The skeptic’s lukewarm mood

A brief excerpt from a forthcoming guide, Cultivating Discipline Lightly, which is to serve as a companion to the course I am teaching at Kaos Pilots from Sept. 9-13. Enjoy.

In all of this, it is evident that the skeptic, an allegorical figure of Estrangement, is absolutely unwilling to play along. Out of hubris, she continues to drag her heels and thinks, from the outset and throughout, that she has nothing whatsoever to learn. Of course, it is not that the skeptic is a know-it-all. On the contrary, it is simply that there is nothing for anyone to learn. ‘Who says?’ in many contexts can be translated as ‘I am unwilling to find out if something could be known about myself, about the world because there is nothing to find out, no adventure to undertake, nothing more prudent in this world but to be cautious, wary, and suspicious.’

The reason the skeptic does not play along, it turns out, is that he wants to be safe, wants not to risk or stake himself for fear of being in error. The German philosopher Hegel sniffs out modern philosophy’s bluff, arguing that since Descartes modern philosophers have built their systems as repeated attempts to  immunize themselves from the possibility of error. Hegel’s gamble is to turn philosophy upside down by showing that error is the condition of possibility for any genuine learning. In terms of the social drama about which I have already written, skepticism is simply the other side of the philosophical coin.

 The skeptic has not read Hegel or, really, only one part. Recoiling from his peers, from chance, from the unknown, from the possibility of messing up, the skeptic thereby becomes a coward. If there cannot be any certainty in this world, neither in acting nor in thinking nor even in the art of loving, then the best thing to do is to stay at home.

When presented with the ugly face of the skeptic–the man who refuses to join in, the woman who murmurs and grumbles before even the second sentence has left the speaker’s lips, the child who keeps asking ‘why?’ long after good enough answers have been supplied–we need to turn away. We need not take any notice. For too long the skeptic has occupied the social stage, been given too large a part in every political drama, been fed too many choice lines, all of which have sounded, to the one so attuned, nearly the same and not at all beautiful.

For too long we have nodded in acquiescence, unaware that the skeptic has been repeating himself for some 40 years on and that the skeptic is… ourselves. Are we not bored of him? Do we not find him less interesting than the nihilist who is committed, in the very least, to giving up on the whole business of existence? Lukewarm! Lukewarm! Never in or out this figure, never with us with his entire spirit, never uplifting or exuberant, only a character half-shrugging his shoulders… An artist creates, a madman deforms, a builder builds up, oh but a skeptic–well, he’s a bit fussy and he can’t be bothered…

Can we not see that the skeptic is nothing more than a freeloader feeding off of others who have done the heavy lifting of thinking and doing? Isn’t he just a bureaucrat, just an ordinary man without any good ideas of his own? Hasn’t he, like Peter Pan, saw fit never to grow up and take stock of his life? So then: is the time to think with each other in the face of the unknown not just now upon us? The time to act  in concert with one another–is it not standing before us? Will we dare to be courageous enough to stick out our necks, to be open enough to widen our eyes, patient enough to hold open the space of unknowing and to hold longer still within?

Friend, take all of this in hand and also what follows, take that too as an invitation. It is an invitation for us to examine a novel conception of authority, one that does not return us to a fallen-away past, one that does not reassert what has become incredible and incapable of restoration, yet one that could very well be accepted lightly and wholeheartedly. The characters’ names will change from leader and follower, from boss and employee, from consultant and client to what is more gentle, more direct, and more simple: guide and disciple. So also will the warrant for the guide’s authority: not the command of the would-be Master or the wilted request of the Service Provider but the delicate art of philosophical inquiry. The guide will be ‘higher,’ but the disciple will, by means of education, be ‘raised up’ to becoming a guide herself. Furthermore, the disciple will also have philosophical friends, those with whom he is on equal footing, those with whom he keeps good company, and without whom he may be adrift. The structure I envision will not be a staid institution or the often-invoked network but the beautiful and sturdy trellis about which St. Benedict so movingly wrote…