Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Pyrrhonism, of Which Civilization Can Die

Pyrrhonism: 1. the doctrine taught by Pyrrho (c. 360-c. 270 B.C.), a Greek Skeptic, that all knowledge, including the testimony of the senses, is uncertain 2. Extreme skepticism.

“But one of the features of development, whether we are taking the religious or the cultural point of view, is the appearance of skepticism- by which, of course, I do not mean infidelity or destructiveness (still less the unbelief which is due to mental sloth) but the habit of examining evidence and of the capacity for delayed decision. Scepticism is a highly civilized trait, though, when it declines into pyrrhonism, it is one of which civilization can die. Where skepticism is strength, pyrrhonism is weakness: for we need not only the strength to defer a decision, but the strength to make one.” –T. S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture, (1940), p. 102.

[Something I wrote previously reflecting on a book by Sertillanges appies here. When Eliot talks about Pyrrhonism he seems to me to be alluding to a defining weakness of Postmodernity, the failure of judgment.]

Sertillanges has deep insight into the act of judgment. A passage I found particularly resonant is toward the end of the preface where he describes the proper approach to knowing a thing aright. In the whole of his description I can see lesser halves, distorted approaches to knowledge, which his wholeness on the subject avoids. “To be long multiple is the condition of being richly one,“ he writes. “Unity at the starting point is a mere void.” That is a saying I plan to remember. It seems to me that much of the ideologies of modernity are unities that are “mere voids” but that postmodernism seems definable by a weakness of being only multiple, and not aiming and finally believing in the richly one. Postmodernism, as successor, justifies its excesses against the excesses of the preceding ideologies. “It is a great secret to know how to give radiance to an idea by means of its twilight background. It is a further secret to preserve its power of convergence in spite of this radiating quality.” The strength of postmodernism lies in its attunement to the first secret, perhaps, but it becomes a weakness, a sickness unto death, if it does not learn the second secret.

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