A confession: sometimes I wander among quotations looking for ideas. Some bloggers possess a deep spring of subjects, but I hope the well will bring at least mud. As often as I’ve practiced writing to think, I worry this time nothing will arrive.
So I looked-up quotations about “doubt.”
As an organic pessimist, I spend my days in doubt, most of the time mustering only enough Eeyorish resignation to celebrate that things aren’t worse.
The Quotation Page gathers an interesting list of figures who have weighed in on doubt: Rene Descartes, Voltaire, Shakespeare, Clarence Darrow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Bertram Russell (twice). What’s odd about these great names is that few cast doubt on doubt. Shakespeare says doubt keeps us from attempting what we ought—no surprise there—someone named Christine Bovee urges us not to doubt ourselves—oops, too late—and Arthur Golden, author of Memoir of a Geisha, says doubt keeps us from “the course to victory.” Uh, does that apply to non-Samurai?
The rest of this catalog of thinkers give doubt a big round of applause. Doubt is necessary to education and civilization (Wilson Mizner, Darrow, and Holmes). It unites people where belief separates them (Peter Ustinov). It’s necessary to seeking after truth (Descartes) and keeps us from drugging ourselves with false certainty (Albert Guerard) and dogmatism (Russell) and being fools (Russell the other time).
In short, there’s little doubt about the value of doubt.
The editors of the Quotation Page might intend to give us doubters some uplift. We’re the good guys, it turns out. Not only is it okay to doubt, doubting is immeasurably superior to knowing. Anyone who doesn’t doubt is stunted, uncivilized, thoughtless, likely delusional.
Voltaire gives the only half-hearted review: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”
He alone recognizes how uncomfortable doubt can be.
Intellectually, I’m ready to celebrate doubt’s value—no one reaches knowledge without thorough questioning. Desperation for certainty will, as these great minds say, lead to rapid errors.
Yet I wonder, are these minds trying to convince themselves? Have they lain awake, worrying through dim hours? Have they felt the stalled-heart feeling awaiting an uncertain outcome? Has self-doubt paralyzed them, shaking their sense of what they are or can be?
That sort of doubt is only redemptive only when it passes.
Like my friends on the Quotation Page, I’m skeptical of politicians, writers, and thinkers who believe they have all the answers. Everyone ought to consider every possibility.
But I also question that, and wonder, am I jealous? I can no more imagine eluding doubt than eluding air.