The Paradoxes of Ignorance in Early Modern England and France
Sandrine Parageau



Lock. In one word I do not write to the Vulgar. Montaigne. And they are the only People that should be writ to. Not write to the Vulgar? quoth thou; Egad the Vulgar are the only Scholars. If they had not Taught Us we had been Stupid. The Observations made by Shepherds in Egypt and Chaldea gave birth to Geometry and Astronomy. The variety of sound from the Hammers of Smiths striking on their Anville was the Original of their Scale of Music. And some traces on the sand by a poor Cow-herd gave the first Idea of Painting. . . . Was not Gun Powder invented by a poor Monk at Nuremberg; And Printing by an Inferior Tradesman at Haerlem. Look thro your Microscopes and know that Lewinhoeck that brought them to such perfection was a Glazier: and when you next set Your Watch, remember that Tompion was a farrier, and began his great Knowledge in the Equation of Time by regulating the wheels of a common Jack, to roast Meat. . . . In short, I am one of those Vulgar, for whom, you say, You do not write; And in the Name of our whole Community, I take leave to tell You, I think, You have wronged both us and your subject.1

When the English poet and diplomat Matthew Prior (1664–1721) imagined this dialogue between John Locke and Michel de Montaigne in the late 1710s, the latter had been dead for more than a century and the English philosopher for almost fifteen years. Not only had the two men lived in different countries, but also they had known different religious and political contexts, and had thus presumably built their philosophies from different sources. This dialogue of the dead gave Prior the opportunity to celebrate his French champion to the detriment of the English philosopher, but the choice of Locke as Montaigne’s interlocutor was not arbitrary. Locke’s philosophy was highly praised at the time Prior wrote his dialogue, both in England and in France, but above all, the two thinkers had propounded attitudes to knowledge that Prior deemed contradictory. Thus, Locke was featured as a rationalist in the Cartesian vein while Montaigne was presented as a pragmatic empiricist on the English model. Those relations to knowledge and ways of knowing also implied specific relations to ignorance, as the excerpt here clearly shows, by addressing the learning, or absence thereof, of the two men’s intended readerships and the role of ignorance in discovery, invention, and more generally the advancement of knowledge and science. Indeed, in Prior’s dialogue, Montaigne rebukes Locke for his contempt of “the vulgar” and mocks his obsession with method and self-knowledge instead. The French Seigneur, however, prides himself on both addressing the ignorant and being ignorant himself, asserting the paradoxical superiority of “the vulgar” over the learned: “the Vulgar are the only Scholars.” In other words, the illiterate, understood as men (and possibly women) who have not been educated at school but may possess practical knowledge, such as artisans and peasants, are to be celebrated for the most important discoveries ever made, such as gunpowder and printing, the microscope and the watch, and even geometry and astronomy.2 Those ignorant people are therefore the legitimate audience of philosophers, and Locke is mistaken in thinking that he should address his writings to scholars. But Montaigne’s—or rather, Prior’s—accusation is unfair, as the English philosopher did recognize and praise the ingenuity of artisans, as his Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690) clearly attests: “It was to the unscholastick Statesman, that the Governments of the World owed their Peace, Defence, and Liberties; and from the illiterate and contemned Mechanick, (a Name of Disgrace) that they received the improvements of useful Arts.”3 Thus, despite Prior’s effort to have Locke pass as a philosopher who despised the vulgar and Montaigne as a humble man who identified with the vulgar, the truth is that both thinkers—among many others in the early modern period—celebrated illiterate inventors and discoverers, as if their very ignorance made them more likely than scholars to contribute to the advancement of knowledge.

This paradox is the very subject of this book, which inquires into the conceptions and interpretations of the notion of ignorance that could justify such a reversal of meaning in England and in France from Montaigne to Locke (c. 1580–c. 1700). In other words, the book examines the praises of ignorance expressed in the long seventeenth century and shows that, even though they came under attack, those celebrations were far from marginal, so much so that early modern doctrines of ignorance can be said to have contributed to the emergence of new ways of knowing. Thus, the book claims that the notion of ignorance should be reinstated in the intellectual history of the early modern period as one of the foremost conceptual issues of the time. To make this argument, three main functions or virtues of ignorance conveyed in early modern philosophical and religious discourses are here identified and developed: first, ignorance could be seen as conducive to wisdom and self-knowledge; second, it could be understood as a principle of knowledge, that is, a condition that allowed for a direct access to truth; and third, it came to be construed by a number of natural philosophers as an epistemological instrument that could help elaborate new methods.

Ignorance in Religious, Political, and Intellectual Context

The idea that virtues were attributed to ignorance in the early modern period might seem surprising in the first instance, especially in England, given the Reformation’s emphasis on literacy and education. As a matter of fact, a number of defenders of the established church virulently denounced all forms of ignorance, which they associated with the Roman Catholic Church, and promoted education and religious knowledge instead. For those clergymen and theologians, ignorance was a flaw, a distemper, and a major threat to society, as it led to credulity and dangerous or erratic behavior. More precisely, ignorance was defined by most Church of England clergymen as a disability inherited from the Fall.4 It was also perceived as a worsening and spreading disease, so much so that the preacher William Gearing devoted a whole treatise to the subject in the mid-seventeenth century, The Arraignment of Ignorance, in which he lamented the omnipresence of ignorance in England at the time: “What swarms of ignorant people are there every where? ignorant congregations, ignorant families, ignorant parents, ignorant children, ignorant Masters, ignorant servants.”5 Yet ignorance was not systematically condemned in the religious and theological discourses of Reformation England. In particular, a number of religious groups celebrated ignorance as a superior mode of knowledge and as the only access to God. Indeed, during the Civil Wars and Interregnum (1640–1660), the emerging religious sects, especially Quakers and Baptists, advocated ignorance and personal inspiration as the way to knowledge of God through the operation of the inner light, rejecting both the useless religious knowledge promoted by the established church and the vain learning of the universities. As a matter of fact, in England, the most vivid debates on the virtues and vices of ignorance occurred in the unstable context of the mid-seventeenth century. In those times of religious and political turmoil, defenders of learning, in contrast, associated ignorance with social and political disorder and sometimes even deemed the general ignorance of the people responsible for the violent outbursts of the time. For them, the ominous and often-quoted verse from Hosea 4.6 justified a ruthless fight against ignorance: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children.”6

Early modern celebrations of ignorance were also expressed in the context of the emergence of modern science, a development known as the Scientific Revolution. According to this grand narrative of scientific progress, the elaboration of new methods of thinking and knowing led to more effective ways of doing “science,” and therefore to numerous groundbreaking discoveries in physics, medicine, anatomy, astronomy, and so on—fields of knowledge that were not yet understood as distinct disciplines with specific methods but as part of the general study of nature and human beings, called “natural philosophy.” Of course, as Steven Shapin has famously argued, and as many other sociologists and historians of science have similarly shown, “there was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution,”7 that is, no sudden move toward modern science in the seventeenth century. But despite this claim, and as Shapin himself admits, there is no denying that a number of important changes (e.g., the mechanization of nature, the progressive emergence of distinct disciplines, the focus on method) leading to modern science did occur in the early modern period. The Paradoxes of Ignorance shows precisely how the notion of ignorance contributed to those changes and, generally speaking, to the advancement of knowledge, although this may seem paradoxical at first. Indeed, the book contends that ignorance was not erased or suppressed in the early modern quest for renewed ways of thinking and knowing: it was, on the contrary, assimilated into the philosophical and scientific discourses of the time, although it took different forms in England and in France.

Finally, the argument of a rehabilitation of ignorance in the early modern period must be examined in the intellectual context of antischolasticism and the rediscovery of ancient skepticism at the time. Indeed, most early modern celebrations of ignorance were the result of the growing realization that traditional scholastic learning and methods were an obstacle to the advancement of science. They were also a reaction to the overabundance of (bad) books, as it was perceived, published at the time.8 Men and women of the early modern period often expressed their distress at the overwhelming amount of knowledge that had been amassed over the centuries and that then, it seemed, grew exponentially in the context of Renaissance humanism and the Scientific Revolution, with the risk of spreading errors and opinions that could jeopardize the advancement of knowledge. Some held that such errors and opinions were spread in particular by past and present scholastic works. To a certain extent, the renewed interest in ancient skepticism at the time was a response to the enduring supremacy of scholasticism, and to the feeling of an overwhelming flood of both invaluable and pointless information. As Richard H. Popkin has shown, several forms of skepticism were rediscovered from the sixteenth century onward: academic skepticism developed from Socrates’s recognition of his ignorance and was then taken up by Cicero, Diogenes Laertius, and Augustine, while Pyrrhonism was expounded in the works of Sextus Empiricus, whose Hypotyposes were translated into Latin by Henri Estienne in 1562. Those two forms of skepticism were well known in the early modern period, and Popkin argues that they played “a special and different role” in the intellectual crisis caused by the Reformation, especially Sextus’s arguments, so much so that the period was characterized by “une crise pyrrhonienne.”9 Popkin gives the “fundamental sense of sceptic” as “one who doubts that necessary and sufficient grounds or reasons can be given for our knowledge or beliefs; or one who doubts that adequate evidence can be given to show that under no conditions can our knowledge or beliefs be false or illusory or dubious.”10 With such a broad definition, a great number of authors of the early modern period can be considered skeptics. The list given by Popkin is indeed very long, including Sanches, Montaigne, Charron, the libertins érudits, Mersenne, Descartes, Glanvill, Locke, Leibniz, Bayle, and more, some adopting a form of “constructive or mitigated scepticism,” others adhering to “semiscepticism” or “superscepticism,” while others yet were “sceptique[s] malgré [eux],” some among them evolving from one of those categories to the other in their lifetime. More recently, other early modern philosophers have been added to the list, such as Francis Bacon. The vast scholarship on early modern skepticism has thus led to the idea that it was omnipresent at the time and that all reactions to scholasticism and attitudes to knowledge in general could find their justifications and expressions in a variety of skeptical attitudes inherited from the conjunction of the rediscovery of ancient skepticism and the religious crisis. The Paradoxes of Ignorance does not deny the specificity of the early modern period when it comes to attitudes to knowledge—on the contrary. Nor does it deny the general skepticism of the period: as a matter of fact, the book makes a number of references to forms of skepticism, especially when they were mentioned by the authors themselves, usually to discredit their opponents. But the contention here is that a focus on the notion of ignorance in the writings of some of the authors listed already and others gives a clearer understanding of their attitudes to knowledge than elaborating multiple variations on skepticism.

Moreover, the virtues and functions of ignorance examined here are not all drawn from ancient skepticism. Instead, the book shows that, even though the role of Sextus’s skepticism must not be overlooked, other doctrines and intellectual traditions were mobilized by the authors who attributed virtues to ignorance in England and in France, in particular medieval mystical traditions such as negative theology, as expressed in the anonymous Cloud of Unknowing, Nicholas of Cusa’s docta ignorantia and the topos of the illiterate Idiotus. According to Popkin, Cusanus, like other “antirational theologians,” used skeptical arguments to undermine the rational approach to religious knowledge.11 The Paradoxes of Ignorance contends that the specificity, complexity, and influence of Cusanus’s thought are better assessed through an analysis of his doctrine of ignorance and its echoes in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England and France. Thus, more often than not, intellectual traditions other than ancient skepticism are the sources for the rehabilitation of ignorance studied here. Some of them were admittedly influenced by earlier forms of skepticism, but they nonetheless built their own doctrines of ignorance, which remained influential in seventeenth-century England and France. Therefore, the history of ignorance that is told in this book is also, to a large extent, a reassessment of the history of early modern skepticism or another perspective on the “crise pyrrhonienne.”

Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance Doctrines of Ignorance


Early modern celebrations of ignorance borrowed from a long tradition. Most of them drew in particular upon Socratic wisdom. The idea of knowing one’s ignorance as a definition of wisdom can be traced back to The Apology of Socrates, where the Greek philosopher famously says that he knows nothing except that he does not know anything.12 In this passage from his trial, Socrates narrates how he met politicians, poets, and artisans so as to discover whether any of them was wiser than himself, after the Pythia had declared that he was the wisest man. It turned out that none was wiser because, contrary to him, they did not recognize their own ignorance. Forms of Socratic ignorance are also expressed in dialogues such as Charmides, which focuses on sōphrosúnē, moderation, temperance, or discipline, a virtue that enables one to judge correctly and to experience self-control and wisdom. First identified with the ideal of knowing oneself, it is then defined in the dialogue as “knowledge of knowledge and ignorance,” and finally as “knowing what one knows and what one does not know,”13 which is the very definition of wisdom in the text. The knowledge of ignorance that Socrates and Critias discuss in the dialogue “appears to defy the principle of contradiction, for it is both something and its opposite, both knowledge and ignorance.”14 But more importantly, Socrates shows that knowledge of ignorance is primarily self-knowledge, as ignorance is “not at all a matter for others but is integrally ‘one’s own.’15 Thus, the question of ignorance implies “a turn to oneself,”16 or self-reflection, self-consciousness, self-criticism, and finally, self-knowledge. Socratic ignorance was “a tool of great flexibility” that allowed for many interpretations and uses throughout the early modern period.17


In De sui ipsius et multorum ignorantia (1367), a letter addressed to his friend Donato Albanzani, the grammarian, Petrarch responds to four young men who had accused him of being ignorant in philosophy, meaning that he did not know Aristotelianism because he had questioned and even ridiculed some of its theses. Thus, despite his reputation as a learned writer at the time, Petrarch was mocked for his ignorance: “They claim that I am altogether illiterate, that I am a plain uneducated fellow.”18 Drawing mostly upon Cicero and the model of the honnête homme, Petrarch discredits learning, or at least some learning, and argues that, for the young men who have accused him, the Aristotelian philosophy has replaced faith, yet ignorant faith is always preferable to proud science: ignorance is indeed a superior mode of wisdom, “as is clearly shown by the long line of illiterate saints of both sexes.”19 In this context, Petrarch uses the expression “learned ignorance” to refer to Aristotelianism or the science of the ancients, who did not know God. It thus means giving precedence to philosophical over divine knowledge, and it is explicitly opposed to humility and awareness of one’s ignorance, or the blessed ignorance mentioned by Augustine.20 Quoting 1 Samuel 2.4, Petrarch claims that the weak and ignorant who believe in God are wiser and happier than the learned who do not know God, emphasizing “illiterate virtue.”21

Petrarch declares that he prefers God to Aristotle, and he praises humility, awareness of one’s ignorance, and weakness. But if he seems to defend ignorance (of Aristotelian philosophy, in particular, and of useless knowledge, in general), he also returns the accusation of ignorance against his detractors, who are said to be blind admirers of Aristotle precisely because of their ignorance, which renders them unable to judge or use their reason correctly. While learning is a useless ornament that “inflates” and “tears down,” Petrarch argues, reason is on the contrary an essential part of a human being.22 He claims, as others did after him in the seventeenth century, that “letters are instruments of insanity for many, of arrogance for almost everyone, if they do not meet with a good and well-trained mind [idiota],”23 underlining the close link between the reflection on ignorance and learning, and on methods or ways of thinking and the mechanisms of the mind. His accusers are the most ignorant because they cannot recognize the inevitable limits to their knowledge and their own imperfection, and as such, they do not know themselves.24 Thus, as was often the case later in the early modern period, ignorance is given two contradictory meanings in Petrarch’s letter: it is the virtue of the humble man who is aware of his ignorance and the intellectual vice of the erudite. Most of the characteristics of later celebrations or discussions of ignorance are found in Petrarch’s seminal text, published in the 1554 Basel edition of his Opera omnia.


The German thinker and cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (or Cusanus; 1401–1464) probably found inspiration in Petrarch’s De ignorantia, of which he owned a copy. Indeed, like Petrarch, Cusanus strongly reacted to the dogmatism and intellectual tyranny of Aristotelianism, which also gave rise in his works to a celebration of some form of ignorance. Another important source for Cusanus’s doctrine of learned ignorance, as for Petrarch’s claim to ignorance, was St. Augustine, who used the expression in a letter to Proba, a wealthy Roman widow, to refer to the paradox of praying to ask for something that we cannot know, insofar as we should know what we are seeking for in order to desire it.25 If we were completely ignorant of it, Augustine writes, we would not desire it, but “there is in us . . . a certain learned ignorance, so to speak, but an ignorance learned from the Spirit of God, who helps our weakness.”26 We are ignorant of what we desire, but the Spirit intercedes for us, which is why this ignorance is “learned.”

Cusanus’s conception of learned ignorance should be understood in the context of a medieval tradition of mysticism, which held that God was beyond all knowing. In the first chapter of the first book of De docta ignorantia, entitled “How It Is That Knowing Is Not-knowing,” Cusanus expresses his disillusionment at the poor state of human knowledge, regretting that ignorance should proportionally increase with knowledge.27 He explicitly refers to Socrates, but also to Solomon, for whom words cannot explain things, and to Job 28.21, which says that wisdom and understanding are hidden “from the eyes of all living, and kept close from the fowls of the air.” Cusanus also borrows Aristotle’s analogy, given in the second book of the Metaphysics, between the eyes of the night owl that cannot see the light of day and the human intellect that cannot comprehend the most evident things—yet men still desire to know. Cusanus argues that this natural desire to know cannot be void because nature does nothing in vain, and therefore we desire to know that we do not know (in other words, we desire to know our ignorance). If we understand this, Cusanus concludes, we can reach learned ignorance, which is therefore a form of knowledge: “For a man—even one very well versed in learning—will attain unto nothing more perfect than to be found to be most learned in the ignorance which is distinctively his. The more he knows that he is unknowing, the more learned he will be. Unto this end I have undertaken the task of writing a few things about learned ignorance.”28 The only knowledge that one can get is that of his or her own ignorance. But this is not a form of knowledge that should be rejected. On the contrary, everyone should strive to know that they are unknowing, and the more they know that they are ignorant, the more learned they become.

Cusanus adds that God cannot be known because knowledge implies a comparison or analogy between two objects, and God, or the Infinite, cannot be compared with anything finite.29 Thus, the knowledge of God can be only “an unknowing.” This is an expression of apophaticism or even “a central and exemplary paradigm of the apophatic mode of thought and discourse.”30 Apophaticism, or negative theology, conceives of theology as a practice of unknowing, in the words of the fourteenth-century English mystic who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing, a text that proposed a method of contemplation that implied divesting the mind of all knowledge.31 Love and unknowing were the only means to reach union with God. The text thus promoted a form of apophaticism by encouraging knowledge of God through negation. William Franke has shown that this book was “representative of a turn in fourteenth-century spirituality that divides it from speculative and Scholastic theology and orients it toward a newly emerging experiential dimension”:32 union with God no longer relied on intellectual exercises, but rather on the mystical experience of love and on ignorance or unknowing. The author explicitly inscribed the book in the Dionysian tradition of unknowing that insisted on the limits of human knowledge. But by stating the equation between ignorance and wisdom in a mystical context, it was also a “christianization of the Socratic doubt.”33

Denys the Areopagite, the author of Divine Names and of Mystical Theology, is often presented as “the founding father of Western Christian apophaticism,”34 and also another important source for Cusanus’s docta ignorantia.35 His thought became influential in the thirteenth century, when praises of ignorance, simplicity, and genuine piety spread among antischolastic movements. His complete works (Opera Dionysii) were then published in Strasbourg in 1502–1503. In Cusanus’s De docta ignorantia, chapter 26 is devoted to negative theology, which is here identified with sacra ignorantia, an expression borrowed from Denys, to convey the idea that God is ineffable because “He is infinitely greater than all nameable things.”36 Thus, nothing can be said about him, but by negation, Cusanus argues: “Therefrom we conclude that the precise truth shines incomprehensibly within the darkness of our ignorance. This is the learned ignorance we have been seeking and through which alone, as I explained, [we] can approach the maximum, triune God of infinite goodness—[approach Him] according to the degree of our instruction in ignorance.”37 If God cannot be known but by ignorance, the erudition of scholars is definitely useless when it comes to knowledge of the highest truths. Like Petrarch, Cusanus criticized the pedantry and arrogance of his Aristotelian contemporaries. But most importantly, his aim in De docta ignorantia and in other works was to propose a new method for the acquisition of knowledge. In particular, Cusanus’s De idiota, which, interestingly, was attributed to Petrarch for some time, features a poor illiterate artisan and illustrates how being unlearned compels one to observe the world, which is preferable to learning from books, as naïve observation is a surer access to both divine and natural truth.38 This new method, learned ignorance, relies on the recognition of human ignorance and weakness, which itself implies a search for knowledge.


1. Matthew Prior, “A Dialogue between Mr. John Lock and Seigneur de Montaigne” (1721), in Dialogues of the Dead and Other Works in Prose and Verse, ed. Alfred R. Waller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1907), 223–46, here 231–32.

2. On ignorance and the myth of the illiterate inventor in the early modern period, see part 3 and Sandrine Parageau, “‘Colomb ignorant trouva le nouveau monde’: Ignorance, découverte fortuite et expérimentation à la première modernité,” Revue d’Histoire des Sciences 74, no. 1 (2021): 41–62. Although the relation between women and ignorance is broached several times throughout this book, it is not the focus here. On this subject, more specifically on early modern English women philosophers, their conception of their own ignorance, and how they used the modesty topos, see Sandrine Parageau, Les Ruses de l’ignorance: La contribution des femmes à l’avènement de la science moderne en Angleterre (Paris: Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2010).

3. John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690), ed. Peter H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2011), III, 10, 9, 495. Montaigne’s praise of artisans and the illiterate, which is further examined in part 1, is corroborated by several passages from his Essays, especially in the “Apology of Raymond Sebond,” for example: “I have in my dayes seene a hundred Artificers, and as many laborers, more wise and more happy, then some Rectors in the university, and whom I would rather resemble.” In Michel de Montaigne, “An Apologie of Raymond Sebond,” in The essayes or morall, politike and millitarie discourses of Lo: Michaell de Montaigne (1580), trans. John Florio (London, 1603), II, 12, p. 281. The word artificers translates artisans in the original French version. Note that, whenever possible, references given in The Paradoxes of Ignorance are to early modern editions and translations, which give an indication of how a text was read and received at the time. The choice of words is often meaningful, especially in this inquiry on the conceptions and uses of ignorance, which implies retracing the genealogy of ideas and concepts. In the case of English translations, the original French is given in note when the passage is particularly important for the argument being made or when the original words deserve notice.

4. On religious interpretations and uses of ignorance in the context of the English Reformation, see Sandrine Parageau, “‘Papists Make a Direct Profession of This Shamefull Sin’: Denouncing Catholic Ignorance in Seventeenth-Century England,” in Anti-Catholicism in Britain and Ireland, 1600–2000: Practices, Representations and Ideas, ed. C. Gheeraert-Graffeuille and G. Vaughan (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 93–108. On the difference between early modern English and French interpretations of the Fall and its consequences, see Peter Harrison, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

5. William Gearing, The Arraignment of Ignorance: Or, Ignorance. With the Causes and Kinds of it, the mischiefes and danger of it, together with the Cure of Ignorance: as also, the Excellency, Profit, and Benefit of Heavenly Knowledge, largely set forth from Hos. 4.6 (London, 1659), 28–29. As the title page of the book indicates, Gearing was minister at Lymington in the 1650s, but otherwise little is known about him. He was the author of texts that were often republished at the time, such as The History of the Church of Great Britain (London, 1674).

6. All biblical quotations are from the King James Bible, unless otherwise specified.

7. Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 1.

8. On the feeling that there was an unprecedented flood of information and on the contemporaries’ attempts at finding solutions to manage such information, see Ann Blair, Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010).

9. Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Savonarola to Bayle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), xx. On Academic skepticism in the Renaissance, see Charles Schmitt, Cicero scepticus: A Study of the Influence of The Academica in the Renaissance (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1972).

10. Popkin, The History of Scepticism, op. cit., 94.

11. Ibid., xix.

12. Plato, The Apology of Socrates, trans. and ed. Thomas G. West (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979), 21a–23b, 25–27.

13. Plato, Charmides, trans., with introduction, notes, and analysis, Christopher Moore and Christopher C. Raymond (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2019), 167a, 23. In this translation, sōphrosúnē is rendered as “discipline.”

14. David Lawrence Levine, Profound Ignorance: Plato’s Charmides and the Saving of Wisdom (New York: Lexington Books, 2016), 214.

15. Ibid., 222.

16. Ibid., 223.

17. Jean-Pierre Cavaillé, Les Déniaisés: Irréligion et libertinage au début de l’ époque moderne (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2013), 244 (my translation).

18. Francesco Petrarca, On His Own Ignorance and That of Many Others, trans. Hans Nachod, in The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, ed. Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and John Herman Randall Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), 47–133, here 54. Interestingly, Hans Nachod notes here that Petrarch uses the word idiota to refer to an illiterate or uneducated man, that is, “a man without higher education, in contrast to literatus” (n. 15, 54). This acceptation of idiot, idiota, and idiotus is also the one adopted in this history of ignorance. Nachod adds that the word idiot was becoming more pejorative in Petrarch’s time and progressively equated with simpleton, but it will appear here later that the former meaning of the word remained common throughout the early modern period, allowing for a praise of ignorance understood as simplicity and humility as opposed to the vanity of scholastic erudition.

19. Ibid., 79 and 127. Petrarch quotes at length from Cicero’s De natura deorum, a text that was unsurprisingly a common reference to early modern praises of ignorance.

20. Ibid., 64.

21. Ibid., 65. Also, 1 Samuel 2.4 reads: “The bows of the mighty men are broken, and they that stumbled are girded with strength.”

22. Ibid., 62 and 72.

23. Ibid., 56–57. On the centrality of method and the processes of the mind to the history of early modern ignorance, see in particular parts 2 and 3. This statement is in keeping with Descartes’s approach to knowledge and reason, for example.

24. Ibid., 67. On Petrarch’s letter, see, for example, Michel Jeanneret, “Éloge de l’ignorance,” in La Philologie humaniste et ses représentations dans la théorie et dans la fiction, ed. Perrine Galand-Hallyn, Fernand Hallyn, and Gilbert Tournay (Geneva: Droz, 2005), 2:637–651, here 2:640–642; and Zygmunt G. Barański, “The Ethics of Ignorance: Petrarch’s Epicurus and Averroës and the Structures of the De Sui Ipsius et Multorum Ignorantia,” in Petrarch in Britain, ed. Martin McLaughlin, Letizia Panizza, and Peter Hainsworth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 39–59.

25. See Nicolas de Cues, De la docte ignorance, ed. Jean-Claude Lagarrigue (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 2010), 73, n. 1, and 48, and St. Augustine, Epistle 130, in The Works of Saint Augustine, Letters 100–155 (Epistulae), trans. Roland Teske, SJ, ed. Boniface Ramsey (New York: New City Press, 2003), pt. II, 2:183–199. See also Confessions, trans. F. J. Sheed (Indianapolis, Hackett, 1942), IX.x.xxiii–xxv, 199–201, and De Trinitate, 10.1.3, where Augustine focuses on self-knowledge. The question he asks is, How can we desire to know something that we are ignorant of, whether it be God or ourselves?

26. Augustine to Proba, in The Works of Saint Augustine, op. cit., Epistle 130, 197.

27. See Nicolas de Cues, La docte ignorance, trans. and ed. Hervé Pasqua (Paris: Payot, 2011), 14. See also the English translation by Jasper Hopkins, Nicholas of Cusa on Learned Ignorance: A Translation and an Appraisal of De Docta Ignorantia (Minneapolis: Arthur J. Banning Press, 1981). De docta ignorantia is composed of three books: the first one is about God (in himself), the second is about nature (God’s manifestation), and the third one is about Christ (God’s revelation).

28. Nicholas of Cusa on Learned Ignorance, op. cit., 6.

29. Cues, La docte ignorance (ed. Pasqua), op. cit., 28. This idea is developed in chapter 3 of De docta ignorantia.

30. William Franke, “Learned Ignorance: The Apophatic Tradition of Cultivating the Virtue of Unknowing,” in Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies, ed. Matthias Gross and Linsey McGoey (London: Routledge, 2015), 26–35, here 28. See also William Franke, ed., On What Cannot Be Said: Apophatic Discourses in Philosophy, Religion, Literature, and the Arts, vol. 1 of Classic Formulations (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014). This book is an anthology of texts on apophaticism from Plato to Silesius Angelus in the seventeenth century, with commentaries by Franke. On apophaticism, learned ignorance, and negative theology, see also Denys Turner, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

31. The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Patrick J. Gallacher (Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University Institute Publications, 1997), also available at Robbins Library Digital Projects, University of Rochester, See also Turner, The Darkness of God, op. cit., chap. 8 “The Cloud of Unknowing and the Critique of Interiority,” 186–210, and the introduction to the text by John Clark (Universität Salzburg, 1995).

32. Franke, ed., On What Cannot Be Said, op. cit., 333.

33. Bram Kempers, “The Fame of Fake, Dionysius the Areopagite: Fabrication, Falsification and the ‘Cloud of Unknowing,’” in How the West Was Won: Essays on Literary Imagination, the Canon, and the Christian Middle Ages for Burcht Pranger, ed. Willemien Otten, Arjo Vanderjagt, and Hent de Vries (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 301–311, here 309.

34. Turner, The Darkness of God, op. cit., 268. Franke also argues that the concept of apophatic theology was first formulated by Denys the Areopagite (see On What Cannot Be Said, op. cit., 159). Denys or Dionysius the Areopagite was long erroneously identified with the Dionysius converted by St. Paul on the Acropolis at Athens (Acts 17.34), but the author of Mystical Theology was actually a Syrian monk writing at the turn of the fifth to the sixth century. He was known as the promoter of a doctrine of ignorance well into the seventeenth century, as appears from his being the target of Meric Casaubon’s criticism of enthusiasm and ignorance (studied in part 2). But the origin of apophaticism can be found in Plato’s Parmenides, and the idea that the One cannot be named without being divided into two, itself and its name. See Parmenides, trans. and analysis by R. E. Allen (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983), 137b–144e, 15–27. Other Socratic dialogues such as Timaeus (28c) were also referred to by later apophatic authors. See also Thomas Aquinas, who wrote that we cannot know what God is, in Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Westminster, MD, Christian Classics, 1981), pt. 1, question 3 “On the Simplicity of God”: “Now, because we cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how He is not.”

35. On sources for De docta ignorantia, see Dermot Moran, “Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464): Platonism at the Dawn of Modernity,” in Platonism at the Origins of Modernity: Studies on Platonism and Early Modern Philosophy, ed. Sarah Hutton and Douglas Hedley (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer, 2008), 9–29.

36. Nicholas of Cusa on Learned Ignorance, op. cit., 45.

37. Ibid., 46. See also Cusanus’s Dialogue on the Hidden God (De deo abscondito, 1444–1445), trans. H. Lawrence Bond, in Nicholas of Cusa, Selected Spiritual Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), 209–213. This text follows the Parmenides tradition in arguing that knowledge of God can be only a finite conception of the infinite.

38. Nicholas of Cusa’s De idiota, a dialogue in four books, was first published in 1450.