Thursday, January 6, 2011

Radical Uncertainty

I notice it as I go about my daily writing: I am always qualifying myself. It shows up not only in the constant demurrals like "as I understand it," or "in my view," and so on, but even in the detail of punctuation--the dashes (there's one, back there!) and the ellipses... (see!) and so on. I remember, back in the days when I was struggling with my doctoral dissertation--and I struggled mightily, believe me, for much too long!--having battles about this habit with my dissertation director, the sharp-witted Comparative Literature Professor Angelo Bertocci, a disciple of the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce--and a man who tolerated little in the way of the bullshit I was trying to get away with. The good professor wanted me to come right out and say exactly what I meant; I, however, was more interested in doubting my own position. And, thinking back on it, I realize that this chronic habit discouraged me from whole-heartedly following a professional path as an "art critic"--a path that was certainly open to me. I believe, too, that my radical doubt of my own opinions, as much as of those of others, is what provokes response when I write about things political, from those more certain in their views than I am in mine.

It is good, then, to be reminded of an admirable and inspiring kindred soul as I read further into Sarah Bakewell's delightful How to Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer--a book whose very title evokes what it is I'm talking about. Her book is an attempt--a series of attempts, or "essays"--to grasp the life, the character and the work of this great writer of the 16th century, who speaks to me so urgently, appealingly, and relevantly across the ages. "The Essays," she writes, "are suffused with [Skepticism]: he filled his pages with words such as 'perhaps,' 'to some extent,' 'I think,' 'it seems to me,' and so on--words which, as Montaigne said himself, 'soften and moderate the rashness of our propositions,' and which embody what the critic Hugo Friedrich has called his philosophy of 'unassumingness.' They are not extra flourishes; they are Montaigne's thought, at its purest.'"

Exactly so. There are those, I know, who are impatient with such unassumingness, and who challenge the appropriateness of softening or moderating the rashness of our propositions in a political climate in which opponents refuse adamantly to do the same. The problem for me, though, is that I persist in doubting; and by doubt, I mean not the timorous, but rather the more demanding intellectual kind. I would like to enjoy the certainty that others seem to possess, but I do not. I am not lacking in opinions, but nor am I lacking in the questions that invariably accompany them. The only wrong-headedness, it seems to me, is certainty itself.

Does skepticism lead necessarily to paralysis? I think not. But it does allow of impermanence, of the provisional nature of every action that we take. The Buddhist test of skillfulness seems to me a useful and necessary one. We judge our actions not merely by the principle that motivates them, but by their outcome. Does my action result in greater good or greater harm? Does it make me, and others, happier or less happy? More, or less fully and responsibly human? Every action becomes a test--an essai, to borrow from Montaigne.

Thus, too, with speech, and writing. This very day, with an eye to what is happening in Washington as congressional power shifts into Republican hands, I can't help but be aware of the words being broadcast over the airwaves, the speeches made, the actions planned. I'm aware, too, of my own reactions: I'm appalled, saddened, angry, afraid of what the consequences of this change might be. And yet I'm totally unable to predict those consequences and, unlike the talking heads we see on our television sets, if we have them (there I go again!) I know that I'll handle things much better if I join Montaigne in the Phyyronian skeptic's attitude of epokhe--a Greek word meaning "I suspend judgment"; or, as Bakewell writes, "in a different rendition given in French by Montaigne himself, 'je soutiens': 'I hold back.'" This phrase, she continues, "conquers all enemies; it undoes them, so that they disintegrate into atoms before your eyes." An appealing notion.

As regular readers of "The Buddha Diaries" know, I am saddened by the contempt I hear, even from friends and allies, for the President we elected just a couple of years ago. I may be wrong (of course!) but I see in him the wisdom of Montaignian "holding back." I like to believe that his thoughtful patience will allow others to reveal their foolishness and shallowness, and prove (what I believe to be!) the inefficacy of their policies. Watching them stumble over their own petulant arrogance, he may yet be able to bring about a change in the way we look toward the future...

And then again, maybe not. Thanks for joining me in these thoughts.


mandt said...

"I like to believe that his thoughtful patience will allow others to reveal their foolishness and shallowness". Somehow, the thought of disciplined stewards keeping lounge chairs in order on the sinking Titanic or the band, which continued to play pleasant music while chaos neared its real death, reminds one of Obama, a genius bean counter, without a shred of non-cynical, pre-calculated, moral courage. Courageous martinets still fail greatness. Obama would have, however, been a proper Victorian PM in a past life.

CHI SPHERE said...

As Obama plays a chess game with our future and a new majority begins to cut away at the first draft attempt to provide a health net for many lacking the means to pay for it, I wonder who is looking into the night for ice bergs to steer the titanic ship of government around.

The fifth estate is encumbered by a plurality of headline hungry opportunists. Rachel Maddow is my trusted BS buster with her brother in arms Keith.

What do we really know for certain?

I wonder where truth rests in the conspiracy of news shuttled into view each day by those who still print and broadcast. Trust is hard to come by when the moral courage Mandt questions is in play without a sextant in the hands of our captain.