Uncertainty is the prerequisite to gaining knowledge, from The Prophets of Israel, by Edith Hamilton

January 10th, 2007

Still it is true that much of what the prophets said belongs to their own day, not to ours. The politics they threw themselves into with such vehemence are comprehensible now only to the scholar. When they said an earthquake happened because God had arisen to shake terribly the earth, they were offering their own scientific explanation which long since yielded to others as every explanation does. Old ideas are continually being slain by new facts. There is nothing stable in the conclusions of the mind, and it is impossible that there ever should be unless we hold that the universe is made to the measure of the human mind, an assumption for which nothing in the past gives any warrant.

Keats once said that he saw in Shakespeare “the power of remaining in uncertainty without any irritably reaching after fact and reason.” There is no foe so deadly to the truth as complete intellectual assurance. It substitutes an easy and shallow certainty for the deep loyalties of faith. It puts an end to thought, which can live only if it is free to change. Uncertainty is the prerequisite to gaining knowledge, and frequently the result as well [Emphasis added]. Greater knowledge does not mean greater certainty. Oftenest the very reverse is true. We are certain in proportion as we do not know. We seem, indeed, so made that intellectual certainty is not good for us. We grow arrogant, intolerant, unable to learn and to attain better grounds of certainty precisely because we are certain. The right attitude for the mind would seem to be humility.

This seems to be to be one of the best and truest things I’ve read in many years. This passage may come closer to capturing my own credo than anything else I’ve ever read. Both The Prophets of Israel and Witness to the Truth: Christ and His Interpreters are short, simply-written, and profound studies of selected books from the Old and New Testament that deserve to be as readily available as water from a tap. I shied away from Hamilton’s work for decades, recalling her The Greek Way as one of those dreaded required texts in high school, but I found both her Biblical books to be marvelous examples of the truth of the quote that “The great art of writing is knowing when to stop” (or of Pascal’s line, “If I had more time I would write a shorter letter”).

The Prophets of Israel, by Edith Hamilton
New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1936

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