How, then, shall I respond to him who asks, “What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?” I do not answer, as a certain one is reported to have done facetiously (shrugging off the force of the question). “He was preparing hell,” he said, “for those who pry too deep.” It is one thing to see the answer; it is another to laugh at the questioner–and for myself I do not answer these things thus. More willingly would I have answered, “I do not know what I do not know,” than cause one who asked a deep question to be ridiculed–and by such tactics gain praise for a worthless answer.
Rather, I say that thou, our God, art the Creator of every creature. And if in the term “heaven and earth” every creature is included, I make bold to say further: “Before God made heaven and earth, he did not make anything at all. For if he did, what did he make unless it were a creature?” I do indeed wish that I knew all that I desire to know to my profit as surely as I know that no creature was made before any creature was made.
-Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 11.12
I was having a casual conversation with a ‘secular’ teacher today and I made a passing reference to Augustine. He told me that he often uses a quote by him in one of his classes. ‘What quote?’ I asked. His response: ‘I do not know what I do not know.’
I had never heard that one before, so I asked him where it came from. When he said that it was from the Confessions, I was taken aback. I’ve read Confessions, and made all sorts of notes on it, so how could I have missed such a gem? He gave me the exact reference (book 11, section 12) so I checked it as soon as I got home this evening. I found that the translation I own, the Penguin Classics edition, translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin, does not contain the phrase. I then did a quick Google search and found that the exact phrase is found in Outler’s translation (which is the version available at CCEL; see above).
The Penguin edition puts the phrase in question like this:
For in matters of which I am ignorant I would rather admit the fact than gain credit by giving the wrong answer and making a laughing-stock of a man who asks a serious question (p. 262).
In other words, Augustine was not afraid to admit that he didn’t know what he didn’t know.
Those are wise words, and, though I cannot read the Latin, the English is particularly loaded. I see at least a double meaning in the phrase (as it is in English). On the one hand, it can simply mean admitting your ignorance. On the other hand, it can mean admitting your ignorance to your ignorance. Not only are you ignorant (there are things you do not know), but you are also ignorant of your ignorance (you don’t know the depth of your ignorance, and how that ignorance affects your knowledge. In fact there are times that, since you don’t know what you don’t know, you actually don’t know that you don’t know). That’s quite profound, and it is a true expression of, and call for, intellectual humility.