Social Intersections 04 (ignorance and illusion)

The theme of human ignorance and illusion:

In his cosmological account of the universe and the Greek gods, Theogony (circa 700 BC), Hesiod writes of living as a shepherd in the mountains and learning the story of the world from the Daughters of Zeus (the Muses of Olympus). Their first words to him are:

Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies, we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things.1

Hesiod is in no position to perceive the cosmological truth himself. The Muses regard him as a low, morally reproachable and merely appetitive being. He lives, but without any capacity to lift himself from the ignorance of sensate life. The Muses know the truth, yet they can always lie and dissimulate just as well as communicate the genuine nature of things. Humanity then inhabits a space that is removed from the truth, that is beneath it – inferior to it – and characterised by the blindness of ordinary perception. Any access to the truth is only available via the whim of the gods, and there is no certainty that the truth obtained is truth as such or only illusion.

Hesiod’s cosmology is 2,800 years old, but the essential contours of its epistemological vision remain relevant today. Here I am interpreting the Muses not literally as divine beings, but as representative of a truth separate from the messy terrain of lived experience. They can serve as metaphors, perhaps, for forms of knowledge – and systems of knowing – that contrast themselves to the blindness of ground-level existence. Apart from all manners of species of science and religion, this would also include, paradoxically, systems that explicitly privilege material life. I’m thinking of those species of Marxism that stress our ideological relation to the world, our incapacity to perceive real material relations. Stuck within the space of capitalist induced misrecognition, alienation and illusion, Marxist dialectical materialism must come to our aid, make sense of the world and encourage the potential for revolutionary transformation. It is not that I particularly want to contest this view. My aim here is to simply indicate a fundamental dilemma: our space of actual life is cast as ignorant and illusory. It is conceived as a well of darkness that only the (more or less) external agency of critical thought can illuminate.

  1. Hesiod 1914 Theogony (Trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White,, originally circa 700BC
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