Sapere audi – ‘Dare to know’, as the Roman poet Horace wrote. It was later taken up by famous Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, and it seemed like a suitable rallying cry as I negotiated the years that led from youth to, well, Age. Who could argue that ignorance is preferable to knowledge? That understanding something, better facilitates an informed decision about whether to believe or reject? To welcome, or close the door?
Admittedly, knowledge can be a moving target, both in time and perhaps in temperament as well. Whatever ‘knowing’ is that determines the appeal of a particular political philosophy, say, is not immutable, not forever carved in marble like the letters in Trajan’s column. One could start off in one camp, and then wander into another as the years wear thin. Perhaps it is the gradual friction of experience rubbing on hope that effects the change- but however it works, exposure can alter what we believe. If nothing else, it speeds adaptation, and enables us to habituate to things that we might once have shunned. And it is precisely this ability to acclimatize that may prove worrisome.
An essay by the philosopher Daniel Callcut drew this to my attention a while ago: https://aeon.co/ideas/if-anyone-can-see-the-morally-unthinkable-online-what-then
‘There are at least two senses of ‘morally unthinkable’. The first, that of something you have no inkling of is perhaps the purest form of moral innocence. Not only can you not contemplate doing X: you don’t even know what X is. This is the innocence that parents worry their children will lose online… Then there is the worry that if something becomes thinkable in the imaginative sense, then it might eventually become thinkable in the practical sense too… If virtue depends in part on actions being unthinkable, then the internet doubtless has a tendency to make unvirtuous actions all too thinkable… The idea that being a decent person involves controlling the kinds of thoughts you allow yourself to think can easily be met with resistance. If virtue depends on limits to what is thinkable, and a certain free-thought ideal celebrates no limits, then the potential conflict between freethinking and virtue is obvious.’
Of course, one of the several elephants in the room is the pornographic one -the ‘public discussion of the internet’s potential to undermine virtue focuses on the vast amount of easily accessible pornography… Porn, the research suggests, has the tendency to encourage the prevalence of thoughts that shouldn’t be thought: that women enjoy rape, and that No doesn’t really mean No. More generally, it has the tendency to encourage what the British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey in the 1970s dubbed the ‘male gaze’: men staring at women’s bodies in a way that bypasses concern for a woman’s consent.’ And, not only that, there was the intriguing suggestion that ‘Liberals, worried about potential censorship, can sometimes find themselves defending the implausible position that great art has great benefits but that junk culture never produces any harms.’
As Callcut writes, ‘What we imagine is not inert: what we think about changes the people we are, either quickly or over time – but it still changes us.’ So, ‘If the image you are looking at is disturbing,’ he asks, ‘is it because it is explicit and unfamiliar to you, or is it because it is wrong? When are you looking at a problem, and when is the problem you?’ There is a definite tension ‘between virtues that by their nature restrict thought and imagination and the prevailing spirit of the internet that encourages the idea that everything should be viewable and thinkable.’
In other words, is it better not to know something? Is Sapere audi anachronistic, inappropriate -dangerous, even?
I find myself drawn back in time to something that happened to me when I was around 13 or 14 years of age. There was no internet, in those days, of course, and word of mouth, or naughty whispers with subtle nudges were sometimes how we learned about adult things.
A somewhat duplicitous friend had lent me a book to read: The Facts of Life and Love for Teenagers, I think it was called. His parents had given it to him when they’d found his stash of overly-suggestive magazines hidden in a closet. I wasn’t sure what to make of the loan, but at that tender age, and in those pre-social media days, there was much about life that remained mysterious and hidden from me. I hadn’t yet given much thought to girls; it was still an innocent time.
I remember being embarrassed even handling the book -especially since it didn’t look as if it had even been opened. My first instinct was to hide it somewhere my mother wouldn’t find it. Obviously the closet hadn’t worked for my friend, so, since it was summer, I decided to put it at the bottom of my sock drawer where I kept the ones I only used in winter. She’d never need to burrow down that deeply.
But, oddly enough, a few days later, I discovered the book had acquired a folded piece of paper in the ‘How babies are made’, section. ‘Read this,’ the note said in my mother’s unmistakeable cursive.
The next morning at breakfast I could hardly look up from my plate, but to her credit, she acted as if it was just another summer’s day: the radio on the shelf was playing some music softly in the background, and my father was buried behind his newspaper.
But the discovery triggered an embarrassing walk with my father who had obviously been delegated by my mother to deliver the Talk, as my friends termed it in those days. And although it turned out well, I couldn’t help but think I had crossed a line in my life. And judging by the gravity with which he approached it, I had just been initiated into a hitherto forbidden club.
In this case, fortunately, the not-yet imagined realm was discussed sensitively and, with many blushes on both our faces, placed in a realistic context -and with what I would later realize was a sensible perspective…
Despite my age, and after all these years, I continue to be naïve about many things I suspect, and yet I still feel there is a need to defend the ‘Dare to know,’ exhortation. Virtue does not depend on actions never considered, nor on a drought of as-yet-unimagined things; decency does not simply require controlling what you allow yourself to think, any more than pulling the covers over your head at night protected you from the bogeyman in the room when you were a child.
Virtue -morality- isn’t the absence of temptation; there is, and probably will continue to be, an allure to what we do not know -to what is kept hidden from us. There will always be a struggle, I imagine, and the more you know about it -and about the world- the more you enable yourself to understand context. I still wonder what type of adulthood I might have wandered into had my mother not found that book and realized there was an opportunity.
Sapere audi, I almost wish she had written instead, in that note to her already nerdy child -I think I would have loved the Latin.