We begin with the simultaneous birth of truth and uncertainty. It may seem fluffy at first, like it doesn’t apply to your uncertain future. I assure you it will. Soon.
From Passion of the Western Mind:
“[T]he more the Greek developed a sense of individual critical judgment and emerged from the collective primordial vision of earlier generations, the more conjectural became his understanding, the more narrow the compass of infallible knowledge. “As for certain truth,” Xenophanes asserted, “no man has known it, nor will he know it.” Philosophical contributions such as the irresolvable logical paradoxes of Zeno of Elea, or Heraclitus’s doctrine of the world as constant flux, often seemed only to exacerbate the new uncertainties. With the advent of reason, everything seemed open to doubt, and each succeeding philosopher offered solutions differing from his predecessor’s. If the world was governed exclusively by mechanical natural forces, then there remained no evident basis upon which firm moral judgments could be founded. And if the true reality was entirely divorced from common experience, then the very foundations of human knowledge were called into question. It seemed that the more man became freely and consciously self-determining, the less sure was his footing.”
As we began to uncover the concrete world under our subjective level of understanding we uncovered a vast separation between others and ourselves. If logic and natural law applied to one area, shouldn’t it apply everywhere?
Yet, how can each of these philosophers present logically sound arguments while contradicting each other?
This kind of uncertainty is uncomfortable for us (the two words are practically synonyms). Philosophers tried time and again to create a way of living that followed the newfound rules of reason. The Roman Stoics had a strong contingency, yet even they couldn’t provide the certainty craved by those who needed a philosophy to live by.
It’s worth noting here that the Stoics were working hard to deal rationally with an ethically ambiguous world. Yet the issue was not only internal. The world itself seemed to be going out of control. People seemed to have lost control over their lives. External discomfort causes internal confusion. When our old stories turn out to be false we are left in an existential void—and we will fill it with anything.
“This Christian ethical ideal of goodness and charity was strongly promulgated and at times widely observed, an ideal certainly not lacking in the moral imperatives of Greek philosophy – particularly in Stoicism, which in several ways anticipated the Christian ethics – but now having a more pervasive influence on the mass culture in the Christian era than had Greek philosophical ethics in the classical world.
In contrast to the previous centuries of metaphysical perplexity, Christianity offered a fully worked out solution to the human dilemma. The potentially distressing ambiguities and confusions of a private philosophical search without religious guideposts were now replaced by an absolutely certain cosmology and an institutionally ritualized system of salvation accessible to all.”
Individual truth no longer mattered. Spiritual (and philosophical) certainty became easily available for anyone who craved it.
This sense of certainty didn’t come for free. Human activity was now seen as valid only if it served God. Sacrifice was applauded and pride was punished.
“Only by such [divine] intervention were [Paul and Augustine] saved from continuing a life the self-defined direction of which could now be seen as futile and destructive. In light of these experiences, all merely human activity, whether independent willfulness or intellectual curiosity, now appeared secondary – superfluous, misleading, even sinful – except as it might lead to fully God-directed activity. God was the exclusive source of all good and of man’s salvation. All heroism, so central to the Greek character, was now concentrated in the figure of Christ. The human surrender to the divine was the only existential priority. All else was vanity. Martyrdom, the ultimate surrender of the self to God, represented the highest Christian ideal. As Christ was self-giving in the highest degree, so should all Christians strive to be like their Redeemer. Humility, not pride, was the distinguishing Christian virtue, requisite for salvation.”
It seems that reason and science would make our world more certain. Not so. Winston Churchill describes uncertainty (both physical and moral) nearly two thousand years after the beginnings of Christianity:
“It is not given to human beings – happily for them, otherwise life would be intolerable – to foresee or predict to any large extent the unfolding of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes.”
Churchill saw first hand how well the First World War was planned for—and how exactly zero of those plans mattered. From the first fight the best generals looked like amateurs. New technology and tactics disrupted everything. It had been theorized about for a decade but never battle tested. These generals were forced to appreciate the power of improvisation—a lesson Churchill took with him into WWII.
Even science textbooks have to be thrown out every few years because of new information. It seems all that is stable are death, taxes, and 2+2=4 (although I’ve been told this last one is disputed by some mathematicians…).
This swaying back and forth between uncertainty and certainty has never stopped.
We move through periods where the world seems to behave according so some eternal laws. If we learn to use these laws we can do anything we want. We can see this in the Christian era described. More recently we can look to the period when the American Dream seemed to be in full swing: go to college, get a job; buy a house, sell it for more; invest in stocks, make money.
Then the pendulum swings the other way. The world seems to be thrown into chaos. There is no reliable pattern we can follow. The events around us—and thus our fates—seem to be completely beyond our control. As we saw above, the birth of reason created this kind of uncertainty. You know from experience that we are again in a time of intense certainty.
Notice that Stoicism was popular before Christian certainty swept the Western world. With this understanding it isn’t surprising to see its resurgence in our culture, is it? Especially among tech entrepreneurs who operate under massive uncertainty. (See: Tim Ferriss, Nassim Taleb, Ryan Holiday, William Irvine, and Art of Manliness.) We will explore this in more detail later on as a tool for leveraging the uncertainty of the world. For now it’s enough to understand that humans develop (or, in this case, adapt) the philosophy they need for their current situation.