I read this passage today in David Jauss’s excellent book on the writing craft, Alone With All That Could Happen, in which he quotes Simone Weil:
” ‘We are only certain,’ she says, ‘about what we do not understand.’ The way to understanding, then, is through uncertainty, and the way to leave false certainty behind and enter the realm of uncertainty is through the use of contradiction: ‘As soon as we have thought something,’ she advises, ‘try to see in what way the contrary is true.’ Importantly, the purpose of investigating ideas dialectically is not to eradicate one or the other idea, for contradiction, she argues, is an essential element of both truth and beauty . . .” (Jauss 187)
I love this notion. Jauss’ entire chapter is about finding truth through contradictions, and I find it so freeing to hear someone advocating this. For a long time, I’ve had this problem–that is, I’d perceived it as problematic–of being absolutely confident of one thing, then immediately being equally sure of the exact opposite. In crafting critical essays, often, I’ll stake a claim on a particular thesis . . . and immediately find piles of evidence to the contrary. I tend to respond this way to political ideas, too, finding useful, though contradictory, ideas from both political parties, and wishing that all of us could do a better job of harmonizing them in practice.
It’s not necessarily, I think, a lack of conviction when someone brings contrary ideas together, but perhaps a means to a deeper truth.
After all, wasn’t there once a wise religious leader who was fond of pulling together all manner of baffling contradictions, saying things like, “Whomever would save his life must lose it” and “Whomever would be great must be the servant of all”?
Uncertainty is certainly an uncomfortable place to stand, but as I grow older, the more vital it seems for understanding. Therefore, I’ll continue to be awed by both evolution and Jesus, by music and silence, by the wisdom of children and the elderly, and by, oh, everything and nothing.