Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson

Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson

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by Jennifer Hecht

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In the tradition of grand sweeping histories such as From Dawn To Decadence, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and A History of God, Hecht champions doubt and questioning as one of the great and noble, if unheralded, intellectual traditions that distinguish the Western mind especially-from Socrates to Galileo and Darwin to


In the tradition of grand sweeping histories such as From Dawn To Decadence, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and A History of God, Hecht champions doubt and questioning as one of the great and noble, if unheralded, intellectual traditions that distinguish the Western mind especially-from Socrates to Galileo and Darwin to Wittgenstein and Hawking. This is an account of the world's greatest ‘intellectual virtuosos,' who are also humanity's greatest doubters and disbelievers, from the ancient Greek philosophers, Jesus, and the Eastern religions, to modern secular equivalents Marx, Freud and Darwin—and their attempts to reconcile the seeming meaninglessness of the universe with the human need for meaning,

This remarkable book ranges from the early Greeks, Hebrew figures such as Job and Ecclesiastes, Eastern critical wisdom, Roman stoicism, Jesus as a man of doubt, Gnosticism and Christian mystics, medieval Islamic, Jewish and Christian skeptics, secularism, the rise of science, modern and contemporary critical thinkers such as Schopenhauer, Darwin, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, the existentialists.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
That Jennifer Hecht's history can offer little in the way of a systematic account of skepticism attests to the infinite forms human gullibility can take. The need to believe in cosmic salvation is as persistent as our lower-level interests in sex, power or gossip. Belief-mongers will always find new threats, new promises and new lines of patter. Doubt's work is never done. — Denis Dutton
Publishers Weekly
Cited midway through this magisterial book by Hecht (The End of the Soul), the Zen maxim "Great Doubt: great awakening. Little Doubt: little awakening. No Doubt: no awakening" reveals that skepticism is the sine qua non of reflection, and discloses the centrality that doubt and disbelief have played in fueling intellectual discovery. Most scholarship focuses on the belief systems that have defined religious history while leaving doubters burnt along the wayside. Hecht's poetical prose beautifully dramatizes the struggle between belief and denial, in terms of historical currents and individual wrestlings with the angel. Doubt is revealed to be the subtle stirring that has precipitated many of the more widely remembered innovations in politics, religion and science, such as medieval Jewish philosopher Gersonides's doubt of Ptolemaic cosmology 200-300 years before Copernicus, Kepler or Galileo. The breadth of this work is stunning in its coverage of nearly all extant written history. Hecht's exegesis traces doubt's meandering path from the fragments of pre-Socratics and early religious heretics in Asia, carefully elucidating the evolution of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, through the intermingling of Eastern and Western religious and philosophical thought in the Middle Ages that is often left out of popular histories, to the preeminence of doubt in thrusting open the doors of modernity with the Cartesian "I am a thing... that doubts," ergo sum. Writing with acute sensitivity, Hecht draws the reader toward personal reflection on some of the most timeless questions ever posed. (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Running parallel to the history of religious belief is the history of doubt about the truth of such belief. In this sprawling, magisterial, and eloquent chronicle, poet and historian Hecht (Western Civilization: The Continuing Experiment) provides an elegant study in the history of an idea that has fueled many of history's greatest innovations. For Hecht, doubt takes many forms, including cosmopolitan relativism, philosophical skepticism, moral rejection of injustice, and rational materialism. Thus, many great doubters have questioned not only the existence of God or the gods but also the absolute truth of one religion (Xenophanes); the truth of either reason, religion, or the senses (Hume); the justice of God's actions in the world (Job); and any supernatural explanation of the workings of the material world (Democritus). Hecht surveys the history of doubt from its ancient roots in Epicurus, Lucretius, and Democritus to the deism of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to the postmodern challenges of Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. Her brief but splendid study of the great Renaissance skeptic Montaigne is alone worth the price of the book. Hecht's warm prose, lucid insights, and impeccable research combine for a lively, thoughtful, and first-rate study of a neglected idea. Highly recommended.-Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A sweeping survey of how unbelievers have shaped religion, science, and society through the ages. Hecht (History/Nassau Community College) begins, unsurprisingly, with the Greeks. Much of their philosophy arises with questioning gods who were all too human both in their attributes and their personalities. Questions first raised by Plato and Aristotle remain, even now, at the root of Western thinking on religious questions. The Jews, with an invisible deity, had different issues to settle, growing to some extent out of their history; the authors of Job and Ecclesiastes dealt subtly with questions of guilt, pain, and divine justice. Buddhists discarded the notion of a god early on; their impact on the other religions of Asia was significant. And the Romans, with a perfunctory state religion, turned readily to Skepticism, Epicureanism, and other philosophies that offered advice on living well in this world without worrying what comes after. Christianity, then Islam, threw the focus back onto god-based systems with emphasis on an afterlife; but even these faiths had their doubters, including such central figures as St. Augustine (and both Plato and Aristotle contributed to their core beliefs). Hecht follows the thread of doubt and rationalism through the Renaissance, when Galileo and Montaigne began to question the wisdom of the Ancients, to the Enlightenment, when science and rationalism fought on equal terms with a new revival of faith. The final chapters touch on the founders of the modern worldview, from Darwin, Marx, and Freud, right up to the conflict of religions implicit in the post-9/11 world. Along the way, Hecht may have missed a few prominent naysayers, but all the important onesare here, with clear explanations of their contributions. Sometimes dry, but worth sticking with—a well-rounded treatment of the subject. Agent: Henning Gutmann
Booklist (starred review)
“A remarkably wide ranging history.”
Detroit Free Press
“Hecht gleefully invites readers on a lively stroll through three millennia of clashes between believers and nonbelievers.”
Christian Century
“Hecht aims to give doubt its due in her lively and endlessly provocative new book.”
Alan Wolfe
“Hecht is right that doubt’s story deserves to be told ... [and] she tells it in just the right spirit.”
Krista Tippett
“Jennifer Michael Hecht has forever changed the way I will think about history — religious or otherwise.”

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Doubt: A History
The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson

Chapter One

Whatever Happened
to Zeus and Hera?,

600 BCE -- 1 CE
Greek Doubt

When we look for doubt among the ancients, in the West we are going to find the most lively cases in the Hellenistic period -- the few hundred years between the dominance of Classical Greece and that of Classical Rome. It's not surprising that an in-between period is our main focus: human beings define which are the pinnacle moments of history and which are the in-between moments, and we tend to choose moments of certainty as pinnacles. We praise and envy the certainty, dedication, and meaningfulness of such moments, whether we look at ancient Greece or at a small town in early America. In our modern lives, many of us actively cultivate our differences from these unified communities, in defense of privacy and autonomy. Yet we tend to laud them and long for them, because the ideal members of these societies seem to have been so well nourished by them; intellectually and emotionally, they do not seem bereft. We moderns can't cotton to the constraints and gross inequalities—ideal membership is usually limited, having to do with gender, heredity, and/or wealth -- but we marvel at the general ideas of the group, at the rich and jubilant belonging, and at the ideal members' noble and satisfying engagement in civic affairs. Our quickest shorthand for the past is a list of these highly principled moments, their breakdown, and the birth of the next. So the history of doubt looks different than other histories, because it highlights what goes on between periods of certainty: it's like seeing a map upside down -- it takes time for the new contours to take shape. The history of being awake to certain contradictions of our condition is the negative image of the history of certainty.

Hence, while usual histories of the ancient world would linger on the certainty of Classical Greece and then rush through its dissolution over the next few hundred years, I will briefly discuss Greek piety and then linger on the budding of doubt at the end of the Classical age and its blooming in the Hellenistic period that followed.

In the heyday of the ancient Greek polis, or city-state, the gods over-saw a very well integrated society. Although every society has some sense of itself as old, as having seen a lot, this was a society with a primary relationship to its religious ideas, and the strength of each of the many poleis had a lot to do with this primary certainty, this lack of doubt. Ideally, you lived for the polis, you worshiped its particular gods, you knew most fellow members by face, and you took part in its governance and defense. It was the central object of identity, politics, and religion. It was an identity that was bigger than the self and bigger than the family. It was often uncomfortable for people to subordinate themselves thusly, but they were extraordinarily well nurtured in doing so.

The polis assuaged confusion and doubt because it was something midway between the world of humanness and the universe at large, and could serve as a shelter. If humanity's central existential difficulty comes from the fact that we have humanness -- consciousness, hopes, dreams, loneliness, shame, plans, memory, a sense of fairness, love -- and the universe does not, that means that we are constantly trying to wrangle our needs out of a universe that does not tend in such directions. The polis expanded humanness so it seemed longer-lived and larger. The aim of each person's life is to do his or her part in the polis, to serve in a given capacity, to worship the gods of the polis, to fight, to procreate, to keep the thing going.

The Olympian gods were not very remote from humanity. They hadn't created human beings. They were immortal but not eternal. They were often heroic, but they were not particularly honorable in their dealings with one another or with human beings. They were imminent in human life and in the environment: they brought meaningful dreams to sleepers and threw thunderbolts when they were angry. They even lived nearby, on Mount Olympus. They also gave an external cause for human inconsistency or illogic, such as the mystery of why certain people find each other attractive and lovable -- as if struck by an arrow. Along with the gods, there were the even more immediate daemons, vaguely drawn embodiments of occult power. Sometimes they were doing a god's bidding; at other times they were described as the enacting force of the moment, animating someone to heroism, great speed, or tragic error.

At the height of their cult, the Olympic gods of the Greeks were thought of as very real -- not at all the equivalent of parables or half-believed fairy tales. The sun did rise every day, it was indeed the source of all life, it was perfectly consistent in its behavior, and its rising and setting was a vision of spectacular beauty. If we call immense, nonhuman power gods or God, then it is purely descriptive to say that the god Apollo drives his chariot across the sky every day, and perfectly appropriate to express awe at the sight of it. It may be a bit less obvious that Eros is a purely descriptive per-sonification of erotic love, because we don't believe that erotic love exists as a thing outside of human beings. Yet passion can seem to hit us from the outside, and that's how the Greeks saw it.

The great authorities of the culture were Homer and Hesiod, poets who had crafted wonderful praise poems detailing the historical adventures of the gods. In these stories, people were driven in and out of wars, friendships, and adventures because of the whims or ardent desires of gods. Everyone knew these stories, and for centuries upon centuries the lives of ordinary Greeks were interpreted within this engaging and satisfying, if also disturbing, context ...

Doubt: A History
The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson
. Copyright © by Jennifer Hecht. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Jennifer Michael Hecht is a philosopher, historian, and award-winning poet. She is the author of Doubt: A History and The End of the Soul; the latter won the Phi Beta Kappa Society's 2004 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award. Hecht's books of poetry include The Next Ancient World and Funny. She earned her Ph.D. in history from Columbia University and teaches at The New School in New York City.

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Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am thoroughly enjoying this 'alternative' history. There are some great insights in this book. As a religious studies major I was happy to see this and have enjoyed it. Check out her interview in the OnBeing podcast as well.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Bravo! By even the most stringent of standards, Jennifer Hecht's book is breathtaking--in scholarship, structure, prose, and historical analysis. For the first time in my life, I am able to connect the multiplicity of dots on the map of humankind's belief systems. No doubt about it--'Doubt' is a marvel.
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A lively trip across humankind's history communicating the worth of questioning (doubt) to make a better world and that battles between believers and nonbelievers.