Nullius in verba

One especially bewildering experience can serve as the reason for my writing Cultivating Discipline Lightly: A Guide for Philosophical Friends (2013). In 1660, the Royal Society takes as its motto a ‘creative mistake’; it shortens a line from Horace’s Epistles to read simply: nullius in verba. The line can be translated as ‘Take nobody’s word for it’ or ‘On the word of no one.’

Almost 400 years later, the line has become second nature, our lived common sense. We doubt intentions, motivations, interests, causes, consequences, each other. Yet how could it come to pass that a challenge to a certain kind of authority (namely, the authority shown in fiat rather than in empirical evidence) could become a challenge to all forms of legitimate authority? When, in our everyday lives, we begin by taking nobody’s word at face value, in the end we become suspicious of everyone, including ourselves.

The question for our unsettled time is thus:

Who, today, is to lead whom out into the clearing and on what basis?

In our time, we mustn’t shirk our history of skepticism and suspicion; instead, we must seek to transcend it. In spite of the crumbling spirals and burning outrage, in spite of our initial recoils before anyone who would invite us to pause and follow along, we will need to answer this question affirmatively, with lightness in our hearts. The experience of letting ourselves be led would feel–after the icy end of innocence and after centuries of estrangement–like coming upon a ‘second childhood’ or, what is the same thing, a ‘third adulthood.’

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