Do you want to maybe talk about a poem? If yes...
Go read this poem and come back.
Are we all here? Anyone missing? Right. I’m delighted to present this poem today. I just now got an email from a Ron George, Doctor of Ministry candidate out at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, telling me he's reading my book Doubt: A History, that if I am somehow not aware of this lovely poem, I might like to be. And in fact, I was not aware of it and I do like to be.
What a poem. It makes me think, “Wow, Whitman’s friend must have been some lover.” Having not yet decided on today’s blog topic, I carped the diem, or rather, I carped the poem. Because, I’m kind of a world expert on Skepticism, which is a doctrine about what we can know, and states that we can not know anything. It is ancient as the Ancient World
(after Alexander), but has been repeatedly reborn, as in the Renaissance, and the early 20th century in the uncertainty, principle energy, equals matter, times a constant squared, and the world wars, not to mention Freud. Yes my sentence just got weird. I allow myself abandon here. Anyway. There was no complete history of Skepticism before I wrote the one that is part of Doubt: A History. I read tons of books by ancient, medieval, and later Skeptics and by historians of various ages of Skepticism and between them pieced together the story from the beginning to the present. Isn't that cool? It is cool.
So I'm going to go ahead and tell you about what the philosophy was, because Whitman’s poem is about the mercurial nature of nature, yes, but he is referring specifically to the unhinged feeling you can get from Skepticism. (I love that unhinged feeling and think truth resides there.)
Actually, I’m going to let Montaigne talk about Skepticism to maybe unhinge you if you want. And I’m mashing from Doubt: A History, I admit it. So here is my gloss of Montaigne’s gloss on the questions Skepticism poses to knowledge: The first problem of knowledge is the relativism of judgment. Of beauty, “the Indies paint it as black and dusky, with large swollen lips and a wide flat nose…in Peru the biggest ears are the fairest” and in Basque country the women are more beautiful when they shave their heads and “plenty of other places.” As for pure forms, Plato loved the circle, but Epicureans liked the pyramid or the square. There is also the problem of the interpretation of someone else’s judgment, “some have considered Plato a dogmatist, others a doubter.” A nice observation.
Then there is the matter of madness: How can we ever be certain of our sanity and its conclusions? Then there is the issue of perception, that wine tastes different in the mouth of a sick man. “Do you think that the verses of…Sappho smile to an avaricious and crabbed old man as they do to a vigorous and ardent young man?” Sexual desire, to which Montaigne admitted never having been very susceptible, could make some people very befuddled. For his own part, when he was dragged into sex by some seduction he was surprised by how single-minded he became until the tension was relieved. While he was aroused, he lost his values and only approved of arguments that encouraged him to become satisfied, and then he would “regain another kind of sight, another state, and another judgment.”
Montaigne’s general phlegmatic disinterest in sex is its own little lesson in doubt, for the most extreme torture Augustine ever felt was due to having to put aside sex, and here is our pious Skeptic, free to indulge but never having had much taste for it. There are different types of people, he reminds, and what is more, any given person changes constantly. “He who last night was invited to come to dine this morning, today comes uninvited, seeing that he and his hosts are no longer themselves: they have become others.” Is that not beautiful?
We change our minds, fast sometimes. No ideas, opinions, desires or perceptions stay put. Even time “is a mobile thing, which appears as in a shadow together with matter, which is ever running and flowing, without ever remaining stable or permanent.” We not only disagree with each other, but with ourselves across our lifetimes. How can we bear to trust our own opinions over and over again, when strong opinions of all sorts get overturned all the time? “Has it not happened to me, not once, but a hundred times, and every day, to have embraced with these same instruments, in this same condition, something else that I have since judged false?” After all, “if my touchstone is found to be ordinarily false…Is it not stupidity to let myself be fooled so many times by one guide?”
Some people will believe things just because they reject the “pressure and violence of authority.” In fact, pride or reputation has “sent some men all the way to the stake to maintain an opinion for which, among their friends and at liberty they would not have been willing to burn the tip of their finger.” I love that line. An investigation of social and personal pressures often makes nonsense of convictions—even fatal ones.
In Montaigne’s words, here’s why you can’t trust any philosophy:
The writings of the ancients, I mean the good writings, full and solid, tempt me and move me almost wherever they please; the one I am listening to always seems to me the strongest; I find each one right in his turn, although they contradict each other.
The facility that good minds have of making whatever they like seem true, and the fact that there is nothing so strange but that they undertake to color it enough to deceive a simplicity like mine, shows evidently the weakness of their proof.
Unable to prove any of the various brilliant voices wrong, he knocks their heads together: with so many, none can be true.
So that’s Montaigne’s sketch of Skepticism, the problem Whitman was considering.
One answer to it is empirical science (Don’t know what we can know? Well measure something and let’s see what we can do.) and another is poetry and love (which aren’t beholden to what we can know). Whitman’s is what you read, here paragraphized:
When he whom I love travels with me or sits a long while holding me by the hand, When the subtle air, the impalpable, the sense that words and reason hold not, surround us and pervade us, Then I am charged with untold and untellable wisdom, I am silent, I require nothing further, I cannot answer the question of appearances or that of identity beyond the grave, But I walk or sit indifferent, I am satisfied, He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me.
So what he finds out from human contact is not tellable and makes him indifferent and satisfied.
Which I don’t believe because how could he have gotten so much done if he was indifferent and satisfied? I think he started out much more different and unsatisfied (ha) than most people and while his wisdom did help him to grow increasingly indifferent and satisfied, and may help others, that doesn’t mean that he himself was more calm and satisfied than the norm, which I protest he was not, because as I mentioned, sunov abich got a lot done.
As I said above, when I perceive all the stuff Whitman describes in the top of the poem, I feel great and don't need any cheering up at all. Indeed it is my normal state of perception. Not that I wouldn’t talk to this guy Whitman’s going on about. I wouldn’t mind a nice hand holding. Who would? Am I right or am I right?