Hecht: Doubt, a History
|Ratings are described on the Book-note ratings page.|
Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt, A History : The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickenson. New York : HarperSanFrancisco, 2003. xxi + 551 pages, with notes, bibliography, and index.
The subject of the book is "doubt"—religious doubt, to be specific. With a subject like that it's easy to imagine that the book is really about religion but with a fancy, post-modern title meant to disguise that fact, or that it's even a camouflaged, sneak-attack on religion, or something other than actually about "doubt". But it really is about "doubt": what it is, how it manifests, its history as an idea, doubters in history, the influence of doubt on religion, doubt in culture, doubt as an idea—all things doubt.
From the introduction, a hint of what lies ahead and the nature of her argument.
A few things about religion become visible from the history of doubt. One is that there was belief before there was doubt, but only after there was a culture of doubt could there be the kind of active believing that is at the center of modern faiths. Until the Greeks filled libraries with skepticism and secularism, no one ever thought of having a religion where the central active gesture was to believe. Another is that doubt has inspired religion in every age: from Plato, to Augustine, to Descartes, to Pascal, religion has defined itself through doubt's questions. Of course, this extends up to today.
Doubters have been remarkably productive, for the obvious reason that they have a tendency toward investigation and, also, are often drawn to invest their own days with meaning. Many scientists and doctors have been doubters of religious dogma, including the physicist Galileo Galilee, the Jewish theorist and doctor Maimonides, the Muslim philosopher and doctor Abu Bakr al-Razi, and the physicist Marie Curie. Sometimes scientific methodology causes doubt by its example of questions and proof, sometimes doubters are drawn to the sciences, sometimes both. Many ethicists and theorists of democracy, freedom of speech, and equality have also been doubters; in the modern period alone, these include Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, Frederick Douglass, and Susan B. Anthony. Great poets, too, from Lucretius and Ovid to John Keats and Emily Dickinson, have often written because they doubted God and an afterlife and had to work out the question with diligence.
The earliest doubt on historical record was twenty-six hundred years ago, which makes doubt older than most faiths. Faith can be a wonderful thing, but it is not the only wonderful thing. Doubt has been just as vibrant in its prescriptions for a good life, and just as passionate for the truth. By many standards, it has had tremendous success. This is its story. [p. xxi]
Why read a history book? Naively, one can read history to assemble the facts of an event and place them in correct order on a timeline, but that's an approach suitable mostly for a textbook. More generally, I think we read history to examine a course of events for the insight such reflection can give. In other words, we don't typically read history to discover new facts, but to uncover new understanding.
Many of the facts and dates and historic personnel that Ms. Hecht deploy in telling her history are familiar, but she places them in a context that wrings plenty of new understanding from her recounting of events that limn her narrative. Such considerations necessarily touch on matters of religion, as well as things like science and culture, but in an indirect way. As she profiles doubt in history, she creates a silhouette of these other things that doubt impinges upon, giving the reader quite a bit of new understanding about both foreground and background.
By the time we get to the thinker who most shaped Christianity for the six centuries of the early Middle Ages [Augustine, 354-430 AD], orthodox Christianity had already had to reconcile itself not only with the ancient philosophers but also with diverse variations of the Christian vision. Furthermore, although Paul had insisted on faith over law and words, various factors—most notably the influence of the Manichaean religion—had placed faith in the context of strict physical challenges, beginning with chastity, poverty, and fasting and eventually including self-flagellation and the wearing of hair shirts. Christianity inaugurated a harrowing new form of doubt: doubting one's ability to believe enough, and to enact that belief in dramatically painful processes. The story of doubt would now include all those who struggled to meet those challenges and who, at least for a while, found that they could not do it. It was doubt's time for dark nights of the soul. [p. 193]
Alongside the path of doubt through history lies a great deal of science; skepticism, naturalism, and rationalism are all woven into the story.
Aristotle's empirical conception of the universe is important in the history of doubt because it championed rationalism. Throughout his work he called for reason, proofs, and demonstration, and he worked out the beginnings of whole disciplines showing how to do this: from marine biology to logic, political science, ethics, and psychology. His scientific studies, however, were often great jumbles of hearsay examples and thought experiments. Moreover, his philosophy always assumed that the universe made beautiful sense, that it was all going to fit together intelligibly and gracefully. So he often imposed this beautiful sense on things and did not bother to check with nature. [pp. 21—22]
Ms. Hecht manages her material brilliantly. Doubt combines two types of satisfaction: it's fun in the reading, and it's worthwhile to have read it. It is a remarkably skillful narrative of intellectual history that led me to say "I see" more than I had expected. I started reading the book with pretty high expectations and, as it turned out, all of my expectations were exceeded.
-- Notes by JNS