BOOK REVIEW Doubts are as old as faith and rationality, and as vital
BY ROBERT NERALICH SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
31 January 2004
The Arkansas Democrat Gazette
Copyright (c) 2004 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc. All rights reserved.
In the introduction to Doubt: A History, Jennifer Michael Hecht reveals a major reason why she decided to write a comprehensive chronicle of such a subject: "Once we see it as its own story, rather than as a mere collection of shadows on the history of belief, a whole new drama appears and new archetypes begin to come into focus."
Hecht, an assistant professor of history at Nassau Community College in Garden City, N.Y., and an award-winning poet, brings uncommon intelligence, wit and sensitivity to bear in her discussion of this drama, and the book's subtitle offers an indication of its breadth and depth: "The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation From Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson."
In Hecht's view, the fundamental difference between believers and doubters resides in their responses to an existential truth.
"We live in a meaning rupture because we are human and the universe is not," she writes.
While believers seek comfort and consolation in this situation, doubters simply confront it and accept its implications. In Hecht's words, doubt "prizes [the] rigorous approach to truth above the delights of belief."
BELIEF AND DOUBT TOGETHER Hecht begins her historical survey with ancient doubters, and her discussions of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Cynics, Stoics, Skeptics and Epicureans constitute an overview of Greek philosophy. Epicurus (341-270 B.C.), in particular, emerges as a hero of doubt, and Hecht distills the essence of his wisdom as, "The world was not made by the gods and it was not made for us. We may enjoy it in peace."
Two millennia later, in a letter to a friend, Thomas Jefferson remarked, "I too am an Epicurean."
Like the magnificent Roman doubters Cicero, Lucretus, Pliny the Elder, Lucian and Marcus Aurelius, the Jews of ancient Alexandria developed a tradition of sly cosmopolitan doubt that persisted through such luminaries as Maimonides and Spinoza, and which continues in the present day. Hecht finds precedents for this current of Jewish skepticism in the Hebrew Bible, most notably in Job and Ecclesiastes.
Hecht conceives the relationship between belief and doubt as a subtle symbiosis in which each influences the other. This interaction is nowhere as evident - or as important - as in the genesis of Christianity. In reaction to the Greeks' rationalism, skepticism and secularism, Christianity based itself entirely on belief, and in the process changed the character of doubt.
Beginning with Jesus and Paul, Hecht traces this transformation, in which doubt is no longer "about getting to the bottom of what's real, but rather ... is all about actively trying to commit oneself to belief, and momentarily at least, failing." Hecht details this new inflection of doubt through an array of Christian thinkers, from Augustine to Kierkegaard.
The book also contains informative discussions of Muslim doubters, ancient and modern, as well as elaborations of the nontheistic and profoundly skeptical traditions of Cavraka in India and Buddhism in India, China and Japan. Hecht demonstrates that Zen Buddhism is among the most unrelentingly skeptical traditions in Asia, and she cites one of its most famous admonitions: "great doubt: great awakening; little doubt: little awakening; no doubt: no awakening."
A WHO'S WHO OF DOUBT Finally, Hecht traces doubt in the West from the Renaissance, through the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution to the modern world, and in the process masterfully records the contributions to human knowledge and self-understanding of a wealth of brilliant and courageous personalities, many of whom endured brutal persecution at the hands of violent, credulous fools.
She mentions Michel Montaigne, Galileo, John Locke, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Arthur Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, Sartre and Camus.
The history of American doubt is ably represented, as well, by such figures as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain. And the book's final chapters will especially delight people who enjoy reading about well-deserved rebukes to ignorance and folly.
The experience of reading Doubt: A Historyis akin to drinking a glass of cool well water: Both clear the head and freshen the spirit. While there are many compelling reasons for recommending the book, in its conclusion, Hecht offers what is perhaps the most important: "Most crucially, the murderous tension surrounding fundamentalism right now demands that the history of doubt be understood, and that secularists, arguing for cosmopolitan tolerance, be deeply conversant with its history."
Robert Neralich has a doctorate in English and teaches Asian studies at Fayetteville High School. Write to him c/o Northwest Religion Editor, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, P.O. Box 5105, Springdale, Ark. 72765, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org