Benefit of the Doubt, Part III
In Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville wrote:
A great man has sad that ignorance lies at both ends of knowledge. Perhaps it would have been truer to state that deep convictions lie at the two ends, with doubt in the middle. In fact, human understanding may be considered as having three distinct states which frequently follow one another.
Man has strong beliefs because he adopts them without looking deeply into them. Doubt arises when he is faced with objections. He often succeeds in resolving these doubts and thereupon he believes once again. This time he no longer seizes truth by accident or in the dark; he sees it face to face and walks straight toward the light.
–trans. Gerald Bevan (London: Penguin, 2003. 218)
If de Tocqueville’s description is accurate, then doubt plays an essential role in the development of belief. He goes on a bit later:
It may be guaranteed that most men will halt in one or other of these two states, either believing without knowing why or ignorant of what precisely they ought to believe.
Only a very small number of men will ever be blessed with the attainment of this other kind of deliberate and self-confident conviction born of knowledge and arising from the very heart of agitation and doubt. (218)
Without doubt, we can never move forward, de Tocqueville (writing almost a century and three-quarters ago) seems to be arguing. Doubt, in other words, is an essential component of the American democracy he was describing with such detail and (I believe) accuracy.
And doubt, I sincerely believe, is one of our most important tools in the struggle to get that democracy back on track. Just because so many on the right have never moved forward from that initial state of simplistic belief we don’t need to pretend to be in the same state. Just because they cannot comprehend the value of doubt we do not need to hide it.
A couple of notes: on the next page, de Tocqueville says:
When abstract opinions are in doubt, men end up by handing on to their instincts and material interests alone which are more obvious, tangible and permanent than opinions. (219)
Though there seems a groundswell of belief in America these days, I suspect it is more accurately what de Tocqueville describes here. Look around: are these so-called Christians really following the teachings of Jesus, or are they merely using Christian writings to justify their protective and knee-jerk material interests?
At the end of the chapter I took the above quotes from, de Tocqueville writes:
Whether democracy or aristocracy is the better form of government constitutes a very difficult question. But, clearly, democracy inconveniences one person while aristocracy oppresses another.
That is a truth which establishes itself and precludes any discussion: you are rich and I am poor. (219)
The people in power now fought for that power because they had been inconvenienced by democracy (remember that clip of Bush in Fahrenheit 9/11, talking about his “base,” the “haves, and have mores”?).
Need I say more?