Madman image

More Musings of a Madman

From Wacko to Wiseman

It might be instructive to examine the case of a well-known lunatic of the past, albeit one vastly more esteemed and accomplished than ordinary crazies like myself. Socrates was a madman who not only graduated to prophet but went on to become an iconic idol of Supreme Wisdom. To become an icon of wisdom means that people who have not the blurriest notion of what you actually taught or believed are profoundly shocked if anyone dares to suggest that you were not really wise. But Socrates was not only a madman; he was a dangerous madman. The Guardians of Sanity saw that he was dangerous because his lunacy was becoming infectious. They decided to nip the madness in the bud by putting him to death. At his trial he attempted a novel defense: he pleaded, not innocent, but ignorant. He claimed that he really did not know anything, that he openly, publicly and adamantly insisted that he knew nothing, and that the more he thought and studied the less he knew. Some people have thought this was a clever defense, but in any event it did not work: they killed him anyway. What the people who thought this was a cunning dodge do not understand is that his ignorance was the heart of his lunacy and precisely the thing that made him so very, very dangerous.

The Guardians of Sanity knew that ignorance is dangerous because it is a painful and destructive social disease. Ignorance is not only agony; it is an acid that eats the fabric of society. Certain knowledge is the foundation of social stability. It is bliss, although blissful certainty looks like blissful ignorance from the perspective of a rival certain knowledge. To embrace your ignorance is the most terrifying thing in the world; it is stepping into the void, exiting the flying airplane without a parachute, stepping off the bridge without a bungee cord. Only a madman would do it.

Perhaps you think I exaggerate. Surely, you say, only the most arrogant asses among us refuse to acknowledge ignorance. Few of us pretend to know everything. That is true, but there is trivial ignorance and there is deep ignorance, and Socrates was talking about the deep kind, the terrifying kind. The horrible secret truth is that it afflicts all of us, but only madmen are foolish enough to face it. The rest sensibly cling to the sanity of certain knowledge.

[Next page: Sanity is Certainty]

A few others who have managed to graduate from madness to genius — or something more — include Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, and Jesus of Nazareth.