Too much knowledge?

Phil asked:

A “more is better” relationship with food made sense in the long era when we typically lived near the edge of starvation. Today food is plentiful in much of the world, and where that’s true more people die of obesity related diseases than starvation. A “more is better” relationship with food that once was rational now seems simplistic, outdated and dangerous.

Question: Does the analysis above also apply to our relationship with knowledge?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I want to share a couple of movie moments with you, both, as it happens, from detective thrillers but as far apart in style and substance as you can imagine.

The first is from Alan Parker’s 1987 supernatural thriller ‘Angel Heart’ starring Mickey O’Rourke as Private Detective Harold Angel, hired by a Mr Louis Cyphre, played by Robert De Niro, who is looking for a missing person, ‘Johnny Favourite’. As Harold pursues the case, the bodies mount up. In two mesmerizing final scenes, the truth is revealed (which I won’t reveal here):

Cyphre: Alas, how terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the wise.

Harry: Louis Cyphre. Even your name’s a dime store joke.

Cyphre: Mephistopheles is such a mouthful in Manhattan…

And that’s when he, and we the audience find out. The clues are all there to see. The memories of the terrible things he has done come back, in brief flashes that Harry still refuses to believe. The final scene delivers the coup de grace. And Harry knows where he is headed:

Det. Sterne: You’ll burn for this, Angel.

Harry: I know. In hell…

It’s an ending you will never forget.

The other movie is Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film version of Mickey Spillane’s novel, ‘Kiss Me Deadly’. The plot revolves around a mysterious box containing, ‘The Great Whatsit’, as Private Eye Mike Hammer’s secretary cum concubine Velda calls it. Again, the bodies pile up. In the spectacular final scene, the contents of the box are revealed:

Gabrielle: What’s in the box?

Dr Soberin: Curiosity killed a cat. And it certainly would have if you’d opened it. You did well to call me when you did.

Gabrielle: Yes, I know. But what’s in it?

Dr Soberin: You have been misnamed, Gabrielle. You should have been called Pandora. She was curious about a box and opened it and let loose all the evil in the world.

Gabrielle: Never mind about the evil. What’s in it?

Dr Soberin: Did you ever hear of Lot’s wife?

Gabrielle: No.

Dr Soberin: She was told not to look back. But she disobeyed and she was changed into a pillar of salt.

Gabrielle: I just want to know what it is.

Dr Soberin: Would you believe me if I told you? Would you be satisfied?

Gabrielle: Maybe.

Dr Soberin: The head of the Medusa. That’s what’s in the box. And whoever looks on her will be changed not into stone, but into brimstone and ashes. But you wouldn’t believe me. You’d have to see for yourself, wouldn’t you?


Gabrielle: Whatever is in that box, it must be very precious. So many people have died for it.

Dr Soberin: Yes, it is very precious.

Gabrielle: I want half.

Dr Soberin: I agree with you. You should have at least half. You deserve it, for all the creature comforts you’ve given me. But unfortunately the object in this box cannot be divided.

Gabrielle: Then I’ll take it all. If you don’t mind.

She shoots him.

Dr Soberin: Gabrielle! Listen to me — as if I were Cerberus barking with all his heads at the gates of Hell. I will tell you where to take it. But don’t, don’t open the box!

— She opens the box. Maybe you can guess what happens next. (The date of the movie is a clue.)

Other things being equal, knowledge is a good. But it is not an unalloyed good. Things are not always equal. Sometimes, along with knowledge, bad things come that you didn’t expect. And sometimes the bad totally eclipses the good. Or the price of that knowledge was much higher than you thought it would be.

The problem is that not knowing what you don’t yet know, you are never in a position to judge until it is too late. And once you do know, you can’t turn the clock back.

One doesn’t need to study philosophy to appreciate this home truth.

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