Sunday, July 22, 2007

Doubt; a history, by Jennifer Michael Hecht

This is a history book that tells the story of doubt, beginning with ancient Greek philosophers who doubted the existence of the gods of Olympus and ending with many thinkers of modernity, including Einstein, Woody Allen, and Elizabeth Cady Staton. It was a whirlwind journey, to be sure. The book could also have been called "a brief history of philosophy..." I skimmed through some of the stories that didn't interest me, but I also read carefully and reveled in the humor and beauty of many splendid tales--including vignettes from the life and writings of Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Paine, and Emma Goldman. The over-arching theme of this book was a brash privileging of all minds that doubt, question, search, and rebel.

I found myself nodding adamantly when Hecht took on multi-cultural relativism in regards to Islam. Pointing to the work of the doubter Ibn Warraq she writes, "Diffusing the present global threat should be understood as dragging Islam through the same process that her older sisters have undergone: separation of church and state, an increase in gender equity, recognition of other religions as partaking in the same truths and a willingness to have secular standards of conduct applied within their ranks." Like the free-thinkers she admires and describes, she demonstrates an ability to voice an unpopular truth. Harshly critiquing not just "fundamentalist" Islam, but the religion in general, is, I believe an admirable act of courage.

In one of her departing paragraphs, Hecht sums up the lessons of doubt thus:

From doubt's beginnings, it has advised that if you create your own desires and model them after what you actually experience, you can be happy. Accept that we are animals, but ones with special problems, and that the world is natural, but natural is just an idea that we animals have in our heads. Devote yourself to wisdom, self-knowledge, friends, family, and give some attention to community, politics, money, and pleasure. Know that none of it brings happiness all that consistently. It's best to stay agile, to keep an open mind. Anyway, if you live long enough, you'll find yourself believing something that you'd never believe today. Or disbelieve. In a funny way, the one thing you can really count on is doubt. Expect change. Accept death. Enjoy life. As Marcus Aurelius explained, the brains that got you through the troubles you have had so far, will get you through any troubles yet to come.

Nice, huh? Anyway-books lead to new books and new questions and new interests. The teachings and practices of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus are a new interest of mine. And I'm also gonna reread The Tao of Pooh.

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