, published four years before Beck, offered a different perspective, suggesting that ‘The perception of risk is a social process’ and that each ‘type of society … focuses concern on particular dangers’, selected ‘to conform with a specific way of life.’” Thus, no sooner is an argument about irreversible historical change glimpsed than it is pushed to one side. An anodyne generalisation, which would be true about any society at any time in any place, is substituted for it.

Half of Burke’s book is devoted to the consequences of ignorance, all of them bad. Burke can’t bring himself to take seriously the views of “a relatively small number of thinkers and writers who have dared to suggest that enthusiasm for knowledge (‘epistemophilia’) has its dangers whilst ignorance is bliss, or at least possesses a few advantages”

There’s a serious argument to be made in defence of ignorance. The great 17th century sceptic Pierre Bayle argued that no one would choose to live their life over again if they knew just how it would turn out. In every life, he maintained, there is more pain than pleasure. What keeps us going is the illusion that things can only get better, when generally they go from bad to worse. It’s only ignorance, according to Bayle, that makes it possible for us to persist with our fundamentally miserable lives. 

If few would choose life, even fewer would choose to know well in advance the hour of their death. Burke’s extraordinary learning, his commitment to a lifetime of profound scholarship, means that the blessings of ignorance are invisible to him. They find no place in this remarkable late work.

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