“But still you must understand that knowledge is neither a tower nor a well, but a human habitation.” These inspiring words belong to French philosopher and spiritual writer, Antonin Sertillanges. He means we must not regard knowledge as something external to ourselves, something to which we refer or draw upon from time to time. Knowledge must be more personal than that, more intimate and immediate. We must embody what we know and literally live our day to day lives according to our own set of authentically preferred truths.

Anton Chekhov

A biographer has suggested that Chekhov had no world view and was thus free of illusions. But what is the cost? (Image: public domain)

For Sertillanges, having a philosophical frame of reference is essential. “It is undeniably useful to possess, as early as possible, even if at starting [one’s intellectual life] if it may be, a body of directive ideas forming a whole, and capable, like the magnet, of attracting and subordinating to itself all our knowledge. The man without some such equipment is, in the intellectual universe, like the traveller who easily falls into scepticism through getting to know many dissimilar civilizations and contradictory doctrines.

“This lack of a coherent system of ideas is one of the great misfortunes of our age. To escape it, thanks to a sure body of doctrine, is an incomparable benefit.”

It is vital to understand that by “doctrine” Sertillanges is not referring to economic (e.g. communism, capitalism) and political (e.g. libertarianism, conservatism) ideology. He means a basic set of workable and constructive religious or philosophical principles such as the Christian Trinity, Calvinist predestination, Methodist prevenient grace, and so on. To choose one of these codified beliefs, sanctioned by some group or Church, is to acquire a remedy for the crippling uncertainties of scepticism. Sertillanges argues that doctrine provides strength, structure, and organization whereas scepticism wraps everything in enfeebling and paralyzing doubt. We are more able to make evaluations and act when we see things from a particular viewpoint.

As a practicing Catholic, Sertillanges naturally saw doctrine as the only alternative to scepticism. However, there is another option. Psychology offers the concept of the self with a set of values we developed as children. If we come to know ourselves, we find that we already have a basic worldview or simple philosophy of life. At our most fundamental level, we are not, and can never be, sceptics. Like it or not, we all believe in something.

Let me take a personal approach to illuminating these ideas. I am a manic-depressive who has suffered through both the massive ego inflation and the major breakdown and depression required to earn the fateful diagnosis “bipolar I.” For me, Sertillanges words ring with an essential truth. My own healing experience strongly supports the importance of a coherent and consistent worldview, Sertillanges’ “body of directive ideas forming a whole.”

For precisely the reason Sertillanges gives above, I was once a tremendous sceptic. In my pursuit of knowledge, I had exposed myself to so many contradictory ideas that I had come to see everything as being “relative,” and so believed absolutely nothing. After my nervous breakdown, however, I conceived the idea of deliberately acquiring some sort of well-organized worldview. Like Sertillanges, I felt that what I needed was some way to see the world around me from a particular perspective or specific viewpoint. In other words, I was looking for a reference point, or perhaps an anchor. Absolutes were not necessary; I just wanted some way to bring definition to what looked like meaningless chaos and arbitrariness. Hard lessons had taught me that you cannot deal rationally with a world that makes no sense.

Interestingly, the germ of this important idea came from the early pages of a biography of the Russian dramatist, Anton Chekhov. Its author, a Frenchman by the name of Daniel Gilles, maintained that Chekhov was the only major writer who did not possess a particular worldview. Gilles saw this as an asset (his book is subtitled, Observer without Illusion), but as I studied Chekhov’s short life, I recognized my own difficulties in the great playwright’s struggles. In the end, I decided that other major writers did have a worldview because having one was a good idea!

Over the next few years, I studied (among many other things) Jungian psychology, the works of Nietzsche and Hermann Hesse, creativity research, a bit of cognitive research, and stacks of literary biographies. I kept personal diaries, journals about my individuation process, and “idea” notebooks. Out of this rich mix, and by systematically weeding out inconsistencies and contradictions in my thinking and ideas, I forged, as well as revealed, my own personal, coherent, consistent worldview. This yielded a much stronger sense of self and provided a framework within which to analyze and judge all new knowledge as I encountered it. No widely accepted doctrine was required.

I no longer believe everything is relative, but some things clearly are. We each have within us our own personal nucleus of guiding principles that are, for us, the (subjective) truth. Once found, these emotionally important ideas form the philosophical foundations upon which we can build and expand our personal understanding of the world. In this way, we can escape the self-defeating scepticism that Sertillanges so cannily described as, “one of the great misfortunes of our age,” without being entangled with doctrine.

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7 thoughts on “Doctrine Is Not the Only Alternative to Scepticism

  1. Again, you raise fascinating points, Thomas.

    I didn’t know that about Chekov not having a world view. I did know that as a person he was apparently lively and cheerful, whereas his plays are pessimistic indeed. I’ve read a few of those and some of his short stories,they seem to be permeated with cynicism and gloom – for instance, none of the love relationships in Three Sisters end up even reasonably satisfactory, least of all Andre’s, and the sisters never do get to Moscow – but was this just based on his having watched people’s dreams turn to dust and ashes as often as not?

    Another thing that interested me about him was his prescient (not sure there is such a word) wish to preserve forests, and anxiety at deforestation (another thing for which we can blame the Romans in the UK, besides the importing of stinging nettles).

  2. Chekhov’s cheerfulness was often no more than front to shield his family from worry. In truth, he had a lot about which to be pessimistic. His father was an abusive tyrant who bankrupted the family’s grocery business and his mother never got over the subsequent shame and swift descent into abject poverty. Young Chekhov ended up supporting the impoverished family after their move north to Moscow. He realized at 24 that he had tuberculosis; then the same disease claimed his brother Nikolay just five years later. At times, he would become positively morbid believing that life had no purpose and that people are often unwittingly destroyed by the actions of others, a theme he explores in “The Seagull” (a favourite of mine).

    I think Chekhov’s life as a confirmed bachelor influenced his attitude towards relationships. He married late and the couple lived apart. His German-born actress wife seemed more interested in the benefits of being Mrs. Chekhov than in Anton himself. People often took advantage of his kindness.

    Trust you to recall Chekhov’s conservationist streak, Lucinda! This is something I know little about, although one might speculate that it had more to do with the popularity of romanticism at the time rather than a serious concern with what we would call environmentalism. There is a tendency these days to project our own values and attitudes backwards onto prominent figures in the past.

  3. Poor old Checkov, that all sounds pretty dismal. I know what you mean about projection – one must watch out for that, we can only guess at the mindsets of people from past ages. At least he wanted to preserve trees and beautiful scenery, though; ‘The Cherry Orchard’ ends with the cherry trees being chopped down by the socially aspirng peasant who has bought it.

  4. “Benefit”, “misfortune”, “useful.”

    It appears by his choice of terms as if Sertillanges were more or less conscious he wasn’t really speaking of knowledge, and thus philosophy, but, instead, of psychological needs and ease of life. Antithetical substances, then.

    Knowledge, and philosophy, in their most rare genuine variant, are the ultimate intellectual luxury only someone able to live without solid ground below their feet can afford.

    What is the price of that—a price that, for one, Chekhov was all his life willing to pay—? The price is life. Or what comfortably, naturally living humans judge as life?

    As for the relation between Chekhov and nature, I subscribe to your statements about the (again: natural, comfortable, humane) inclination to project one’s wishes on one’s image of an artist one regards highly.

    Chekhov evidently did without the simplistic and egotist view of humans as separated from nature and above it. But since he did not feel much mercy for humans, he did not for the rest of being.

    Although his very late stories show, indeed, compassion, especially for the hopeful youth (see “The Student,” or “The Girlfriend,” or “The Lady with the Dog.” How mercifully he ends the narration, unable of restraining a feeling of tenderness toward the still unaware).

    The abrupt disruption of vegetation in The Cherry Orchard is not an environmentalist theme, but just a sorrowful reflection of human’s, and life’s, connate will-to-power.

  5. Thanks, Yoshi, for taking the time to write such a thought-provoking comment. Sertillanges was indeed concerned with “psychological needs and ease of life.” He was a teaching Dominican at the Catholic Institute of Paris and dedicated to illuminating the scholar’s path for his young philosophy students. He had many definite and eminently-practical ideas about how intellectuals should live their lives and succeed as scholars. In fact, his book on the topic is still well-known and has long been a favourite of mine. As a priest, he was committed to dogma, but that vocation does have the advantage of liberating one from life’s mundane demands and trivial distractions. I regard this situation as another “intellectual luxury,” as you so aptly put it.

    Chekhov was not quite so fortunate in this regard, but his income from practicing medicine and from his writings made him unusually independent for someone of his social standing. He was remarkably free of structured belief systems, yet as you suggest, he paid a high price for being so “liberated.” He was often depressed and pessimistic. He was a pathetic figure at the end, dying from tuberculosis, pining for an absent unfaithful wife, copying reams of penciled notes before they became illegible. Life grants no special favours to even the most gifted among us.

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