When in certitude, doubt

Ben Franklin illustrationTwo hundred and twenty-five years ago this week, Benjamin Franklin voted to approve the Constitution. Before doing so, the 81-year-old statesman asked a junior colleague, James Wilson, to read written remarks he’d prepared to George Washington, presiding. “Mr. President,” he began, “I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve. But,” he added, taking a rare rhetorical turn: “I am not sure I shall never approve them.”

Why? “For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better Information, or fuller Consideration, to change Opinions even on important Subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise.”

And so it was that on September 17, 1787, Franklin consented to sign the Constitution. “I expect no better,” he explained, “and because I am not sure, that it is not the best.” He then ended by imploring his colleagues to follow suit, hoping “that every member of the Convention who may still have Objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own Infallibility, and to make manifest our Unanimity, put his name to this Instrument.”

In our day this ability to doubt one’s own infallibility—even a little bit, even on occasion—is in ruin. If anything, today’s political culture in Washington is the antithesis of what Franklin modeled when addressing its namesake.

This got me, a long-standing Independent, to surmise: If we fail to make a more perfect union over the next two hundred and twenty-five years, it will not likely be because one or another party’s vision for America failed. It will be because both parties—but right now especially the Republican party—is so certain of its rightness that it has altogether abandoned the single most important value through which we have sought over time to perfect our union: humility.

Perhaps the culprit isn’t the quality of the people but the quality of the situation. Perhaps times of acute uncertainty simply breed a deep need for certainty. Perhaps all leaders today—not just Tea Partiers—cling to certainty as a desperate man, caught in a roaring tsunami, clings to any flotsam he can find.

Whatever the reason, certainty is an illusion that begets only greater uncertainty. Reality will always be far more complex than any one person or party can grasp with certainty, and it will always overwhelm the ability of any one person or party to predict or shape what happens next.

If we must be certain of something, we’d be far better off being certain of our own fallibility. At least then, we’d see more, we’d learn more, and we’d know more before charting our course into the future. As it is, we’re headed into the wind half-blind.

When in certitude, the only sure way forward is doubt.

6 thoughts on “When in certitude, doubt

  1. kathryn

    This is a great post! I think the shift from certainty to humility can be, uh, destabilizing until you realize that that “certainty” you had was never really what you thought it was. In complex, ambiguous situations, it’s blinkered– always subjective, sometimes specious. So what you’re giving up was never really yours anyway. And what you get in return–curiosity–is the gift that keeps giving. The trick, of course, is to prefer learning to being “right”

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  2. KEN MANDELBAUM

    Diana,
    This is well said. Thank you. Being powerful with uncertainty is something that is not taught and therefore we humans have little capacity for it. We have been brought up in a world where knowledge is what is taught and the promise that knowledge will prepare us for the future. This works well if the future is similar to the past as was the case for centuries. Todays rapid change leaves most people continuously fearful that they will not keep up. This threat keeps people very self focused rather than taking a stand for something bigger than ourselves. I appreciate your reminding us of what Ben Franklin said, these are wise words needing reminding.

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