One of the pitifully few consolations of old age is supposed to be that, as the Old Testament Book of Job puts it, ‘with the ancient is wisdom; and in the length of days understanding.’
But with every passing day I find myself less convinced of this, and increasingly if regretfully inclined to the contrary view that, as the late, great American skeptic and critic H. L. Mencken so aptly expressed it, ‘the older I grow, the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.’
In fact if there’s one lesson that life has taught me, it’s to distrust all doctrines, dogmas, ideologies and other such alleged ‘truths’.
Especially those ‘truths’ whose proponents, or rather propagandists, are most at pains to threaten dire penalties for those daring to doubt or outright disbelieve them.
Thus the older I get the more inclined I am to dismiss such typical examples of intellectual bullying as ‘fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Bible, Psalms 11:10) and ‘He that doubteth is damned’ (Bible, Romans 14:23) in favour of the proverbial Ancient Greek proposition that ‘wonder is the beginning of wisdom’ and the observation by Miguel De Unamuno (1864-1936) that ‘life is doubt, and faith without doubt is nothing but death.’
In all conscience, however, as long as I’m arguing here for doubt, wonder, questioning, skepticism or whatever as the path to wisdom, I have to admit to awareness of De Unamuno’s wry remark that ‘a lot of good arguments are spoiled by some fool who knows what he is talking about.’
And since surely some fool Malaysiakini reader who knows what he (or she) is talking about is already on the point of reminding me that as desirable as doubt might be in principle, it can also be dangerous or even deadly in practice, I might as well get in first.
Starting with conceding that, yes, just as disrespect of or doubt in the supposed gods of ancient Athens proved fatal to the philosopher Socrates, and doubt in the biblically-proclaimed relationship between the earth and the sun decidedly dangerous to Galileo, doubt in allegedly ‘sacred’ and indeed ‘divinely-inspired’ books can prove a death sentence in many theocracies and other ‘religious’-majority countries today.
It is also clearly far from safe for the inhabitants of a great many nations to demonstrate a lack of faith in their rulers. For citizens of China, for example, to cast doubt on their fake ‘people’s’ Communist Party; for Russians to question the probity of Putin’s corrupt oligarchy; or for Malaysians to express too strident doubts about the billions missing from 1Malaysia Development Berhad or the massive ‘donation’ Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and his cronies dubiously claim he received from some mysterious rich Arab.
In fact to show a lack of faith in the virtues of Najib and his accomplices in the Umno/BN regime is considered virtually tantamount to doubting Allah, by whom, it is regularly claimed, they have been chosen to rule.
Just as millions of US citizens paradoxically claiming complete faith in both of what to many of us are the conflicting creeds of Christianity and Capitalism have chosen to have their nation presided over by the preposterous, pathologically lying Donald Trump, who deems any doubts about him and his stupid tweets as ‘fake news’.
In short, as much as I hate to have to admit it, doubt isn’t always politic or even possible, and even when entirely possible, as in the relatively free and just society I’m fortunate enough to live in, it can be a decidedly mixed blessing.
When combined with sufficient effort, thought and sustained tolerance for the discomfort of uncertainty, doubt or skepticism can lead to wisdom, but unfortunately it all too often gets subverted by the all-too-human tendency to wishful thinking, and thus results in nothing but wishdom.
For example, doubts by the disaffected, disadvantaged or outright desperate about the fairness and effectiveness of political institutions can lead, as we currently see to our collective dismay, not the greater wisdom of all concerned, but the kind of woeful wishdom that gives rise to a dangerous nitwit like Donald Trump as in the US, a Rodrigo Duterte as in the Philippines, and similar idiots elsewhere.
Doubts on the part of a spectrum of the populace ranging from the confused through the irrational to the utterly cuckoo about such creatively self-questioning institutions as medicine, science and technology result not necessarily in greater public wisdom, but in many cases entirely evidence-free faith in any of a virtually infinite clutter of weird and wonderful wishdoms including, to cite just a small sample of such superstitions and paranormalities, angels, anti-fluoridation, astral travel, astrology, aura-reading, black magic, breatharianism, clairvoyance, climate-change denial, colonic irrigation, druidism, ghosts, fairies, faith-healing, fortune-telling, iridology, naturopathy, palmistry, pixies, psychic surgery, satanism, Scientology, spiritualism, sprites, telekinesis, trolls and UFOlogy.
And given that all of us are liable to have grave doubts about the idea of what appears to be the inevitability of our deaths, it’s hardly surprising that we’ve achieved very few wisdoms, at least that I’m personally aware of, on the subject.
Plenty of witticisms, admittedly, two of my favourites among these being Woody Allen’s ‘I’m not afraid of dying; I just don’t want to be there when it happens’ and Bob Monkhouse’s ‘I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my father did; not screaming and crying like his passengers.’
But mostly we deal with death not through the wisdom of laughing in the face of its ultimate reality, or but with the laughable wishdom of an ‘immortal’ soul that somehow either eternally survives in some ‘other’ world, or keeps being ‘reincarnated’ in this world in a series of different bodies. And in case our faith in such far-fetched nonsense fails, we can always pin our hopes on cryogenics.
In conclusion, in all honesty I feel obliged to confess that, despite my carefully-cultivated skepticism and considerable thought I’ve yet to achieve even the degree of wisdom of which Socrates famously boasted in claiming that he was wiser than all his fellow ignoramuses in Athens, as unlike them at least he knew he knew nothing.
And in any event, I can’t help suspecting that even the very desire to achieve wisdom is probably nothing more than yet another symptom of the insatiable human appetite for self-deception, wishful thinking, or in other words wishdom.