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" One touch of nature

makes all the world kin "

William Shakespeare

Uncertainty, Humility and Nudity

November 28th, 2007

Today, in 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 to connect a number of different threads of experience and thought in a very pleasing way.

I have always admired uncertainty as a quality and have been both repelled and attracted to certainty. I have admired it emotionally because an uncertain person is open, humble, willing to change, and I’ve admired the quality intellectually ever since I read Robert Frost’s saying  ‘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’ the mind [not the soul] cries!) And that is why New Age publishers (particularly in the US) often insist on proscriptive writing: “Just tell us 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 world). Naughtie’s book finally explained to me why Tony Blair supported and is so close to George Bush.

HEY WHAT HAS THIS GOT TO DO WITH HUMILITY AND NUDITY? Hang on! We’re still on-topic:

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 what we can tell of Pyrrho of Elis’ doctrines suggests 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.

And here is the connection: for doctrines of tentative enquiry, agnosticism and uncertainty also foster humility, just as certainty breeds arrogance and fundamentalism.

I wonder 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?

4 Responses to “Uncertainty, Humility and Nudity”

  1. Could it be that nakedness brings the thought of birth to our minds? The fact that our parents really DID it? (How could she/he do THAT?) Remember the shame you felt (some / most of us) when you first became aware that your parents (who ever they are/were) MUST have done IT in order to make it possible for you to enter the world? Nothing special, just an act we share with animals, perhaps even casually performed; giving no big meaning to our existence (it first glance). Perhaps that is why midwives still are looked at as very needed and at same time not to trusted… could it have to do with the acuteness of our sexual feelings?

  2. Interesting. Not having read Naughtie’s book I can’t judge as to its impartiality (maybe he is a big Blair fan?) But intriguing also are the recent comments by Blair that he played down his religious commitment because he was afraid that the British Public would think he was a “nutter”. Classic behaviour of the kind of self-doubt-engendering fanaticism you’re talking about, Philip … maybe he secretly thinks he’s a bit of a nutter himself?

    Even accepting Blair’s sincerity of feeling, it’s the kind of sincere belief that engenders insincerity, witness the famous “45-minute” dossier – pretty much made up from whole cloth – there’s no way he could have sincerely believed that – and pretending there was some sort of legality behind the invasion of Iraq, when there clearly wasn’t. I always thought Bush and Blair would have been better received if they had admitted some element of uncertainty, and explained their decision to invade Iraq DESPITE there being no real threat to us and DESPITE its blatant international illegality.

    But that would have been admitting that the world does not operate in shades of black and white, and sometimes you have to opt for the lesser of two evils – it means admitting that your action is some sort of evil, and that they could never (and most likely will never) be able to do.

    Oh yeah, and the whole nudity thing … good point about fundamentalist abhorrance of nudity. I’d never thought about that aspect of it before.

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