Je soutiens: On Contemplating our Blindness and Wretchedness
On contemplating our blindness and wretchedness, and on observing the whole of the silent universe, and humanity with no light abandoned to itself, lost in this nook of the universe not knowing who put us there, what we have come to achieve, what will become of us when we die, incapable of all knowledge, I become frightened, like someone taken in his sleep to a terrifying, deserted island who wakes up with no knowledge of what has happened, nor means of escape
So wrote Blaise Pascal in his famous Pensées (1669). His analogy here is with existence, and the quest for meaning in life, and this image of being stranded on a desert island without answers is one which led him to frustration and fear, but which sent Montaigne down the path of relaxed scepticism. Here we have two contrasting responses to the same timeless mystery.
For Pascal, and later Descartes, the existence of the universe and our place in it has to be understood. We must find certainty and answers to our questions. To him, we are stranded on this desert island without knowing how we got here, or how we can escape. I like the analogy, except that life and existence is even more imponderable than that. It’s not that we know what it is not to exist, and are then transported from there (sleeping or otherwise) to our current situation. We were not busy living city lives, only to fall asleep and awake upon a beach. We begin by being on the island itself, with no concept of escape or of anything but the island. Yet we become terrified all the same; terrified of why we’re here, terrified of what we should do whilst we’re here, and most of all terrified of ever leaving the island and, in that, “what dreams may come”.
In fact, the analogy should go one step further (and, perhaps intentionally, one step closer to the TV show ‘Lost’). In life we aren’t stranded alone on an island. We’re seemingly stranded, sure, but we’re surrounded by others, many of whom came to the island before we did. At first we look on them as wise, as people who can tell us more about the island and how we came to be here. Perhaps we trust them more than we should through our own ignorance and need for answers. That is, until we reach an age and a level of confidence where we assume that we know just about as much as they do about the island. Perhaps we also come to realise that they too know nothing of why we are here, or of how we can escape and the consequences of doing so. No matter how old and experienced we get, we were all still brought here in our sleep, none the wiser.
As Montaigne put it, “there is no use our mounting on stilts, for on stilts we must still walk on our own legs. And on the loftiest throne in the world we are still sitting on our own rump”. I find that this realisation is a great leveller. Throughout life we have superiors, we have authorities (both political and intellectual), we have those who we admire or are commanded to admire. Whatever our age, we ‘gotta serve somebody’ as Bob Dylan once put it. But we can take solace in the knowledge that whatever hold others have over us, they know as little as we do about existence. They too were born blind and wretched, and they too will die none the wiser.
Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that in glory and triumph they can become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot – Carl Sagan, ‘Pale Blue Dot’
It’s a view reeking of nihilism, of pointlessness and absurdity. But of course it is; we’ve just awoken on this blasted island and nothing makes sense, even though it’s the only stuff we know. It’s ridiculous. Sure you can take that as depressing, nihilistic whinging, but I prefer to take the route taken by the Sceptics.
Epokhe is not a phrase you hear enough in common parlance, especially not in politics. It’s the old Greek term essentially meaning ‘I suspend judgement’. If existence is so absurd and unknowable, we must suspend judgement on the most basic concepts of reality and epistemology. We cannot drive on with one dogma or another, because we have no framework that is adequately reliable. We are all on this island, ignorant as one another. Scepticism therefore is the only viable outlook, deep down. For practical purposes we should still accept the solidity of objects around us, we should still search the stars for heaven and be good to one another, but when it comes to making outlandish claims on our reason for being, we should instead simply reply ‘I suspend judgement’.
Socrates once said ‘All I know is that I know nothing’. Sceptics add that little bit more ‘…and I’m not even sure about that’. It is the antidote to taking life seriously. It’s a wondrous, liberating escape from dogma and angst, and is one which I try to adopt as frequently as possible. When greeted with opposing dogmas of equal power and convincingness (or unconvincingness), the greatest strength you have is in simply shrugging and suspending judgement. Je soutiens (‘I hold back’), as the French Montaigne put it.