Month: April 2014

“If God held fast …

If God held fast in his right hand the whole truth and in his left hand only the ever-active quest for truth, albeit with the proviso that I should constantly and eternally err, and said to me: ‘Choose!’, I would humbly fall upon his left hand and say: ‘Father, give! For pure truth is for you alone!’ –Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, 1729-1781, Philosophical and Theological Writings, trans. H. B. Nisbet, Cambridge, p. 98.

This is doubtless one of Lessing’s most famous quotes. Earlier in the passage he says that greatness of character is measured by the effort put forth in the search for truth, not in one’s claim to possessing it. “Possession,” he says, “makes us inactive, lazy, and proud.” It is important to note that Lessing is not referring to logical truths (e.g. p or not-p), about which there can be no doubt. His fusillade is against orthodoxy–religious dogma in particular–with its attendant self-certainty concerning absolute truth. Against assertiveness and conviction in matters of human or divine knowledge, he counsels modesty and circumspection.

His argument, however, is not only about religion. It extends to all orthodoxies, including those of the very Enlightenment (his own age), with its own immodesty regarding the power of human reason. Claims regarding universal truths, about morality, for example, or the completeness of a philosophical system, ought to be resisted with an ever-present questioning. Absolute truth is not accessible to errant human beings–indeed one ought to choose that it be so, especially in the face of the double temptation to think and act as though we could become masters of the truth.

To our modern ears, the argument is unimpeachable. Lessing warns against the human impulse to craft absolutes, be they in matters of religion or of reason, because error-prone that we are, such absolutes will fail. It behooves us, however, to be clear-eyed about what follows from this path of thought. If there can be no solid justification for absolute truth–as was religion in the Middle Ages, or reason in the Enlightenment–then every turn on the road to our cultivated skepticism leaves us largely with two choices: either embark on a disciplined pragmatism, where we test every hypothesis and act on the best yet necessarily uncertain course before us, or give up entirely, exhausted from the effort, and let nihilism cast a pall over all thought, action and feeling.

Writing, what for?

I love the word “blogosphere.” It’s a collective noun (first strike against it), and has a slightly disreputable ring to it (second strike). One pictures a horde of productive typists clamoring for attention. The word puts me into a defensive crouch, which energizes me to think–that’s what I love about it. When the clamor is loud, when the notes are all played forte, it’s hard to hear the music. I see an opening: I shall be playing piano.

Why write? Some want to convey information. More ambitiously, philosophers seek to discover ideas, while poets, with their craft, shape ideas to cast them in a particular light. I write for a different reason.

Michel de Montaigne, 1533-1592

Michel de Montaigne, 1533-1592

In his essay Of idleness, Montaigne writes that unless minds are “kept busy with some definite subject that will bridle and control them,” they become flat-out unruly. Extending the equine metaphor, he then compares his mind to “a runaway horse” so wild that it gives birth to many chimeras and fantastic monsters. His self-imposed task is “to contemplate their ineptitude and strangeness” by putting them in writing. In simple apprenticeship, I shall follow this great sage and contemplate and record my own chimeras and fantastic monsters.

Montaigne concludes his essay with a therapeutic turn that unfailingly gives me pause. “I hope,” he writes, “in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.” Being no stranger to that baleful emotion, I think it best to part here with Montaigne, and be satisfied merely to contemplate my own terrifying thoughts, much as the later Montaigne would do.

The harshly judging “I” that in the early essays makes the mind ashamed of itself gives way, in the later essays, to a more forbearing observer, consistent with the skepticism Montaigne develops in the course of his project. In Of experience, his last and one of his greatest essays, he writes of the “natural infirmity” of the mind. The observing “I” that begins as an uncompromising judge develops into a witness skeptical of man’s natural capacities. Could it not be that he came to regard the harshness of his earlier self-judgment as a kind of monster, a symptom of the natural infirmity of the mind? Given our all-too-human makeup, the therapeutic prescription to shame the mind fails. Some thoughts, he seems to be saying, no matter how chimerical or fantastic, are best contemplated with an evenness of temper–or failing that, passed over in silence.