Vol I No. 7
Daily Thought

Ignorance and self-delusion

by William J. Martin



Dearly beloved brethren the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloke them before the face of Almighty God… What is this dissembling and cloaking? And how may we overcome it?

What exactly is self-delusion? Who is deceiving whom, and how? Richard Holton is an American professor of philosophy and an important question he has asked is What is the role of the self in self-deception? From his reading of the Christian writers of the seventeenth century, he has become convinced that self-deception is more concerned with the self’s deception about the self, than with the self’s deception by the self. It is more akin to self-knowledge (which involves knowledge about the self) than to self-control (which involves control by the self). And yet it is this latter option that is almost exclusively considered nowadays.

As it stands, self-deception can mean either deception by the self or about the self. Modern psychology, with its understanding of the power of the subconscious, of schizophrenic tendencies and split personality, has discovered a great deal about deception by the self. This has resulted in the neglect, Holton seems to suggest, of deception about the self. By ourselves we seem more intent upon deceiving ourselves about ourselves.

The Oxford English Dictionary has some 300 terms made up of self  –and another word, but not self-ignorance. What in the seventeenth century was the most widely used and accepted opposite of self-knowledge has now, in effect, fallen out of the language. This is a serious mistake.

Daniel Dyke was a Puritan incumbent during the Commonwealth who wrote in The Mystery of Self-Deceiving, God alone knoweth the heart exactly and certainly: Man and Angels may know it conjecturally, and by way of guessing. If there is a God, it is he who has complete access to who we are as persons. For us such knowledge (even of ourselves) is only partial and must be worked at. And it is God who can help us to find greater knowledge.

By contrast, if there is no God, a strong presumption develops that the self is supreme: if nothing else, it has no master. Self-deception is therefore principally seen as something done by the self, rather than a problem we have about the self. The problems of human behaviour are the same; but the explanation, and therefore the solution, may be very different.

We find perceptive analysis and strong exhortation against the dangers of self-ignorance in Bishop Butler’s sermon Upon self-deceit, but perhaps the best source is a surprisingly readable self-help book, written by another Puritan preacher of the Commonwealth, Richard Baxter, On the Mischief of Self-Ignorance, which urges the reader to become better acquainted with himself. As he announces from the start, He that is a stranger to himself, his sin, his misery, his necessity, etc. is a stranger to God, and to all that might denominate him wise or happy.

Part of the reason we are unable to find salvation by our own efforts is that we are so ignorant of our own wants and desires, let alone our sins and failings. We fail less often than we suppose by not doing right, and far more often than we suppose by not knowing right.

No one is suggesting that agnostics are not earnest in their desire for self-knowledge, but if the believer has an advantage, it is that he or she already knows that God knows better, and that he has given us the means by which we may share some of that greater knowledge. Self-examination of our sins and failings, in the light of Christ, in the faith that he will teach us about ourselves, is a wonderfully salutary lesson in this secular generation.

Let us take note of and seek to remedy the danger of self-ignorance. Let us overcome our dissembling and, in Baxter’s words, cultivate self-acquaintance.


The Rev. Canon Nicholas Turner is the Rector of Marton in Craven, Thornton in Craven, and Broughton.