Need To Know!

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It is a piece of conventional wisdom that what we see all the time we do not see at all, and that the very assumption that is accepted by everyone is the assumption that is neither questioned, nor remarked upon, or noticed.

The urge to know is so universal among human beings and so continually operative that it is difficult to perceive how strange it is.

We all remember that Aristotle claimed (in the very first sentence of the Metaphysics) that all men desire to know by nature.

Notice the emphatic tone: “desire” not “have the potential to” or “are given to now and then,” but “desire.” Note as well the “by nature.” From wherever this wissenlust originates it is powerful and a part of the definition of human beings.

And of course it is familiar enough. It is reflected in literature. Remember the scene from Huckleberry Finn where the funeral is interrupted by a loud animal ruckus downstairs . . .

But pretty soon they see that long-legged undertaker make a sign to the preacher as much as to say “Don’t you worry—just depend on me.” Then he stooped down and begun to glide along the wall, just his shoulders showing over the people’s heads. So he glided along, and the pow-wow and racket getting more and more outrageous all the time, and at last…he disappears down cellar . . .

There is a whack and a howl or two and the noise ends. The undertaker comes back . . .

. . . and then rose up, and shaded his mouth with his hands, and stretched out his neck out towards the preacher, over the people’s heads, and says in a kind of a coarse whisper “He had a rat.” . . . You could see it was a great satisfaction to the people, because naturally they wanted to know . . . There warn’t no more popular man in town than what that undertaker was.

And we see it operating in ordinary life. The streetcars here in Toronto are subject to frequent delays, something riders have to get used to. But a driver who takes the trouble to find out what the delay is due to (the efficient cause, if you will) and bothers to tell the passengers is seldom found and much appreciated.

This is . . . illogical, if you think about it. Why should it make any difference? No one is going anywhere anyway. Why does it please simply to know why?

This in turn draws our attention to the question: Why is the urge to know so disproportionate to its practical consequences? Why do we want to know, yearn to know, not only what it will cost to replace the kitchen countertop, but also the politics in Missouri and the latest discovery in Egypt and who was on the grassy knoll and what was the name of that comic in that movie (whose name we can’t remember) who did that funny song fifty years ago[1]? Interested? These things drive people crazy.

The urge to know is so strong that stifling it is one of the key components in political control. Everyone knows that the first step of the new People’s Revolutionary Democratic Governing Junta is to seize the television stations, newspapers and close down the Internet.

And it works the other way as well, of course. Once the governments of Anglo North America and Europe pined, pined we say, under the shackles of cruel privacy laws. Now, your prime minister or president, or their deputies, are free, free at last, to inquire anywhere and in any depth, and may look into your financial affairs, your mail, and your last thirty five searches on Google without demure. And if that bothers you, they know that too. Liberty!

How did this drive come to be built-in to the human race? If it were confined to our environment it would be understandable. Primitive Man, call him Fred, would indeed operate more successfully with an ongoing default interest in what was just beyond that hillock in the Serengeti. There might be a berry bush (hurrah!). There might be a lion (meh). It was useful to know.

Why should this thoroughly practical urge expand into a profound interest in the outer planets of our solar system, or lead us to read a list of “Ten movie stars who got their start in Horror movies?” The writer has been there. The writer has wasted enough time on these trivialities to rebuild the temple of Karnak. He has, let us be clear, resisted doing anagrams, but must confess, mantled in shame, to an addiction to reading comment columns on   What difference does any of it make?

Yet it must make a difference. After all, human beings do not do what they do without reason. There is a purpose. A trivial purpose, perhaps, a disgusting purpose, a purpose whose required effort dwarfs its potential profit, but a purpose.

At this point it is time to climb out on a limb. May we suggest, and with diffidence, that this phenomenon may be a side effect, as it were, of rationality itself?

Reason, after all, is the structuring of knowledge. We know X, we know Y, and reason puts it together as X à Y.

But perhaps knowledge is by its nature incomplete until it is total. That is, we know nothing absolutely, until we know everything. Everything we know here and now, is partial, and may be improved (with luck). And it is the nature of a possibility to push itself, and us, if it can, into actuality.

An aside, with your indulgence. This built-in bend to realization is why to entertain oneself with what one would do in certain cases, trusting on the assumption that circumstances make it impossible, is so dangerous. Circumstances shift, and what was a daydream becomes a possibility that issues a put-up-or-shut-up.

It has long been a personal suspicion of the writer that this is part of what happened at Columbine.

If knowledge has an inner drive to totality, what are the consequences?

It would seem that knowledge, and the urge to know, is not something we can tear into ad libitum, any more than we can allow ourselves unlimited drink, sex, or orders on Amazon. Like everything else, it comes under the governance of reason or noesis, that reason that is the agent, like Archie Goodwin, of a higher principle.

Free range knowing is not an option, any more than free range ranching.

This has to be a little disheartening. It is also discouraging, of course, to think that we know nothing perfectly, at least on this side of darkness.

But on the other hand, because we can reason, because we have a choice in what we try to know, we have the reins in our own hands. If man is a plant, he is the only plant that is allowed to prune itself. That is no small thing.

Let us conclude with a quote familiar to most of us:

In consideratione creaturarum

non est vana et peritura curiositas exercenda,

sed gradus ad immortalia et semper manentia faciendus.

Bene dictum, and then some.



[1] It was Harvey Lembeck. Don’t you feel better?

Max Arnott

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Max Arnott is an independent scholar living in Toronto and has been a reader of Voegelin for many years.