May 2019 Print

Joyfully Wrong

Some Inspirations from Hugh of St. Victor

by Douglas LeBlanc

Editor’s Note: Hugh of St. Victor was a 12th-century Augustinian monk and scholastic. He is known for both his brilliance and humility. All quotes in the article below are taken from his work The Didascalicon.

“I was right all along!”

The savory words often accompany the confirmation of a belief of ours that had previously been cast into doubt. It is a good feeling to be right. Being right means possessing truth. And, unless we let pride and arrogance destroy us, how can possessing that which is right be a bad thing? Additionally, possessing rightness can be helpful to others when we share that rightness with genuine humility and charity. However, while it is good to be right, discovering that fact seems less beneficial to us personally than discovering that we were wrong. Discovering that we were “right all along” does not give us anything we did not already have. On the other hand, discovering that we were wrong all along is a precious gift. The wise person, says Hugh of St. Victor, “seeks what he lacks, and he considers not how much he knows, but of how much he is ignorant.”

An Unsettling Realization

Yes, at first, it can be unsettling to realize that we were wrong all along. It can be unnerving. Humiliating, even. However, this is the wrong feeling to have. After all, being blissfully, ignorantly, arrogantly wrong is so much worse than being painfully, obviously, humiliatingly wrong. “Why do you blush to be taught, and yet not blush at your ignorance?” chastises Hugh. Thinking you understand something when you really do not ought to offer no consolation. Why, then, do we often have such a negative reaction to being wrong? “Many are deceived by the desire to appear wise before their time,” explains the Victorine. “They therefore break out into a certain swollen importance and begin to simulate what they are not and to be ashamed of what they are.” In short, pride is the answer; pride causes the negative reaction in us. Hugh chides us for this all-too-common inclination: “Seek to be learned rather than merely to seem so.”

Once we accept that our view of reality is incomplete—once we accept that we have a lot to learn—being wrong is no longer a cause for disturbance or disquietude. Rather, it is a cause for joy: our grasp of reality is becoming more complete! Instead of being ashamed at being wrong, instead of feeling inferior, we should in fact be proud of being found wrong. We are that much closer to truth, and that much less to be mocked for believing a lie. In this light, being wrong can be looked forward to—maybe even looked for. Perhaps we ought to hope that we discover we are wrong once a day, and be disappointed when a day goes by where we do not. “You have drunk at the very fount of philosophy—but would that you thirsted still!” Hugh of St. Victor’s words here are a call to humility, a call to embrace being a lifelong learner.

I hope I’m wrong, but… Ironically, an expression we only use when we know we are not. Perhaps we should use this expression more often, and with more sincerity. I was right all along! Who cares about that? Being wrong, or rather realizing we were wrong all along, is much more interesting and much more meaningful.