Learning about the way in which the Indian Gymnosophist sage Sanjaya’s doctrine of uncertainty may have influenced the Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, has helped me to connect a number of different threads of experience and thought in a pleasing way. I have always admired uncertainty as a quality and have been both repelled and attracted to certainty. I have admired uncertainty because I’ve often sensed that an uncertain person is open, humble, willing to change, and it seems to me to represent an attribute of intelligence – as Robert Frost wrote: ‘Anyone with an active mind lives on tentatives rather than tenets’.
But certainty is attractive because it offers a sense of direction, safety and meaning. That is why gurus can be appealing – ‘Thank heavens at least someone knows what is going on’ some part of the self cries! And that is why New Age publishers (particularly in the US) often insist on proscriptive writing: “Just tell the reader what to believe and what to do!” And that is why books like The Four Agreements are so depressing because they express absolute certainty about the way to behave as if their prescriptions will apply in every case.
The most extreme form of certainty is Fundamentalism and the fanaticism that comes with it, and it often seems a sure sign that someone isn’t as intelligent as we might hope when they act as if they are utterly certain that something is so – as if they haven’t experienced enough of life to discover that new facts come to light every day, that viewpoints by definition are limited and often relative!
Reading The Accidental American – Tony Blair and the Presidency by James Naughtie the other day helped me to understand the problem of certainty and at the same time clarified something that has been a mystery to me and most of the British (and probably the world). Naughtie’s book finally explained to me why Tony Blair supported and is so close to George Bush.
What always puzzled me about Blair was that he appeared sincere, but in the end I started to believe that this was simply a cover for some darker motives or just a terrible weakness on his part. Naughtie’s book demonstrates convincingly that Blair’s sincerity is indeed genuine and his convictions are the very cause of his tragic decisions while in office. He hasn’t been ‘Bush’s lap-dog’ – cow-towing to someone else’s beliefs! His utter certainty about his (and Bush’s) rightness made him intransigent. And intransigence creates tragedy. Strength in the end becomes weakness. Certainty breeds doubt and conflict. ‘Morality’ becomes immoral. His case illustrates perfectly Laurens Van der Post’s remark that “Human beings are perhaps never more frightening than when they are convinced beyond a doubt that they are right.” Blair doesn’t doubt, he is sincere – he is utterly convinced he is right and won’t allow himself a moment of uncertainty.
From the little that is known of Pyrrho of Elis’ doctrines, it is possible to suggest that he was the first person (in the classical world) to fully articulate the concept of agnosticism – that the nature of reality dictates that we can never be certain of anything. And it is quite possible that he learnt this idea when he was in India with Alexander the Great. There he met the Gymnosophists – the naked sages whose distant heirs can still be found in India. And it seems that one of their philosophers whose doctrines are known to us, Sanjaya , taught an approach that is remarkably like Pyrrho’s.
It is no surprise that such ideas evolved amongst the naked sages of India. Being naked, emotionally and physically engenders a sense of humility – a sort of innocent vulnerability to the world and life. Doctrines of tentative enquiry, agnosticism and uncertainty foster humility, just as certainty breeds arrogance and fundamentalism. I wonder, then, if it is a coincidence that those approaches which are the most fundamentalist and fanatical are also those approaches that are the most shocked by nudity?