Western philosophy has plenty of problems, of course: the problem of existence, the problem of identity, the problem of god, and, perhaps most famously, the problem of evil. That last problem tries to sort out the existence of a divinity with the existence of suffering in the world, where suffering is seen as the quintessential vexation for existence. While this is a problem for a cultural setting that posits an all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing deity, civilizations that have a different concept of divinity might see the essential problem of existence as something else. This is where the Problem of Ignorance comes in: for many non-Western traditions, the problem is not that we don't understand God, it's that we don't understand the world and ourselves. We're not immersed in evil; we're immersed in ignorance.
Let's take Buddhist, Hindu, and Daoist traditions as some examples. In Buddhism, the "facts of life" (old age, sickness, death, impermanence, and so forth) do not chance, but our perceptions of them can. If one remains stuck in the mindset that happiness, health, and love are forever -- that is, remains ignorant of the changing dynamics of the universe -- then life is one long train of pain. In Hinduism, broadly speaking, one's difficulty is ignorance of the larger connection of one's individual soul with the greater absolute. We ignorantly perceive ourselves as independent and separate, when in fact we are one entity in the ultimate. In Daoism, ugly and beautiful, good and evil exist only in an ignorant mind, and by reflexively separating life into those categories, we create discordance and pain. Knowledge occurs only when one simply experiences and does not label.
Having studied these various religions for some years now, it hit me one day: in many ways, the ultimate goal of each is simply crafting the proper outlook based on knowledge, as opposed to ignorance. While other traditions pose disobedience or evil as the problem to be overcome, these ways of thought consider ignorance to be the greatest obstacle to a fulfilling life. The key obstacle we must overcome thus lies not without, but within us.
These basic principles of the Problem of Ignorance remind me of a theme that I noticed some time ago in a few of my favorite popular culture mythologies. If you'll allow me to turn the discussion on its head a little bit, I think these stories give us some good examples of this same theme of ignorance as the enemy and knowledge as power. Take the Luke Skywalker-Darth Vader dyad of the original Star Wars films, particularly The Empire Strikes Back.
I'm certainly not the only one to see mythic and religious significance in this film series. There is a particular set of sequences is these films, though, that demonstrate the theme of ignorance as the enemy.When Luke rushes off to face Vader, he is not yet properly trained and, even more important, Vader has him at a complete disadvantage: the Sith Lord knows the young Jedi-to-be's history and parentage better than Luke does himself. Luke is beaten, and very badly. It is only when he returns to Dagobah and consults with his masters, thereby learning the truth of his father's past, that Luke redresses the imbalance of knowledge and, when he meets Vader again, ultimately triumphs.
One could say that Luke should have been forewarned, if only he'd absorbed the lessons Yoda tried to teach him about the Dark Side when he was on Dagobah the first time. When he fights the apparition of Vader, what he sees in the shattered helmet, is not a grotesque monster, but himself.
This alone should have given the Jedi-in-training pause about what he knew versus what he didn't know about his own inner impulses and murky past. Yet, like so many of us, Luke had to learn the hard way.
Now for a second example:
For most of the Harry Potter saga, Harry is similarly at a disadvantage to Voldemort, who lived through events that Harry cannot remember and which most of his mentors are reluctant to discuss. This situation reaches a crescendo in (I would say at least) the most chilling scene in either the novels or the films: Harry is trapped, seemingly with no escape, at the hands of a vastly more experienced wizard who has greater knowledge of the past events entangling them. (It also turns out there's quite a backstory on this particular graveyard in the Potter-verse.) Yet, Harry does escape, because Voldemort proves to be ignorant himself of a great many things: the incantations between their respective wands, the true nature of friendship and love, and Harry's resourcefulness to learn the lore and whereabouts of the horcruxes. Once Harry closes this knowledge gap and fills in the missing pieces of his own past, he is in a position to defeat Voldemort once and for all.
A third example comes from the final Christopher Nolan Batman film The Dark Knight Rises.
Though I have not tended to rank the movie very highly, there are still some stunning thematic elements to the film and the confrontations between Batman and Bane are quite good. In the first, located in Bane's sewer headquarters, the audience realizes the Dark Knight is in trouble even before a punch is thrown when the villain quips, "Let's not stand on ceremony here, Mr. Wayne." Given what we saw in the two previous examples, if I had been Batman (and, God willing, some day perhaps I shall be) I would have beat a hasty retreat: no good outcome can be expected when the villain knows more about the situation than you. Sure enough, Batman is beaten and beaten horrifically, to be deposited in a pit to think on his failures. In that pit, the inmates instruct Batman on Bane's past and, most importantly, the significance of his mask, meaning that when they fight again, the Dark Knight knows precisely where to strike him.
Wayne's character arc throughout this process is actually quite compelling, at least to me. When he returns as Batman, it appears to me that he has a thinly veiled death wish. Life has become purposeless without the thrill of being Batman and he wants to go out in a blaze of glory. Alfred picks up on this subconscious motivation in this exchange.
Wayne: You think if I go out there, I'll fail.
Alfred: No, I'm afraid that you want to.
In the pit, he asks Bane, almost regretfully, "Why didn't you just kill me?" But this changes as he learns not just about Bane but about himself. It hasn't been anger motivating him all his life. It's been fear. And when he makes a friend of his fear, learns to channel it into an energy, he escapes from the pit, going from the subterranean to the light in an obvious metaphor for rebirth. When next he faces Bane, the circumstances are different.
Bane: So, you came back to die with your city?
Batman: No, I came back to stop you.
At first glance, this is not the most inspiring action hero come back. When I first heard it, I thought, "what a dud of a reply." Yet, upon repeated viewing, there is much more going on in the exchange. Previously, he had comeback to the role of Batman in order to die. Now, he has learned not only about Bane's weakness, but also his true motivation, which his reply communicates. He realizes he's not in it for himself anymore, and that knowledge about himself provides the strength to overcome.
Besides the villains they face, in each of these examples I think we can make a strong case that the hero also must overcome the Problem of Ignorance and that only by solving the gaps in their knowledge are they able to succeed. Certainly someone who understands his surrounding circumstances stands a good chance of being successful. But, more importantly, the one who knows himself is virtually unstoppable. Perhaps there is a lesson in that for all of us: our greatest enemies are not other people, but our own ignorance.
Next time, I may talk about some little known but very compelling epic literature from around the world. Or, I might talk about some recently acquired hobbies. All in good time. Until next we talk, let's all shoot for good luck with that sticky Problem of Ignorance, and please take care.