THE WILL TO DOUBT (PART I)

Without undue sensationalism it may be said that this is an age of doubt. Wherever one looks in journeying through the different departments of life one sees doubt. And one sees, too, some of the blight which doubt produces, although the blight is by no means all that one sees. There is heat everywhere in the physical world, but not necessarily only arson or even destructive fire. Morals, however, social life, industry, politics, religion, have suffered somewhat—and many would insist very seriously—from the prevailing doubt. Moreover, if the outward view shows doubt everywhere, the inward view is at least not more reassuring. We would often hide it from others, not to say from ourselves, but it is there, and we all know it to be there.
In a fable, never in real life, a man might get the smell of burning wood in his house and refuse to recognize the danger because of the inevitable delay to his business which the alarm of fire would involve; but doubt is not less real nor less dangerous, nor even less capable, when under control, of useful applications. Any danger, too, squarely faced is at least half met. Why, then, be so impracticable, so like characters in fables, as to overlook or turn one’s back upon the doubt of the day, refusing it a place and a part in real life?
Life, then, is a game, and the game of life, doubts and all, is a real interest as well as a necessity. We are creatures of habit, but we have, and we cherish, no habit stronger or more essential than the habit at once of adaptation and variation.
Doubt is necessary to life, to real life, to deep experience. Doubt is but one of the phases of the resistance which a real life demands. Real life implies a constant challenge, and doubt is a form under which the challenge finds expression. The doubter is a questioner, a seeker; he has, then, something to overcome; he fears, too, as well as hopes.
Doubt makes one dependent; isolation gives a sense of loss; and, if ever a solution of the doubt comes, in the life and consciousness which it enjoins the lost companions, whether they will or not, are included with one self. In many ways this is an important fact; yet it must suffice that we see the affinity of the doubter for society. Man ever confidently seeks what man has lost. Dependent man and doubting man must have society.
Now, there are five things, some of them already foreseen, that seem worth saying here of the essential habit of self-contradiction, and they seem worth saying because so effectively and so comprehensively they warrant the conclusion that even upon our strongest reason for doubt we may rest a genuine case for belief.
Thus, for the first of the five, contradiction incites. It requires, or positively it is, action. As a mode of thinking, as a logical form, it is the way, perhaps the only possible way, in which the mind can, so to speak, make a cross-section or take a picture of activity or give the semblance of fixity, the formal appearance of static nature, to what is dynamic. In your character or mine, so like a lover’s unselfish selfishness in its apparent inconsistencies, in our double views about reality or unity or law, in a subjective-objective science, in an agnostic philosophy, in all these the contradictions are only the marks of essential unrest. For a world of opposites there can be no peace.
But, secondly, contradiction, at least as here understood, is an expression, or in experiences a means to the expression, as well as to the maintenance, of real unity. The summits of very wonderful mountains, plainly impossible of ascent, have often been reached from the other side, and that difficulties of breathing are often due to a needless exhaustion. To take a first step, then, contradiction is only difference, or contrast, at its limit. Naturally there is some opposition, some mutual resistance, in all difference, in that, for example, between one man and another, or one thing and another, between religion and art, red and green, or warm and hot, and often the difference or the opposition seems very slight; but contradiction, so called, is only this difference abstracted and unrestrained—it is difference at its worst or best, difference as only opposition, or, once more, difference where any possible unity of the things opposed has lost all material ground or all chance of actual, visible form, and has become, accordingly, at most merely an empty, abstract principle. Contradiction, then, is difference so wide that unity seems wholly betrayed rather than served or maintained.
In life generally, moreover, in small things and in large, extremes do have the habit of meeting. A man’s virtues are so near to his vices. The widest variations in things are only relatively at variance. Even what is cold is somewhat warm. Nothing is absolutely anything. In history a single ideal, rising to influence, has always divided men into two opposing camps. Witness the fact of bipartisanship, not in politics alone, but in all of life’s interests. Democrats and Republicans, Radicals and Conservatives alike loved their country and honored their country’s flag and, regardless of party, their country’s heroes or patriots. Epicureans and Stoics—in recent times or long ago—have found the same life worth living. The Roman law and the Roman holiday, working together, like the right and the left hand, different yet in sympathy, made the great empire. Two men, furthermore, in active, open conflict are in truth at serious difference with each other; but, as they might even say, if their conflict were in the form of a debate, where words instead of fists or pistols were the weapons, in the bare, unapplied principle involved, or say in the abstract, in the final success of whichever is the “best man,” they do and they must agree. Simply throughout this life of ours there has been and there can be no idealism without conflict and no conflict, whatever the issue or the manner, without common weapons, which means, too, without some common relationship and some common interest. As for the idealism, too, what is it but a demand for real unity?
Now, thirdly, perhaps only to enlarge upon what has just been said, contradiction is an absolutely effective correction of narrowness or partiality or relativity or one-sidedness in life or consciousness, and so it makes experience not abstract, but realistic. This is in truth only another view of the worth of contradiction to integrity and vitality, to unity and reality. Where there is real unity there is also true reality. Only the One is. The One and Being are the same. There can be but one substance, as also but one God. So men have said in effect throughout the ages, and where they have conceded reality or substantial character to manifoldness, the concession has simply concealed a reassertion, but with fuller and deeper meaning, of the intimacy of unity with reality.
And so, fourthly, the contradictions of experience make experience supremely practical. In practical life there always are, and emphatically there always must be, two sides, to everything, to every question. In practical life, too, or at any rate in all effective activity, there always is, and emphatically there always must be, something very like to leadership; but any truly practical leadership, any leadership that is all along the lines of life, be it of things, ideas, persons, or social classes or parties, can never be confined to a single individual representative, but must be instead a leadership of many. No thoroughly practical leadership can ever be on one side or the other, but instead of being one-sided it must be both-sided, or rather, infinitely many-sided; it must be between or among all the different and opposed individuals; it must lie, perhaps in a sense sleep, in rivalry and competition.
Yes, real leadership, like real unity in general, is a divided labor; it is a labor that effects successful co-operation through its very differences and conflicts: for reality, a labor perhaps of different “elements” or “entities”; for knowledge, of different ideas and standpoints; for morals, of different standards; for politics, of different parties and platforms.
Fifthly, then, not only do the contradictions make experience realistic and so practical, but also they make it essentially social. Let not our thinking conjure false sweetness and light. Experience is truly and essentially social; the individual was not meant to dwell alone; but herein is no immediate cure-all, no promise of an unperturbed brotherly love, of a life for one and all of simple peace and blissful quietude. On such a plan society would hardly suit the individual with whom, and with whose natural experience, we have become acquainted. To speak with the extravagance of counter-sentimentalism, the individual of our present acquaintance is forever spoiling for a fight. In the life of the society to which he belongs; in the life where he watches for his incoming ship, there must always be hate and evil in all their forms, lawlessness and destruction, illusion and error.
The good or the evil in society, being always opposed, is always also shared. So few people recognize, or appreciate, what a great mixer opposition is. Hate witnesses only a false love; sin, a pharisaical righteousness. Destruction marks an imperfect construction. In a word, the individual’s natural society is never without evil; and although social life, not less than individual life, must be one of conflict and discord, nevertheless, because the various factors or factions, however opposed, can never be unmixed, because the members of society must all be good and bad, right and wrong instead of being hopeless for having evil in it, the life of society is so much the more worth living.
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Will to Doubt, by Alfred H. Lloyd)
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