To Judge and Act

Recently i was in conversation with a man so skeptical and disillusioned that he claimed he could no longer understand what was going on in the world. He did not beleive what he heard or read. The White House and the State Department seemed to him to be either falsifying or concealing the real news. Newspapers and television left him in a state of incredulity. At that time, events in the middle East were particularly troubling (they may still be when this column appears), and he had given up all efforts to play his role as a citizen -- or even as an intelligent spectator of the great drama of the perion in which he lived.

This friend was nearly as old as i AM: no teen-ager, as his attitude may have suggested. The young today do too often establish for themselves a position above the battle, insisting that their elders are engaged in meaningless debate. it is a generational malady which their elders can only deplore! But to have this skepticism infect mature men and women -- that is an alarming sign.

To live intelligently in this world requires much beside knowing.m It requires the capacity to judgem and ultimately the sovereign and transcendent capacity to act.m But to know is the first step, the beginning of wisdom and the doorway to hope. A condition of barbarism prevails when men and women view their social order as being prey to forces they can neither comprehend nor control; when their world, in Matthew Arnold's famous lines, becomes a darkling plain, swept by confused alarms "where ignorant armies clash by night." Arnold believed that faith could still save the bewildered and lost individual; or that love could save him. But faith and love alike become empty when founded on despair.

Those who are responsible for stating the facts of public life, and those in the mass media who are responsible for reporting and interpreting them, no doubt bear part of the blame for the current tendency toward disbeleif. But let us leave that aside for today, and ask what is wrong with usm that we so often exaggerate our ignorance and feign intellectual impotence. I suppose in some degree it is mental laziness: the facts are there if we but seek them. To a larger degree it is that mistrust of authority and of institutions which still characterizes the young. Fear of the Facts, too, may be at work, and a reluctance to enter upon the hard road of decisions and action. How much easier it is to call down a plague upon all the houses of the world, than to determine which is worth saving and to take up its cause!

I would suggest still another factor, namely that many of us mistakenly assume it was ever possible to know all the facts of public life of to accept the impartiality of everything one heard. We live at best in a muddled world, where those in command are often themselves uncertain; it is rare indeed to hear from a philosopher devoid of prejudice or self-interest. Through this muddle we must make our way, sifting out the true from the false, supplying the missing element by intuition or guesswork. And on the basis of such imperfect knowledge we must form our picture of events and must find the will to act.

For a while, some years ago, I was in the position of the insider who supposedly knew all the facts. I read secret cables from all over the world and was reputed to be full of vital information. In fact I was as ignorant as a child. At a later period, when I was writing editorials on political and international events for a daily newspaper in a small town, I had time to think; I could put the pieces together with the persistence of a Sherlock Holmes. I did not know everything, but I knew enough to have some very definite ideas.

So I would say to my skeptical friends, young and old: do not despair. There may be less bad faith, less deliberate concealment, than you tend to think. In any case, your own wit can save you: your own wit and courage. The world is too full of excitement to let it pass you by. Half-knowledge is better than none; on its basis great battles have been fought, and great victories won.

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