Happiness and ignorance

While reading the chapter on Voltaire in Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy, I came across an abridged version of “The Good Brahmin” from Voltaire’s Romances. I went to the source and what follows is taken from Peter Eckler’s translation (pg 449-452; available from the Internet Archive).

The Good Bramin
Does happiness result from ignorance or from knowledge?

IN my travels I once happened to meet with an aged Bramin. This man had a great share of understanding and prudence, and was very learned. He was also very rich, and his riches added greatly to his popularity; for, wanting nothing that wealth could procure, he had no desire to defraud any one. His family was admirably managed by three handsome wives, who always studied to please him; and when he was weary of their society, he had recourse to the study of philosophy.

Not far from his house, which was handsome, well-furnished and embellished with delightful gardens, dwelt an old Indian woman who was a great bigot, ignorant, and withall very poor.

“I wish,” said the Bramin to me one day, “I had never been born!”
“Why so?” said I.
“Because,” replied he, “I have been studying these forty years, and I find it has been so much time lost. While I teach others I know nothing myself. The sense of my condition is so humiliating, it makes all things so distasteful to me, that life has become a burden. I have been born, and I exist in time, without knowing what time is. I am placed, as our wise men say, in the confines between two eternities, and yet I have no idea of eternity. I am composed of matter, I think, but have never been able to satisfy myself what it is that produces thought. I even am ignorant whether my understanding is a simple faculty I possess, like that of walking and digesting, or if I think with my head in the same manner as I take hold of a thing with my hands. I am not only thus in the dark with relation to the principles of thought, but the principles of my motions are entirely unknown to me. I do not know why I exist, and yet I am applied to every day for a solution of the enigma. I must return an answer, but can say nothing satisfactory on the the subject. I talk a great deal, and when I have done speaking remain confounded and ashamed of what I have said.”
“I am in still greater perplexity when I am asked if Brama was produced by Vishnu, or if they have both existed from eternity. God is my judge that I know nothing of the matter, as plainly appears by my answers. ‘Reverend father,’ says one, ‘be pleased to inform me how evil is spread over the face of the earth.’ I am as much at a loss as those who ask the question. Sometimes I tell them that every thing is for the best; but those who have the gout or the stone—those who have lost their fortunes or their limbs in the wars—believe as little of this assertion as I do myself. I retire to my own house full of curiosity, and endeavor to enlighten my ignorance by consulting the writings of our ancient sages, but they only serve to bewilder me the more. When I talk with my brethren upon this subject, some tell me we ought to make the most of life and laugh at the world. Others think they know something, and lose themselves in vain and chimerical hypotheses. Every effort I make to solve the mystery adds to the load I feel. Sometimes I am ready to fall into despair when I reflect that, after all my researches, I neither know from whence I came, what I am, whither I shall go, or what is to become of me.”

The condition in which I saw this good man gave me real concern. No one could be more rational, no one more open and honest. It appeared to me that the force of his understanding and the sensibility of his heart were the causes of his misery.

The same day I had a conversation with the old woman, his neighbor. I asked her if she had ever been unhappy for not understanding how her soul was made? She did not even comprehend my question. She had not, for the briefest moment in her life, had a thought about these subjects with which the good Bramin had so tormented himself. She believed from the bottom of her heart in the metamorphoses of her god Vishnu, and, provided she could get some of the sacred water of the Ganges in which to make her ablutions, she thought herself the happiest of women.

Struck with the happiness of this poor creature, I returned to my philosopher, whom I thus addressed:
“Are you not ashamed to be thus miserable when, not fifty yards from you, there is an old automaton who thinks of nothing and lives contented?”
“You are right,” he replied. “I have said to myself a thousand times that I should be happy if I were but as ignorant as my old neighbor, and yet it is a happiness I do not desire.”

This reply of the Bramin made a greater impression on me than any thing that had passed. I consulted my own heart and found that I myself should not wish to be happy on condition of being ignorant.

I submitted this matter to some philosophers, and they were all of my opinion: and yet, said I, there is something very contradictory in this manner of thinking; for, after all, what is the question? Is it not to be happy? What signifies it then whether we have understandings or whether we are fools? Besides, there is this to be said: those who are contented with their condition are sure of that content; while those who have the faculty of reasoning are not always sure of reasoning right. It is evident then, I continued, that we ought rather to wish not to have common sense, if that common sense contributes to our being either miserable or wicked.

They were all of my opinion, and yet not one of them could be found to accept of happiness on the terms of being ignorant. From hence I concluded, that although we may set a great value upon happiness, we set a still greater upon reason.

But after mature reflection upon this subject I still thought there was great madness in prefering reason to happiness. How is this contradiction to be explained ? Like all other questions, a great deal may be said about it.

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  • Abhishek  On December 5, 2008 at 2:55 am

    Strangely, I was thinking of almost the exact same thing last evening in a more personal context. (what should one aim to maximise in life? happiness or some other thing one holds in greater value? And if the other thing is so important to me, does it even make sense to distinguish between the two? and so on…)

    Thanks for the story.

  • yet_another_hindu_infidel  On December 5, 2008 at 10:02 pm

    i too sometimes feel ignorance is a bliss. but those are times when im having a bad day or being called a muslim-hater.

  • Aristotle The Geek  On December 6, 2008 at 1:03 am

    This person refers to the same story, and asks-

    Imagine the woman in this story living in an affluent neighborhood, and having an estate, a Mercedes Benz, and a Hanging Gardens of Babylon to show for her “happiness.” Would the Brahmin still insist that this “is a happiness which I do not desire”? John Stuart Mill, in Utilitarianism, said that it is “better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” Is it better to be the Brahmin dissatisfied than the ignorant but “happy” neighbor satisfied? On what grounds is the assertion defensible? How many of us, forced to choose, would trade places with the Brahmin rather than with the woman? If philosophy doesn’t make us either happy or wealthy, of what use is it — and what do sages like Voltaire know that the rest of us don’t?

    Voltaire raises these very questions in his story. Whether or not the woman is rich or poor is not relevant to the question of happiness, as far as I am concerned.

    A brain-damaged person smiles – is he happy? Does he know why he smiled? People who are ignorant in general are also ignorant about what real happiness is. If you are happy, you need to know why. That’s the catch.

  • Vipin  On December 6, 2008 at 10:16 pm

    The brahmin, I suppose, is happy seeing the bigot happy with ignorance.

    And by the time one comes about to pondering over the choice of being the bigot or the brahmin, the choice is already been made.

    Good post! thanks

  • Aristotle The Geek  On December 7, 2008 at 12:59 am

    He’s not happy at all. Given the choice between unhappiness and ignorance, he’s willing to sacrifice happiness but not knowledge (or at least the quest for it). Which leads to the question – what is happiness? Happiness is the state of being satisfied, and it has a lot to do with our values and virtues. Rand talks about it. So does Aristotle.

    The Brahmin’s main problem is pretense. He doesn’t know something and worries that others will see through his ignorance (supreme irony – he prefers his ignorance to that of the woman). The best thing for him to do is to come clean and only talk about things he really believes in. In that way, he can continue his quest for knowledge and also be happy while doing it.

    The question that Voltaire puts to the other philosophers – ‘what would you rather be – happy or ignorant?’ – is incomplete, or misleading. Because it considers happiness as existing separate from everything else, which is not the case. Happiness is a destination one reaches ‘after’ doing something. The only way someone can be satisfied without appealing to virtues or values is if he doesn’t have any – he’s satisfied with anything and everything that exists. And that is not “real” happiness.

    • zed  On April 13, 2009 at 7:25 pm


      At risk of being hunted down by generations of dead scholars, I propose that Voltaire simply chose a poor analogy to illustrate his point. From my reading of the above passage, Voltaire interpreted the Brahmin’s unhappiness as being attributed to being rational and sensible (“No one could be more rational, no one more open and honest. It appeared to me that the force of his understanding and the sensibility of his heart were the causes of his misery.”) rather than his shame. Other than while quoting the Brahmin, I do not see Voltaire mentioning a shame about a lack of knowledge anywhere else in the chosen text. Voltaire’s question, I gather, is about a choice between happiness and reason (and therefore a lack of happiness).

      • Aristotle The Geek  On April 14, 2009 at 1:54 am

        # “Voltaire interpreted the Brahmin’s unhappiness as being attributed to being rational and sensible”
        If that is the case, then I think his interpretation is wrong. You can see from the Brahmin’s lament that he’s unhappy because people “think” he’s an intelligent man and yet he’s unable to answer their questions. He’s not able to answer them because he does not know the answers himself. Better accept the fact that one does not know the answer, and tell this to those who come with questions, rather than pretend to know and then give unsatisfactory replies.

        # “Voltaire’s question, I gather, is about a choice between happiness and reason (and therefore a lack of happiness).”
        Happiness and reason are mutually exclusive. Demanding that one choose between them is a false dichotomy. That’s why I said Voltaire’s question is incomplete, or misleading.

        What would you say if I ask you what would you rather choose – water or air? The same is the case here.

  • you12  On December 7, 2008 at 1:20 am

    The underlying theme of this story is Tao. There is a famous saying in Tao,”The more I know Tao, The more I more I move away from it”.

    Although I don’t agree with your idea of real happiness.Happiness can come without a precondition no? Ignorance and indifference.

    Happiness is a state of mind, perpetual or fleeting. How can it be achieved ? Only the conditions by which you allow yourself to feel happy can be achieved.

    Ever rad the Tao Te Ching?


  • Aristotle The Geek  On December 7, 2008 at 4:17 am


    The Tao is like a well:
    used but never used up.
    It is like the eternal void:
    filled with infinite possibilities.

    It is hidden but always present.
    I don’t know who gave birth to it.
    It is older than God.

    What does that even mean? Mysticism is not something I tend to dabble in, as you must be knowing. Gods and mythology is one thing, speculative metaphysics is something completely different.

    Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (gutenberg) is something similar (style wise) that I gave up after reading the first page, a time when I didn’t know metaphysics was called metaphysics-

    1. The world is all that is the case.
    1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
    1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.
    1.12 For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.
    1.13 The facts in logical space are the world.
    1.2 The world divides into facts.
    1.21 Each item can be the case or not the case while everything else remains the same.

    About happiness, its a state of mind, yes. But how do you become happy? Just like that? You do something to be happy, or let others do things to you.

  • andrew  On September 27, 2010 at 7:39 am

    Id like to say that if you had two choices to make between ignorance (happiness) and the truth , i would would be happy because i have found the truth rather than those who are at a disadvantage. The truth is what people seek, and true happiness comes from the truth. You cant substitute happiness for ignorance.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On September 27, 2010 at 5:30 pm

      But isn’t that relief at knowing the truth rather than happiness? The truth need not be pleasant; the reason behind “ignorance is bliss.” If you’re saying that you would rather choose truth and live with the consequences, good or bad, than be happy in ignorance, then I agree.

  • meamoi  On October 8, 2013 at 10:41 am

    The answer, in my opinion, is hidden in the questioning.

    The secret to the happiness of ignorance is not in being ignorant, but of being content in your state.

    If a wise man, being wise, knows he he will never have all the answers, but ALSO realizes it is his nature to always seek more answers; if a wise man realizes that his nature and the nature of the world will lead to constant change in his life; if the wise man embraces change and uncertainty as fun and takes joy in just the journey of seeking answers instead of fretting about what those answers might be…

    Then the wise and learned may be just as happy as the ignorant, and have the greatest of both worlds, for unlike the ignorant, the wise will also be happy when what he knows is challenged and his peaceful world is shattered.

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