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Conservatism and the Importance of Uncertainty

Back in August, I wrote an essay for TAC declaring that the scholar Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve would not go gentle into the awful night of a common education without mandatory Greek and Latin. I touched on some of his reasons for opposing an educational “reform” that would remove the study of antiquity from its place in the curriculum. Presently I wish to say something about some of his other reasons, and one in particular.

Gildersleeve does, it is true, trot out some of the justifications for the study of Greek and Latin that one hears today: learning a highly inflected language is a useful mental gymnastic. It trains you to think clearly and analytically, and helps you to learn the grammar of your own language. (Gildersleeve thinks that the study of ancient languages complements the study of the inductive method of the new science as well.) Yes and amen. But one feels a pinch of desperation when such utilities are invoked, the bare knee of insecurity poking out from behind the skirt of overzealous self-defense.

Nevertheless, while Gildersleeve believes that antiquity should be studied primarily for its own sake, he does recognize other justifications for doing so, and some of these are bound to be pragmatic. (He intentionally omits aesthetic and moral justifications, because, he believes, his generation is far too philistine to care about them. He can be grateful he didn’t live longer.)

But one of his defenses of the study of the classics is almost never mentioned in contemporary debates about education, and is therefore prima facie surprising—and yet a moment’s reflection yields a sense of its import. That defense is that the study of the classics inculcates a salutary uncertainty.

This boon was not widely recognized in his own day either, perhaps partially because of the craving for its opposite by the new science Gildersleeve is so zealous to support. Gildersleeve writes:

But to return to the disciplinary advantages of the study of the classics, we would emphasize one which most people are apt to overlook, and that is, the uncertainty of the results obtained. (emphasis mine)

What he means is this: in several subfields of classical philology, one cannot achieve absolute certainty in many different kinds of particular cases. Think of a corrupt manuscript reading with two or more plausible reconstructions. The best one can do is to mount an argument with evidence in favor of one or the other, but the conclusion will not be definitive (remember that the variant readings are all plausible); others will inevitably disagree, offering their own arguments. When the evidence does not admit of certainty, one must rest satisfied with probability and persuasion. One’s own reading cannot be imposed on someone else.

This has an obvious application to what Gildersleeve calls “real life”:

In interpretation, in criticism, in syntax, in etymology, innumerable problems present themselves that are capable of only a more or less probable solution; just as in real life we are often forced to act on partial evidence and rudely to bridge or boldly to leap the chasms in our pathway.

Life is filled with problems that do not admit of easy answers. This is not to say that everything is up for grabs; it is to be honest about where we are in epistemic terms. We are naturally prone to think that we know more than we do, and thus to become hardened in opinions as if they were truths. We need an education that will disabuse us of this conceit and calcification. As Gildersleeve says:

Thus the mind of the student is educated to balance between likelihoods, and, what is still more important, to suspend judgment and confess impossibilities. Such a training is a wholesome corrective to the natural dogmatism of youth and inexperience.

What Gildersleeve praises has an obvious relation to the old Socratic maxim “What I don’t know, I don’t think I know.” For that reason, Socrates, according to Plato, considered it to be “the most blameworthy ignorance” to “think one knows what one doesn’t know.”

One might demur: aren’t teachers, and especially academics, among the most dogmatic of mankind? And in fact we know that this accusation frequently sticks. But Gildersleeve has a ready response to this, too. The accusation sticks only insofar as the teachers in question cease to be students themselves, to just that degree they become irresponsible dogmatists:

[I]f it be…objected that philologians are the most dogmatic of men in their writings, it is not because they are students of the classics, but because they are teachers of the classics; for teaching is an occupation fraught with great danger to that humility and that self-distrust which are necessary to the highest intellectual attainments.

It is a warning that all teachers should bear in mind. For professors of whatever stripe are perhaps more prone than others to the phenomenon described by Peter Berger 20 years ago: “The basic fault lines today are not between people with different beliefs but between people who hold these beliefs with an element of uncertainty and people who hold these beliefs with the pretense of certitude.”

But Berger continues: “There is a middle ground between fanaticism and relativism.” It is this that Gildersleeve too is after, the sane path between skepticism and dogmatism. Gildersleeve’s point is not that there is no such thing as certainty, but that the territory in which we can be certain is often more limited than we suspect, and that human beings are too prone to claim a kind of eminent domain for it, annexing territory to which it has no rightful title. The study of the classics, he believes, can act as a solvent for such a tendency.

The point is one that conservatives should find amenable. Why? Because the right kind of uncertainty provides a check on man’s natural impulse to want to run other people’s lives for them and to expect easy fixes to complicated problems.

In other words, a healthy sense of uncertainty and what Gildersleeve calls “self-distrust” is essential to the cultivation of intellectual humility; and intellectual humility ought to be at the heart of prudence, which in its turn ought to be at the heart of the conservative disposition. For what is prudence? It is practical wisdom applied to the affairs of this life. An important part of that wisdom is knowing the difference between things we can know and things we can’t, as is knowing the difference between things we can do and things we can’t.

Put differently, reckoning with uncertainty is a chief necessity of calibrating oneself to the nature of reality. Likewise, when transferred into the realm of, say, politics, reckoning with uncertainty—with the unknown and the unknowable—is a critical component of indexing policies to an appropriate expectation of what politics can do. That is to say, prudence informed by experience and the right kind of uncertainty serves to fend off political dogmatism.

The study of ancient languages, according to Gildersleeve, provides reminder after reminder of the inevitability of uncertainty in many facets of life, and thus helps us form an appropriate attitude toward it. Who would have thought that such an apparently pointless pursuit could have such far-reaching implications?

E.J. Hutchinson is associate professor of Classics and director of the Collegiate Scholars Program at Hillsdale College. His research focuses on the reception of classical literature in late antiquity and early modernity.

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