On Instructing the Ignorant

The Council of Elrond

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Sermon on the Mount by Cosimo Rosselli (Source)

Knowledge is a valuable treasure trove: as Tolkien might re-craft the oft-spoken mantra, “The might of Elrond is in wisdom not weapons.” At the Council of Elrond, the wisdom of the Wise and the presentation of information from across the wide lands of Middle-earth takes center stage: after all, there is no real “action” in this section, but instead a series of long speeches and detailed musing that nevertheless captivates the intention of both hobbit and reader. This “instruction” cannot be underestimated, for “a part of his tale was known to some there, but the full tale to none” and “now, therefore, things shall be openly spoken that have been hidden from all but a few until this day.” Before a reasonable and conscientious decision can be made regarding the Ring, everyone needs to be on the same page. It is only just, and in a sense a requirement of mercy, for a person to possess “knowledge” before making a choice.

The first spiritual work of mercy for consideration is instructing the ignorant. Ignorance possesses a seemingly simple definition, that of “lack of understanding, knowledge, education, or awareness,” from the Latin in (“not”) plus gnarus (“aware” or “acquainted with”). This etymology suggests a slight complication to ignorance’s grasp: to “not be aware” of something requires both that the thing being understood must be capable of being known as well as the thing understanding capable of knowing. Therefore, there are limitations to ignorance based on reason and circumstance: in moral theology, the levels of moral ignorance take into account the attributions of culpability, comprehension of the law, liberty of the will, and the punishment prescribed.

The “instruction” of such ignorance is a thorny topic for modern society, and can lead to accusations of insensitivity, intolerance, elitism, or hypocrisy. The claim to be table to teach “morality” does not sit well with our inclinations towards relativity and individuality, and certainly God is not a being one can fully understood. Not all knowledge leads to a good and virtuous life, for “it is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy, for good or for ill.” As Aragorn himself mentions, there is an argument for maintaining a certain level of secrecy from certain peoples, so that “simple folk are free from care and fear.” What then is the value of instructing the ignorant? Why then hold it in such esteem?

The root of instruction is the Latin instruere, which literally means “to build or set in order.” For any man to fulfill the Socratic imperative to “know thyself” and thereby be able to seek out that which is (“the truth,” whatever it may be), such a person must possess a framework of understanding, a system structure of comprehension. Christians have long recognized that such instruction requires specialized talents, declaring that the primary work of instructing the ignorant belongs to those with much training and experience on the matters: bishops, priests, teachers, scholars. Parents instruct their children on the basic tenets of moral reason and supra-material understanding. Yet each of the works of mercy belongs to all humans, and in some capacity all are called to incorporate them into the proceeding of their lives.

As at the Council of Elrond, every representative from the peoples of Middle-earth contributes to the instructing of ignorance: full comprehension by frail mortal beings is impossible to achieve divorces from other beings. By the Incarnation, God became man, thereby entering into the sphere of knowing: the treasure of wisdom was made accessible to all women and men. Those who comprehend a portion of the truth are enflamed to instruct it so that all might carry out the rituals and routines of their lives with the same reason and conscience. It is injustice to give a man bread without understanding, for one does not live by bread alone; it is merciless to offer warmth without the light of truth, for (as Milton says) the flames of hell burn hot without illumination.


2015’s Reflection: “On the Long Strands of History

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