1 Among the Cannibals
‘Philosophers,’ as Rivarol said, ‘are anatomists and not doctors. They dissect, but do not heal.’ The thinker poses as an anatomist, is revered as a surgeon, but is in fact more like a cannibal. Yet cannibals are more considerate than inquirers. They eat none but their enemies, and not till they’re dead. We mistake the dagger of psychology for a scalpel, since revenge has sharpened it to such a keen edge. Is there anything more unkind you could do to some people than lay bare the motives that have led them to act as they do? ‘Vivisection,’ as Flaubert says, ‘is a form of revenge.’ If we were not inflamed by vengeance, how would we have brought to light so much of the truth? Revenge may lie to others, but it burns to learn all that might help it to fillet its victims.
Where there is no treachery, there will be no truth. Thinkers are turncoats who can’t be trusted to acquiesce in the congenial lies by which we thrive. They work, as Blake says, by ‘the infernal method, by corrosives.’ They aim to bring to fruition the work that the serpent began. Only a bad angel, robbed of all but pride and spite, is free to spy out the truth. Truth is the choicest of the flowers of evil. It may be that all the books make up one satanic bible, the testament of hell, a savage encyclopedia which logs each brutal truth that mortals have got hold of since they thieved the apple.
Raw minds make their truths out of their own woes, ripe ones make them out of the woes of those they love or hate.
Thinking is as easy as fishing, particularly if you’re using gobbets of your fellow beings to bait your rod. You need a small spark of native adroitness, a good deal of practice and then years of waiting. But look out that you don’t eat what you hook. The streams run so foul.
A thinker hunts not like a lion but like a lone spider, which spins its web out of its own guts, and then waits in the patient dark for thoughts to get tangled in it.
Intellectual passion resembles rancour more than love. It is made up in the main of rivalry, contrariety and spite. ‘My fury,’ said Isaiah, ‘it upheld me.’ Even those who love truth to their own detriment may not love it purely or selflessly.
To inspect your specimens of life, you have to stain them with malice and place them under your glassy disengagement.
Spite may give the jolt to hot-wire cold intellects. ‘What we need is hatred,’ said Genet. ‘From it are our ideas born.’
Malice is a volatile gas which you can use to bust out of the cramped corral of your polite platitudes, though it may poison you first.
Polemics are a waste of hate. Better to use it to fire a path to the truth than to set your enemies ablaze. The only dragons worth slaying are those bred in our own entrails.
Each poet is inspired by a secret muse. Each thinker is incited by a secret adversary.
Most cynicism cuts no deeper than the shabby pretences that it mocks, though the world is so shallow that it cuts right through it.
Most of us know when we have found the truth, since it makes us feel more at ease. Cynics know when they have found it, since they think it ought to make others feel less at ease. When they lie, they trust that they are sparing us. And when they’re unkind, they trust that they are repaying their debt to the truth. A simpleton confuses truth with illusion, a cynic confuses it with disillusion.
The cynical world is scandalized by an unblinking statement of cynicism. Having steeped cynics in its own cynicism, it cries out when they preach it. It wants them to mimic its own cynicism but not to wear it on their sleeve. But they betray it by divulging its treacheries and desertions, and it chastises them like a slighted deity when they do so. The world will make a fool of your cynicism either by outdoing it or by allowing it to undo you.
You must be very shrewd to see through to the true value of things. But you must be very naive if you dream that the world will put up with your exposing it.
Cynicism and despair may have truth on their side, but optimism has self-interest and sentimentality. And the wily climber knows that these have far more currency in this world. Enthusiasm is paid so much more than cynicism, that only a fool would dare to play the cynic.
You can tell the confidence man by his mealy-mouthed denunciations of cynicism, and by the trust that he triggers in the ruthless and gullible.
The heart too has its reasons, as Pascal said. It’s too bad that few of us have any other. The crooked heart in collusion with the world dreams more deviously than the head ever could. Our hearts are so empty, that they can swallow this world at one gulp and have room for the next one as well.
Life is a dispiriting pilgrimage. Only the naive and devious reach the end with their faith unscathed. These are the true believers, who are pricked on by their itch for gain to lodge their trust in the most venal schemes and creeds.
What novice intriguer could not ‘send the murderous Machiavel to school’? The pure and upright who feign to be affronted by his sleights and gambits make use of far more crafty ones every day. ‘The cynicism of life can’t be outdone by literature,’ as Chekhov says. ‘One glass won’t get someone drunk who has downed a whole barrel.’
The young can afford the luxury of ideals, since they have not yet learnt how much there is to play for. They dream of dismantling the world and rebuilding it in a better form, but then they grow up, and they just want to grab a piece of it for their own. We pawn our youthful cynicism to pay for our adult hopes. We seldom make a more cynical bargain. How cheaply our desires buy off our discontentment. And how quickly our habits and vanity oust our disillusion.
Like a sitter for a portrait, the world gripes whether thinkers dare to paint it just as it is or as it is not.
We descend through the hell of mistrust by three circles. First I keep on guard against my enemies, and I grow self-righteous. Then I’m betrayed by the chillness of confidants, and I start to doubt them. And at length I sense that I have connived with belief and roguery, and I view my own heart with a jaundiced eye and squirm with shame. First I learn how fraudulently the world behaves. And then, if I’m honest, I learn how fraudulently I do. I start to look askance at all facades, once I see that I have gained or lost by some of them.
Mistrustfulness is an intellectual duty but a personal disgrace, and a moral flaw but a mandatory excellence of mind. You live most comfortably by relying on the people round you. But how can you think with stringency, if you don’t doubt their heart and your own and all the shows which the false world takes for truth? In daily life credulity saves the most time, but in thinking contempt does.
Contempt whets the intellect, admiration dilates the imagination. ‘Damn braces. Bless relaxes,’ as Blake notes. Suspicion sterilizes like an intellectual disinfectant.
If your aim is to grasp their true nature, you must have perpetrated all the abominations that you indict, be preyed on by all the diseases that you diagnose, and dote on all the follies which disgust you. ‘There are,’ Wilde says, ‘poisons so subtle that to know their properties one has to sicken of them.’
Most scepticism is an amalgam of ignorance and presumption. Some people boast that they are sceptics, since they judge the truth of every idea that they meet by the test of how closely it aligns with the listless opinions that they already hold. ‘With most of us,’ Lichtenberg says, ‘disbelief in a thing is based on blind belief in some other thing.’ Few of us know enough to have the right to be sceptics. But we still take pride in challenging the notions which we lack the acuity to grasp.
Most of the things that people believe are not even worth doubting.
When grey orthodoxies are dying a natural death, scorners bluster that they are giant-killers.
What is our scepticism but our smug common sense patrolling the boundaries of our unchallenged convictions, to halt interloping facts from making a breach in our self-assurance? It’s easier to doubt a proposition than it is to examine it.
A lot of people use scepticism as a rug to muffle truths that they don’t want to hear.
Most of us are readier to doubt an idea sooner than our own capacity to gauge its truth.
People now, as Colton said, are born freethinkers who have had no need to think freely. We hold a miscellany of fashionable suppositions in lieu of our herd’s inherited ones. We are proud that we have won our freedom from the tutelage that told us what we must think. But we still have no wish to think for ourselves. Our glib pyrrhonism is as automatic as our antiquated faith, and our new scepticism is as lazy as our old orthodoxy.
We would sooner believe an idea than reflect on it, though we are ready to doubt any idea that might jar with our unreflective beliefs or customs.
We boast that we stand by science, till we find that science runs counter to our ideology or to our interest.
Sceptics trust in their own doubts as proselytes trust in their own dogmas. They cling to their suspicions with the same certainty that others cling to their convictions. They can’t so much as doubt without dogmatizing. Like Montaigne, you should mistrust your misbelief too much to be a sceptic.
A doubting philosopher such as Descartes fasts like a glutton before a feast of credulity. ‘If a man will be content to begin with doubts,’ claimed Bacon, ‘he shall end in certainties.’ But how could he be so sure? How do they skip from diffidently admitting that they don’t know a thing to confidently propounding what can’t possibly be known, such as the soul’s immortality? They’ve no sooner razed the rotten foundations than they’re at work rebuilding the same old castles in the air to house the ghosts of their God, their free will and their moral prejudices. Most believers believe much less than they think they do. And most doubters doubt much less than they think they do.
Look out when someone bids you be sceptical. Most of them have a mind to diddle you.
Who could be so naive as to trust that all falsehood will fall to pieces as soon as they’ve smashed its latest idol? If people don’t spend their credulity on one kind of bilge, they will spend it on some other. Faith is just one of the forking tributaries of the broad river of delusion. Dam up this channel, and the flood will surge with more force elsewhere. The gods are local and mortal emanations of our ubiquitous and perennial illusions.
Sly proponents of a dogma, such as Pascal, know that in order to woo us to their faith all they need do is cast doubt on our doubts. So they lure us by a reasonable and temperate suspicion to capitulate to a fanciful yet flat-footed naivety. As Bagehot showed, they alternate between ‘an appeal to the coarsest prejudice and a subtle hint to a craving and insatiable scepticism.’
5 The wisdom of superstition
Superstitiousness itself, as Montaigne insinuates, may be a madcap scepticism which has a shrewd feel for the limitations of mortal power and perceptiveness. Napoleon said that the most valuable qualification a marshal could have was luck.
The theoretician scavenges like a jackal amidst the giant carcasses of myth and saga. Philosophy, as Montaigne wrote, is ‘nothing else but a sophisticated poetry.’ Myths are infused with an antique wisdom which is both greener and riper than gaunt philosophy. They keep fresh and unfaded the old truths that it has lost the taste for.
As ‘the fool by persisting in his folly would become wise,’ so cynics by persisting in their cynicism would turn back to enchantment. They sigh for the luxuriant credulity of superstition to sweep away the parched calculations of the faith-starved present. Better the vivid and breathing faith of an age of magic than our own passionless instrumental rationalism.
Reason acts like a heartless bailiff, coldly evicting settled views which have lodged in the one spot for generations.
Cosmopolitan and cerebral northerners, such as Nietzsche or Lawrence, pine for the blood, sap and verve of the savage, sun-drenched southland. They had far rather been ‘pagans suckled in a creed outworn.’ So the drooping twilight yearns for the dawn, which it dreams still lies in front of it, though it’s lost in a past that they can never get back to. ‘The longing to be primitive is a disease of culture,’ Santayana wrote. ‘To be so preoccupied with vitality is a symptom of anemia.’ To hold that sex is a mystical or transcendent rite is not the instinct of a healthy animal, but the figment of a brainsick fantasist.
6 Too great to be true
Most of the deepest truths are too scandalous or else too obvious to be spoken. But few of us care enough for the truth to be scandalized by it. How could we be horrified by the truth? We are just too heedless of it for that.
Some thoughts are too great to be true, but far more are too true to be great.
Aren’t most of the great puzzles of philosophy, such as whether we exist or not, too fundamental to be worth brooding on? ‘There are some questions,’ Hardy said, ‘that are made unimportant by their very magnitude.’
Those who dream of fame may be inspired to seek out the truth. But it’s those who leave off the quest for fame that have more scope to find it. You may get glory by stretching for a great hope. But you reach truth by submitting to a great despair. The most honest seekers win fame just where they turn false. We seize on their glossy fibs and flummery, but are wary of their unembellished truths. Pedestrian minds, who know that they can’t fly high enough to snatch an indelible renown, are free to forswear the sonorous and ingratiating lies which the eminent are obliged to deal in. Time yields up its most revealing clues to those staid enough to wait on it. And the years disclose some of their most abstruse mysteries to the second-rate. A minor writer, such as Lichtenberg or Butler, Renard or Porchia, may introduce you to a few unostentatious truths, which the illustrious must stand aloof from, who are too hungry for praise to render faithfully the flatness of our lives.
Thinkers thirst for the new, and gulp down gallons of the false to slake their craving for it.
Life is all the time tempting you to make large and false responses to its small and false challenges.
The last confession of one who lived to think. I aimed to astound you with new and strange observations. So how could one line that I wrote be more than half true? At the back of each glittering word you could glimpse the dreariness of truth. But that was what I had to hide, though I didn’t hide from it. And am I now moved to act as if it were all more dramatic than it was, to amaze with one last flourish, and to savour the satisfaction of expiating a guilt which I did not quite feel?
A ghostly double haunts all thinkers. It flutters at their back and looks on, and is less susceptible to style, and cares a shade more for truth and a shade less for glory. So it’s a good thing both for them and us that it is no more than an apparition.
Even the truths that you grasp after the most gruelling struggles are not quite true. A moment’s more thought would tell you this was so. But whose good would such a moment serve?
The artist stems from a long and august lineage, which is made up of magicians, mountebanks, pimps, quacks, counterfeiters, grifters, forgers, thieves and liars. Great writers may have the traits that go to make a great banker, as Stendhal claimed, but don’t they need still more the traits that make a great bankrupt, reckless audacity and a carelessness with truth? ‘I have heard of no crime that I should be incapable of committing,’ as Goethe said.