Ignorance and Bliss

On Wanting Not to Know

December 2024 9781911723523 256pp
Available as an eBook


Aristotle claimed that ‘all human beings want to know’. Yet our own experience proves that all human beings also want not to know. Today, centuries after the Enlightenment, mesmerised crowds still follow preposterous prophets; irrational rumours trigger fanatical acts; and magical thinking crowds out common sense and expertise. Why is this? Where does this will to ignorance come from, and how does it continue to shape our lives?

In this dazzling exploration of our wish for innocence and ignorance—and its consequences— acclaimed essayist and historian of ideas Mark Lilla offers an absorbing psychological diagnosis of the human will not to know. With erudition and brio, Lilla ranges from the Book of Genesis and Plato’s Dialogues to Sufi parables and Sigmund Freud, revealing the paradoxes of hiding truth from ourselves. He also exposes the illusions that this impulse can lead us to entertain: the belief that the ecstasies of prophets, mystics and holy fools will offer access to esoteric truths; the mythology of children’s lamb-like innocence; and nostalgic fantasies of recapturing the glories of vanished, allegedly purer civilisations.


Mark Lilla is Professor of Humanities at Columbia University; a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New York Times; and author, most recently, of The Once and Future Liberal (also published by Hurst). His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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