Quotations about   ignorance

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For a people to be without history, or to be ignorant of its history, is as for a man to be without memory — condemned forever to make the same discoveries that have been made in the past, invent the same techniques, wrestle with the same problems, commit the same errors; and condemned, too, to forfeit the rich pleasures of reflection.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
The Nature and Study of History, ch. 1 (1965)
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Added on 8-Jun-22 | Last updated 13-Jun-22
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Failings of the intelligence are incorrigible since those who do not know do not know themselves and cannot therefore seek what they lack.

[Achaques de necedad son irremediables, que como los ignorantes no se conocen, tampoco buscan lo que les falta.]

Baltasar Gracián y Morales (1601-1658) Spanish Jesuit priest, writer, philosopher
The Art of Worldly Wisdom [Oráculo Manual y Arte de Prudencia], § 176 (1647) [tr. Jacobs (1892)]
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(Source (Spanish)). Alternate translation:

Because the ignorant do not know themselves, they never look for what they are lacking.
[tr. Maurer (1992)]

Added on 10-May-22 | Last updated 1-Jun-22
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Where shall wisdom be found, and where is the place of understanding? If I knew, I’d walk over and stand there. As it was, I felt as if I stood in the midst of a large map, surrounded by vague areas wherein were penned the visages of particularly nasty-looking random variables. A perfect place for a soliloquy, if one had anything to say.

Roger Zelazny (1937-1995) American writer
The Blood of Amber, ch. 5 (1986)
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Quoting Job 28:12.
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It is easier to say what loyalty is not than what it is. It is not conformity. It is not passive acquiescence in the status quo. It is not preference for everything American over everything foreign. It is not an ostrich-like ignorance of other countries and other institutions. It is not the indulgence in ceremony — a flag salute, an oath of allegiance, a fervid verbal declaration. It is not a particular creed, a particular version of history, a particular body of economic practices, a particular philosophy.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
“Who Is Loyal to America?” Harper’s Magazine #1168 (Sep 1947)
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Reprinted in Freedom, Loyalty, Dissent (1954)
Added on 9-Mar-22 | Last updated 9-Mar-22
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Nostalgia for what we have lost is more bearable than nostalgia for what we have never had, for the first involves knowledge and pleasure, the second only ignorance and pain.

Mignon McLaughlin (1913-1983) American journalist and author
The Neurotic’s Notebook, ch. 4 (1963)
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Added on 24-Feb-22 | Last updated 10-Mar-22
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History shows that there is nothing so easy to enslave and nothing so hard to emancipate as ignorance, hence it becomes the double enemy of civilization. By its servility it is the prey of tyranny, and by its credulity it is the foe of enlightenment.

Lemuel K. Washburn (1846-1927) American freethinker, writer
Is the Bible Worth Reading? And Other Essays, Epigraph (1911)
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A political ideology is a very handy thing to have. It’s a real time-saver, because it tells you what you think about things you know nothing about.

Hendrik Hertzberg (b. 1943) American journalist, editor, speech writer, political commentator
“A Moral Ideologue: The Character of Jimmy Carter,” Character Above All, PBS (31 May 1995)
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Preparation essay for the PBS series on modern presidents. The passage itself is referring, in contrast, to Ronald Reagan, who defeated Carter for reelection as US President in 1980.
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A person who knows nothing about literature may be an ignoramus, but many people don’t mind being that.

Northrop Frye (1912-1991) Canadian literary critic and literary theorist
The Educated Imagination, Talk 1 “The Motive for Metaphor” (1963)
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Travelers learn not just foreign customs and curious cuisines and unfamiliar beliefs and novel forms of government. They learn, if they are lucky, humility. Experiencing on their senses a world different from their own, they realize their provincialism and recognize their ignorance.

Paul Fussell (1924-2012) American cultural and literary historian, author, academic
The Norton Book of Travel, Introduction (1987)
Added on 28-Oct-21 | Last updated 28-Oct-21
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A Dialogue between two Infants in the womb concerning the state of this world, might handsomely illustrate our ignorance of the next, whereof methinks we yet discourse in Platoes denne, and are but Embryon Philosophers.

Thomas Browne (1605-1682) English physician and author
Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall, ch. 4 (1658)
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Added on 20-Oct-21 | Last updated 20-Oct-21
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I never will believe that our youngest days are our happiest. What a miserable augury for the progress of the race and the destination of the individual, if the more matured and enlightened state is the less happy one! Childhood is only the beautiful and happy time in contemplation and retrospect: to the child it is full of deep sorrows, the meaning of which is unknown.

George Eliot (1819-1880) English novelist [pseud. of Mary Ann Evans]
Letter to Sara Hennell (May 1844)
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Added on 13-Oct-21 | Last updated 13-Oct-21
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Those fools
were not aware that now they all were snared,
that death cords lashed them fast.

[τὸ δὲ νήπιοι οὐκ ἐνόησαν,
ὡς δή σφιν καὶ πᾶσιν ὀλέθρου πείρατ᾽ ἐφῆπτο.]

Homer (fl. 7th-8th C. BC) Greek author
The Odyssey [Ὀδύσσεια], Book 22, l. 32ff (22.32) (c. 700 BC) [tr. Mandelbaum (1990)]
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(Source (Greek)). Alternate translations:

O fools, to think
That all their rest had any cup to drink
But what their great Antinous began!
[tr. Chapman (1616)]

For, proud and foolish, they perceived not
The fatal hour was to them all arriv’d.
[tr. Hobbes (1675), l. 27ff]

Blind as they were: for death e'en now invades
His destined prey, and wraps them all in shades.
[tr. Pope (1725)]

Nor saw
Th’ infatuate men fate hov’ring o’er them all.
[tr. Cowper (1792), ll. 34-35]

How fatal and how nigh
Death's snares were set, they foolish never knew!
[tr. Worsley (1861), st. 5]

Yet this the fools knew not
That now them all the goal of death was touching!
[tr. Bigge-Wither (1869)]

Insensate they!
Who felt not in that hour that one and all
Upon the verge of their own ruin stood!
[tr. Musgrave (1869), l. 54ff]

But they knew not in their folly that on their own heads, each and all of them, the bands of death had been made fast.
[tr. Butcher/Lang (1879)]

And they had no understanding, fools as they were, and vain,
That to all the end of the Death-doom was hard upon them now.
[tr. Morris (1887), ll. 32-33]

They foolishly did not see that for them one and all destruction's cords were knotted.
[tr. Palmer (1891)]

And did not perceive that death was hanging over the head of every one of them.
[tr. Butler (1898)]

In their folly they knew not this, that over themselves one and all the cords of destruction had been made fast.
[tr. Murray (1919)]

... their infatuation hiding from them the toils of death that enlaced each and every one.
[tr. Lawrence (1932)]

It had not dawned upon the fools that every one of them was marked for slaughter too.
[tr. Rieu (1946)]

Fools, not to comprehend
they were already in the grip of death.
[tr. Fitzgerald (1961)]

They had not yet realized
how over all of them the terms of death were now hanging.
[tr. Lattimore (1965)]

The fools did not perceive
That already the bond of destruction were fastened on them all.
[tr. Cook (1967)]

Poor fools, blind to the fact
that all their necks were in the noose, their doom sealed.
[tr. Fagles (1996)]

And had no idea of how tightly the net
Had been drawn around them.
[tr. Lombardo (2000)]

And the poor fools never suspected how on all of the suitors the grim death bindings were fastened.
[tr. Merrill (2002)]

It had not dawned upon the fools that the fate of all of them was sealed.
[tr. DCH Rieu (2002)]

Fools, who did not understand that on every one of them death's ropes were now fastened tight.
[tr. Verity (2016)]

Those poor fools did not know [...] that the snares of death were round them all.
[tr. Wilson (2017)]

Poor fools, they had no notion that over them all the bonds of destruction were set.
[tr. Green (2018)]

In their folly,
they did not understand that they were now enmeshed
in destruction’s net.
[tr. Johnston (2019), ll. 39-41]

Added on 29-Sep-21 | Last updated 1-Dec-21
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Beware:
Ignorance
Protects itself
Ignorance
Promotes suspicion.
Suspicion
Engenders fear.
Fear quails,
Irrational and blind,
Or fear looms,
Defiant and closed.
Blind, closed,
Suspicious, afraid,
Ignorance
Protects itself,
And protected,
Ignorance grows.

Octavia Butler (1947-2006) American writer
Parable of the Talents, ch. 12, epigram (1998)
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Added on 2-Sep-21 | Last updated 2-Sep-21
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Ignorance is not bliss — it is oblivion. Determined ignorance is the hastiest kind of oblivion.

Philip Wylie (1902-1971) American author
Generation of Vipers (1942)
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The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakable fact can be impudently denied.

George Orwell (1903-1950) English writer [pseud. of Eric Arthur Blair]
“Notes on Nationalism” (May 1945)
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Added on 14-Jun-21 | Last updated 14-Jun-21
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NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess — and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.

William Goldman (1931-2018) American screenwriter, novelist
Adventures in the Screen Trade, ch. 1 (1983)
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Added on 25-May-21 | Last updated 25-May-21
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If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and the next year you can make it a crime to teach it to the hustings or in the church. At the next session you may ban books and the newspapers. Soon you may set Catholic against Protestant and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the minds of men. If you can do one you can do the other. Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers, tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lectures, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After a while, your honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.

Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) American lawyer
Scopes Trial, Dayton, Tennessee (13 Jul 1925)
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His progress through life was hampered by his tremendous sense of his own ignorance, a disability which affects all too few.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Maskerade (1995)
Added on 18-May-21 | Last updated 18-May-21
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If we are to have another contest in the near future of our national existence, I predict that the dividing line will not be Mason’s and Dixon’s, but between patriotism and intelligence on the one side, and superstition, ambition, and ignorance on the other.

Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) American military leader, US President (1869-77)
Speech, Army of the Tennessee, Des Moines (29 Sep 1876)
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Advocating free, non-sectarian, public education.
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There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.

Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) Russian-American poet, essayist, Nobel laureate, US Poet Laureate [Iosif Aleksandrovič Brodskij]
Press conference, Library of Congress, Washington (17 May 1991)

On accepting the US Poet Laureateship.
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It must be remembered that evidence is never complete, that knowledge of truth is always partial, and that to await certainty is to await eternity.

John Bowlby 1907-1990) British psychologist, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst
Maternal Care and Mental Health (1951)
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The last phrase is often attributed to Jonas Salk, who used it ("It is said to await certainty is to await eternity") in a telegram to Basil O'Connor (8 Nov 1954). But as Salk himself noted, it was not original to him.
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There is no case where ignorance should be preferred to knowledge — especially if the knowledge is terrible.

Edward Teller (1908-2003) Hungarian-American theoretical physicist
Interview (1994)

Recalling the debate over the development of the hydrogen bomb. Quoted in Roger Shattuck, Forbidden Knowledge (1996).
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I believe that censorship grows out of fear, and because fear is contagious, some parents are easily swayed. Book banning satisfies their need to feel in control of their children’s lives. This fear is often disguised as moral outrage. They want to believe that if their children don’t read about it, their children won’t know about it. And if they don’t know about it, it won’t happen.

Judy Blume (b. 1938) American writer
“Judy Blume Talks about Censorship”
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Added on 25-Mar-21 | Last updated 25-Mar-21
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You do ill if you praise, but worse if you censure, what you do not understand.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) Italian artist, engineer, scientist
Notebook entry (c. 1500), Leonardo da Vinci’s Note-Books (1906) [tr. MacCurdy]
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Codice Atlantico 76 v. a.
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It has often and confidently been asserted, that man’s origin can never be known: but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) English naturalist
The Descent of Man, Introduction (1871)
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To be unacquainted with what has passed in the world, before we came into it ourselves, is to be always children. For what is the age of a single mortal, unless it is connected, by the aid of History, with the times of our ancestors?

[Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. Quid enim est aetas hominis, nisi ea memoria rerum veterum cum superiorum aetate contexitur?]

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) Roman orator, statesman, philosopher
Brutus, ch. 34, sec. 120 (55 BC) [tr. Jones (1776)]
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The original Latin. Alt. trans.
  • "For not to know what happened before one was born, is to be a boy all one s life. For what is the life of a man unless by a recollection of bygone transactions it is united to the times of his predecessors?" [tr. Yonge (1853)]
  • "To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to remain always a boy. For what is the lifetime of a man, unless it is connected with the lifetime of older men by the memory of earlier events?" [tr. Fox (2007)]
  • "What is a generation, if it is not conjoined with the age of our predecessors by the memory of ancient things?" [tr. @sentantiq]
  • "Not to know what happened before you were born is to be a child forever. For what is the time of a man, except it be interwoven with that memory of ancient things of a superior age?"
  • "Not to know what happened before you were born is always to be a boy."
  • "To be ignorant of the past is to be forever a child."
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Ignorance of remote causes disposeth men to attribute all events to the causes immediate and instrumental: for these are all the causes they perceive.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) English philosopher
Leviathan, Part 1, ch. 11 (1651)
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They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it’s not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Equal Rites (1987)

See Pope.
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DEXTER: Every day, here and at home, we are warned about the enemy. But who is the enemy? Is it the alien? Well, we are all alien to one another. Is it the one who believes differently than we do? No, oh no, my friends. The enemy is fear. The enemy is ignorance. The enemy is the one who tells you that you must hate that which is different. Because, in the end, that hate will turn on you. And that same hate will destroy you.

J. Michael (Joe) Straczynski (b. 1954) American screenwriter, producer, author [a/k/a "JMS"]
Babylon 5, 3×20 “And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place” (14 Oct 1996)
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The supreme crime of the church to-day is that everywhere and in all its operations and influences it is on the side of sloth of mind; that it banishes brains, it sanctifies stupidity, it canonizes incompetence.

Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) American writer, journalist, activist, politician
The Profits of Religion, Book Two: “The Church of Good Society,” “The Canonization of Incompetence” (1917)
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The highest truth is daiji, translated as dai jiki in Chinese scriptures. This is the subject of the question the emperor asked Bodhidharma: “What is the First Principle?” Bodhidharma said, “I don’t know.” “I don’t know” is the First Principle.

Shunryū Suzuki (1905-1971) Japanese Zen Buddhist master
Lotus Sutra No. 6 lecture, Tassajara, California (Feb 1968)
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Ignorance iz the wet nuss of prejudice.

[Ignorance is the wet nurse of prejudice.]

Josh Billings (1818-1885) American humorist [pseud. of Henry Wheeler Shaw]
Everybody’s Friend, Or; Josh Billing’s Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor, “Puddin and Milk” (1874)
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A learned fool is more foolish than an ignorant one.

[Un sot savant est sot plus qu’un sot ignorant.]

Molière (1622-1673) French playwright, actor [stage name for Jean-Baptiste Poquelin]
The Learned Ladies [Les Femmes Savantes], Act 4, sc. 3, l. 1296 [Clitandre] (1672)
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Alt. trans.:
  • "The learned fool is a far greater fool than the fool of ignorance." [tr. Wormeley (1895), The Female Pedants]
  • "A learned fool is more foolish than an ignorant one." [tr. Van Laun, The Learned Ladies]
  • "A learned fool is more of a fool than an ignorant one." [tr. Wall (1879), The Learned Women]
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It takes a lot of things to prove you are smart, but only one thing to prove you are ignorant.

Don Herold (1889-1966) American humorist, cartoonist, author
So Human (1924)
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DEMOSTHENES: A demagogue must be neither an educated nor an honest man; he has to be an ignoramus and a rogue.

Aristophanes (c. 450-c. 388 BC) Athenian comedic playwright
The Knights, ll. 191-3 [tr. O’Neill (1938)]
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Alt. trans. "For the character of popular leader no longer belongs to a man of education, nor yet to one good in his morals, but to the ignorant and abominable." [tr. Hickie (1853)]
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Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Letter to John Adams (1 Aug 1816)
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What are you pretending not to know?

Sig Lines
~
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So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) American poet and satirist
“The Blind Men and the Elephant,” Moral, The Poems of John Godfrey Saxe (1872)
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The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) American fabulist [Howard Phillips Lovecraft]
“The Call of Cthulhu,” ch. 1, opening words (1928)
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BERNARD: But surely the citizens of a democracy have a right to know.
SIR HUMPHREY: No. They have a right to be ignorant. Knowledge only means complicity in guilt; ignorance has a certain dignity.

Jonathan Lynn (b. 1943) English actor, comedy writer, director
Yes Minister, S1E1 “Open Government” (25 Feb 1980) [with Anthony Jay]
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“If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master — to do as he is told to do. Learning will spoil the best nigger in the world. Now, if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”

Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) American abolitionist, orator, writer
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, ch. 6 (1845)
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Quoting his master, Auld, chastising Mrs. Auld for teaching Douglass to read. Frequently paraphrased down to "Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave."
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One of the greatest of joys known to man is to take such a flight into ignorance in search of knowledge. The great pleasure of ignorance is, after all, the pleasure of asking questions. The man who has lost this pleasure or exchanged it for the pleasure of dogma, which is the pleasure of answering, is already beginning to stiffen.

Robert Lynd (1892-1970) American sociologist [Robert Slaughton Lynd]
The Pleasure of Ignorance, ch. 1 (1921)
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H.G. Wells said that history was a race between education and catastrophe, and it may be that the writer will add just sufficient impetus to education to enable it to outrace catastrophe. And if education wins by even the narrowest of margins, how much more can we ask for?

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) Russian-American author, polymath, biochemist
“Your Future As A Writer,” Writer’s Digest (May 1986)
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See referenced quotation by Wells.
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There are few of us who are not protected from the keenest pain by our inability to see what it is that we have done, what we are suffering, and what we truly are. Let us be grateful to the mirror for revealing to us our appearances only.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) English novelist, satirist, scholar
Erewhon, ch. 3 “Up the River” (1872)
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Added on 28-Oct-19 | Last updated 28-Oct-19
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Americans’ lack of passion for history is well known. History may not quite be bunk, as Henry Ford suggested, but there’s no denying that, as a people, we sustain a passionate concentration on the present and the future. Backward is just not a natural direction for Americans to look — historical ignorance remains a national characteristic.

Larry McMurtry
Larry McMurtry (b. 1936) American novelist, essayist, bookseller, screenwriter
Oh What a Slaughter: Massacres in the American West: 1846–1890 (2005)
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Added on 1-Jan-19 | Last updated 1-Jan-19
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Although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge, the nationalist is often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to feel that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit, and he can more easily do this by scoring off an adversary than by examining the facts to see whether they support him.

George Orwell (1903-1950) English writer [pseud. of Eric Arthur Blair]
“Notes on Nationalism” (1945)
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Added on 3-Aug-18 | Last updated 3-Aug-18
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One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory.

Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944) American author, playwright
(Attributed)
Added on 14-May-18 | Last updated 14-May-18
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I ask you not to hate people who treat you badly. … This is easier to write than it is to live but there are ignorant people. Only a few are truly malicious. Hate is a poison. It can spread through your system. Forgive them if you can. Forget them if you must.

Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944) American author, playwright
Interview in OutSmart magazine (Jan 1998)
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Many of the ugly pages of American history have been obscured and forgotten. A society is always eager to cover misdeeds with a cloak of forgetfulness, but no society can fully repress an ugly past when the ravages persist into the present. America owes a debt of justice which it has only begun to pay. If it loses the will to finish or slackens in its determination, history will recall its crimes and the country that would be great will lack the most indispensable element of greatness — justice.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) American clergyman, civil rights leader, orator
Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967)
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Ever see a bird hurt itself by flying into a glass window? The bird is not stupid; he simply did not have all the data.

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) American writer
The Puppet Masters (1951)
Added on 3-Nov-17 | Last updated 3-Nov-17
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Some people are just better than others at noticing things that don’t align with their concern, and Mum and Dad are simply oblivious to elves, vampires, vegans, and other esoteric manifestations of modernity.

Charles "Charlie" Stross (b. 1964) British writer
The Nightmare Stacks, ch. 12 (2016)
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Impossibilities are merely things of which we have not learned, or which we do not wish to happen.

Charles Chesnutt (1858-1932) American author, essayist, civil rights activist, lawyer
The Marrow of Tradition (1901)
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The only people who can still strike us as normal are those we don’t yet know very well.

Alain de Botton (b. 1969) Swiss-British author
The Course of Love, “Irreconcilable Desires” (2016)
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Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilized by education; they grow there, firm as weeds among stones.

Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) British novelist [pseud. Currer Bell]
Jane Eyre, ch. 29 (1847)
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Added on 30-Jun-17 | Last updated 30-Jun-17
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Children’s talent to endure stems from their ignorance of alternatives.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) American poet, memoirist, activist [b. Marguerite Ann Johnson]
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, ch. 17 (1969)
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Added on 20-Jun-17 | Last updated 20-Jun-17
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