Dubito ergo sum
Last week the New York Times posted a short piece by Phillip Lopate about the relationship between doubt and the writing of essays. Lopate argues that the essay is a literary form especially hospitable to uncertainty. The essay is, or can be, exploratory, provisional, even self-contradictory. The word itself suggests an experiment (the French word essayer means “to try”). “The essay’s job is to track consciousness; if you are fully aware of your mind you will find your thoughts doubling back, registering little peeps of ambivalence or disbelief,” Lopate writes. He cites Montaigne’s motto “What do I know?” and laments that high school students are now encouraged to write as if they were more sure of themselves and their opinions than they have any reason to be.
Especially when it comes to the development of young writers, it is crucial to nudge them past that self-righteous inveighing, that shrill, defensive one-track that is deadly for personal essays or memoirs, and encourage a more polyphonic, playful approach. That may be why a classic essay technique is to stage an inner debate by thinking against oneself.
Doubtfulness is not only a literary virtue; it is a way of life, says Lopate:
Doubt is my boon companion, the faithful St. Bernard ever at my side. Whether writing essays or just going about daily life, I am constantly second-guessing myself. My mind is filled with “yes, buts,” “so whats?” and other skeptical rejoinders. I am forever monitoring myself for traces of folly, insensitivity, arrogance, false humility, cruelty, stupidity, immaturity and, guess what, I keep finding examples. Age has not made me wiser, except maybe in retrospect.
So a keen sensitivity to ambiguity is an unambiguously good thing, though Lopate acknowledges that it doesn’t always lead to modesty: “The only danger, then, is becoming smug about one’s capacity for doubt — the essayist’s occupational hazard, to which I periodically succumb.”
I wish Lopate had made more of this last point, since there is often a good deal of preening and self-congratulation involved in contemporary expressions of doubt—an unbecoming confidence in the moral and intellectual superiority of those who are capable living with all those “yes, buts.” It is one thing to register doubt, or to explore the best arguments against one’s own beliefs. It is another to hold up one’s exquisite doubtfulness for display. Uncertainty is of course part of the human condition, but it is no more a virtue than certainty. It can be the product of intellectual humility, but it can also be the product of pride: “Lord, I thank thee that I am not as other men. I will not settle for easy answers.” Nietzsche, the most eloquent champion of uncertainty, wanted nothing to do with intellectual humility. And who would accuse him of it? For him, pride and courage went together, and real courage was about the ability to endure uncertainty. It was not only that he refused to settle for easy answers; he wouldn’t settle, full stop. Settlement was evidence of sloth and cowardice.
The question for a person of faith is: How do you make good use of your doubts without defining yourself by them? Doubt can be proof of engagement—proof that one is paying attention to the way things actually turn out rather than just letting expectation determine experience—but doubt can also be an excuse for disengagement. If you’ll never commit yourself until you’re absolutely certain, not only of what you believe now but of what you’ll always believe, then you’ll never commit yourself to anything. You’ll neither make promises nor accept them. In that case, doubt will have made your life smaller by closing it off from the many experiences that are available only to those who first make a decision. The best way to make use of doubt is to try to settle it, and you do that by testing belief, not suspending it.