On Anca’s blog tonight, I came across this H.L. Mencken quote…
Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on “I am not too sure.”
I generally agree, but I’d extend Mencken’s definition of “uncivilized” to include the young and less educated. I don’t mean to sound judgmental or dismissive. There’s a place in discourse for people who see things in black and white.
This has been on my mind again lately, and I’ve been thinking again about Mishima’s Runaway Horses, which I wrote about (along with Yann Martel’s Life of PI a few months back.
In Runaway Horses, Isao is a young revolutionary. Passionate, impulsive and utterly sure of himself. His unwavering believe in a higher cause is his reason for being. It’s what drives him to action and ultimately destroys him.
Honda, on the other hand, is an older man who has learned to moderate his beliefs. He is a reflective, nuanced thinker. He is an observer who more or less understands what makes people tick. He also acknowledges his own limitations and his inability to fully understand anything. In a world where most things make sense, and the rest is beyond one’s grasp, who’s to say what’s right and wrong? Morally speaking, Honda is a paralytic.
The more one knows, the less one does.
On the other hand, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.