I wonder what we mean when we talk of innocence; and how does it differ from plain ignorance? Is the following artwork a picture of innocence? Why?
I think ignorance is simply a state of not knowing. We are all ignorant about many things due to lack of knowledge or interest in whatever it is. However most of us have the potential to learn and therefore lose our ignorance about things which are important to us. I think simple ignorance is a neutral thing but in my opinion it becomes a very negative thing when it is willful ignorance. There are few things as frustrating as people who refuse to learn or even just refuse to know something because they can’t be bothered or because it challenges their preconceptions. How often have you engaged in conversations with people whose facts are completely wrong but they refuse to change their stance even when confronted with hard evidence? I have to admit I have little time and no respect for willful ignorance.
Innocence on the other hand seems to be a much more positive attribute. Society tends to value and respect it. I respect and value innocence myself although I find it very hard to define and I don’t think it is always a good thing.
Dictionary.com defines the word in the following way.
1,the quality or state of being innocent; freedom from sin or moral wrong. 2.freedom from legal or specific wrong; guiltlessness: 3.simplicity; absence of guile or cunning. 4.lack of knowledge or understanding.5.harmlessness; innocuousness.
Let’s take point 2 which is the legal opposite of criminal guilt, and point 4 which seems pretty much the same as ignorance, out of the equation and see what we are left with.
So let’s take the first point, the quality or state of being innocent; freedom from sin or moral wrong. The problem here is it depends who is defining sin or moral wrong. By some Christian standards, everybody is sinful (even children are born with original sin) so nobody can be innocent. Some other religions have similar beliefs. As for me I don’t believe in the concept of sin at all; so does that mean I am completely innocent despite my vices while some Christians never can be? As for moral wrongs, I think it is morally wrong to kill a person unless my life is threatened or to torture or rape people. I suspect many people would agree with me on that. I also think it is morally wrong to ignore the sick and the poor if you are in a position to lessen their suffering. Perhaps a few less people would agree with me on that. I don’t think it is morally* wrong to swear, to smoke. to drink, to take drugs or to have consensual sex with adults of any gender or sexual orientation. I wonder how many would agree with me on that? (*Just because it isn’t morally wrong doesn’t mean it is always a good idea though). The point is, how can innocence have any meaning in this context where most people will have completely different moral boundaries?
Point 3 is simplicity; absence of guile or cunning. There is a certain charm to this kind of innocence, but is it always good? I can think of quite a few negative connotations about being described as simple. Simple can often mean ignorant or even stupid. Now there are some people who have mental handicaps which keep them simple and I think there is often something which is genuinely innocent and beautiful about the way such people see and react to the world. Often there is a wisdom in their kind of honest simplicity that we can learn from. However, for those of us who don’t have a mental handicap simplicity can very often become stupidity or even willful ignorance. There is however another kind of simplicity, an absence of unnecessary complication, which I think is a good thing and I shall return to later. As for guile and cunning; why are they perceived as being bad? Sure, if you are planning another 9/11 attack there is nothing to be respected in what guile and cunning you employ. But if you are planning a mission to the moon, or a way to survive on a limited budget, what is wrong with employing guile and cunning? These things are tools, it is only how they are used that brings them into the realm of morals.
The fifth point is harmlessness or innocuousness. I am not sure there is anything particularly good about being described as harmless or innocuous. To me it infers lacking the ability to make any significant impact at all. If you have a tumor which turns out to be harmless and innocuous that is great news, but as a person, I would not want to be described in that way.
So by dictionary definitions, I don’t place much value in innocence. I want to know and experience things; including many that are regarded as sinful by some.
And yet there is a form of innocence which I do value and which I think many of us do; it just isn’t defined very well anywhere. It is the innocence of the child or perhaps of the uncarved block which Taoists refer to. The essence of the Uncarved Block is that things in their original simplicity contain their own natural power, power that is easily spoiled and lost when that simplicity is changed. When you re-discover that simple, childlike, and mysterious secret known to those of the Uncarved Block you find that life is basically fun. The discovery of new things is fun and often fills children with a sense of happiness and awe that we tend to lose as we get older.
I don’t think the simplicity of the Uncarved Block is the same as the simplicity I spoke of before. I think the Uncarved Block represents our basic nature; our true selves. We are intelligent animals who are naturally inclined to be curious and to explore. Satisfying that need can often give us our deepest and purest joy.
To me that type of innocence is only lost when knowledge and experience are forced on a person before they are ready to reach out and discover it for themselves. I still get a child like sense of joy when I discover something I have set out to discover. That may be something simple like the name of a song I heard playing on the radio, it may be something more profound like understanding a mathematical equation, or the meaning of a philosophical text . Or it may even be discovering something new I enjoy between the sheets. There is no black, no white; there is simply the joy of satisfying innate natural curiosity oneself.