In Praise of the Agnostic
“I know that I know nothing,” Socrates once said, in what came to be known as history’s first humblebrag. A lot of good it did him, too. A few years later, he was executed by the City of Athens for being a chronic smartass. And can you really blame them?
Still, it’s a great line. For the last 2,000 years, it has served as the standard for all worldly wisdom. And it’s a standard to which we Americans ought to hold ourselves.
It’s not that we’re arrogant. If you asked a thousand of our countrymen, “Do you know everything?” they would blink and say, “No, of course not.” But if you asked for their views on any conceivable subjects—love, Covid-19, religion, whatever—they would tell you exactly what kind of girl you should marry, who’s to blame for the pandemic, and how many creams God likes in His coffee.
We don’t claim to have knowledge, but we do have opinions. It’s our right as Americans.
Politics, the realm of opinion, has become a hobby. It’s not uncommon to meet folks who get home from work at 6 p.m., watch Fox News until bed at 11, wake up, and do it all over again. Even when they’re at work, they spend most of their time talking or thinking or reading about politics. They pay out the nose in property taxes, and then they let the U.S. government live rent-free in their heads.
The truth is that, all our lives, we’ve been trained to form strong views as quickly as possible on subjects that don’t matter and about which we know nothing. In eighth grade, the girls in my class were bitterly divided between Team Edward and Team Jacob. Friendships were destroyed over this meaningless contest between fictional (if dishy) monsters. When we got a little older, they all voted in the finals of American Idol or So You Think You Can Mop? or whatever happened to be on that week.
But besides driving our countrymen mad and taking us to the brink of civil war, our opinions have another, even sadder effect: They make our own lives incredibly boring.
If you’ve ever met a real, honest-to-goodness bigot, you know it’s hard to feel anything towards him except pity. Who wants to live in a world so small and simple it can fit into such a narrow mind? We might even say that a bigot is a man who’s got nothing but opinions. They’ve crowded out all the curiosity, the sense of wonder, that we all find so attractive in others.
The opposite of the bigot is the zealot. Think of Teddy Roosevelt or St. Francis of Assisi. They both had this infectious, indomitable zeal—for life, for nature, for God, for their fellow man. One was probably the greatest churchman of all time; the other was maybe the greatest statesman. Yet we wouldn’t really call either of them opinionated. They didn’t have opinions—they had principles, convictions. They never spoke out. They spoke up.
Francis and Teddy were idealists. They were also pragmatic, in the way that only idealists really can be. They saw the world as a mystery waiting to be explored. They saw life as a great adventure, which they saw through to the end. That’s why they so far outstripped their critics. As Teddy said,
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; … who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.
Curiously, St. Francis left the same advice to his followers. “Let’s steer clear of the wisdom of the world and the thinking of the flesh,” he wrote, “for the spirit of the world tends to be all talk and no action.”
I really do believe we could save this country, if only we could push three simple words over the jaw: I don’t know. Let that be the creed of a new agnosticism, not in religion, but in…well, everything else. Don’t let us define ourselves by how much we know, but how much we have yet to learn. Let’s not try to cram the universe in our own narrow minds, but remember that “there are more things in heaven and earth” than are dreamt of in our philosophy.
Then, we might be kinder to ourselves. We might let ourselves take a break from carping on Joe Biden or Donald Trump, Pope Francis or Prince Harry. We might allow ourselves to spend time with our families, or get a drink with friends, or hunt, or fish, or bowl, or chop wood, or play chess, or read books, or talk to God. We might spend more time on things we actually enjoy, that are good for the soul, that make life worth living.
And, if we cut ourselves a break, we might just do the same for our neighbor. We might see our countrymen, not as rival partisans, but as fellow travelers in search (like us) of a better life.
In his Short History of Byzantium, John Julius Norwich observes that the empire began to decline when her great emperors (many of them, like Basil I, self-made) were usurped by elites “blinkered by smug intellectualism and obsessive ambition.” Byzantium was sustained by her heroes, her visionaries, her doers. She was brought low by pragmatists and professionals—men who “knew better.”
C.S. Lewis said of these folks, “Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.” And I’m sure they’ll do the same to this country. Our republic won’t be destroyed by Chinese communists or Islamic terrorists. It will be brought low by the hordes of cynics and critics who do nothing but pick at each other’s scabs.
And it will be saved, if at all, by the great doers and feelers—the “men with chests.” These are the agnostics. They keep their minds free of opinions, theories, and strategies. They leave plenty of room for sense: a sense of wonder, a sense of duty, and (not least of all) common sense. They’ll know which principles are truly worth fighting for, even dying for, and the lives they lead will be a worthy sacrifice.