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 we also want not to know. Centuries after the Enlightenment, mesmerised crowds still follow preposterous prophets; irrational rumours trigger fanatical acts; and magical thinking crowds out common sense and expertise. Where does this will to ignorance originate, and how does it shape our lives today?

Acclaimed essayist and historian of ideas Mark Lilla offers an absorbing intellectual travelogue of the human will not to know. He ranges with brio from the Book of Genesis and Plato’s dialogues to Sufi parables and Sigmund Freud, revealing the paradoxes of hiding truth from ourselves. Lilla also exposes the illusions that this impulse can lead us to entertain: our belief in the ecstasies of prophet figures as a gateway to truth, the myth of children’s wise simplicity, and the yearning for vanished, allegedly purer civilisations.


‘An exuberant, inexhaustible storyteller, Lilla finds the hidden, self-protective will to ignorance at the centre of our most cherished religious myths, philosophical systems, and literary masterpieces.’ — Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve and The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve

‘Mark Lilla argues compellingly that a will to ignorance is as strong in human beings as any interest in knowledge. Writing with admirable clarity and subtle charm, Lilla gives us a highly original study of what our desire not to know means for our lives.’ — John Gray, author of The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism

‘Ignorance is bliss, a poet once said, and Mark Lilla offers us a learned, humane and astringent guide to our incorrigible attachment to ignorance and our wavering commitment to truth. At a time when our politics is debauched with lies and fake news, Lilla asks a question which challenges our alibis: what if the root of the problem lies not with our leaders, but with us?’ — Michael Ignatieff, professor at Central European University and author of On Consolation

‘In these murky days when we all seem to be at sea, Mark Lilla’s elegant and perceptive handbook serves both as a compass and a hopeful sail.’ — Alberto Manguel, author of Maimonides and A History of Reading


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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