Ataraxy in the Age of TMI
When reading, I numb. When surfing the blogosphere, my eyes glaze. When thinking—about all the things to be thought, all the books to be read, all the websites to frequent—I freeze.
Not always of course, but occasionally.
Everyone knows about the mammoth caverns of information at everyone’s door: 100 million websites; thousands of must-read new books every year; stones and stones of magazines and newspapers; network television; cable television; AM, FM, and satellite radio; entire libraries digitalized and online through Google Print.
It’s gotten so bad that a group at King's College in London studied the effects of “informational overload” and concluded that it harms concentration more than marijuana. We now speak of “information literacy,” a branch of knowledge dedicated to searching and deciphering information. Efforts to increase information literacy are spearheaded by the American Library Association and funded with federal and private grants.
Everyone calls it the “Information Age,” but that doesn’t do the endless proliferation of data justice. It’s better called the “Too Much Information Age.”
If the TMI Age has a pagan saint, it might be Pyrrho of Ellis.
Historians of philosophy refer to this younger contemporary of Aristotle as an early skeptic, but he wasn’t. The skeptic believes there is nothing to believe. Pyrrho was a bit more radical: he didn’t believe he could believe. He was neither dogmatic like Aristotle nor a debating skeptic like the later Carneades.
He was rather like the agnostic who stands between dogmatic believers and atheists, refuting neither but agreeing with neither. Pyrrho didn’t assert that truth is knowable or unknowable. He just shrugged, adopting what Austrian émigré philosopher Eric Voegelin called “an existential suspense of judgment.”
What prompted it? It’s impossible to know for sure. Consistent with his existential suspension, he neither wrote nor founded a school or religion. He left few pupils. His words have come down to us in mere fragments.
But we know this: He lived in the age of Alexander the Great, whose conquests in the Middle East and Asia swept the Greek polis into a corner of the known civilized world and brought a rush of new phenomena across the Aegean. Before Alexander, the Greek wielded a formidable mind, inquiring and open, but steady and sure. With Alexander’s conquests, new cultures and information flooded the Greek mental landscape, knocking over many shrubs and trees.
Some grew anxious or excited at phenomena like Indian yogis, but not Pyrrho.
The ancients say he chose calm and retreat. Diogenes Laertius tells us Pyrrho “withdrew from the world and lived in solitude, rarely showing himself even to his relatives.” His disciple Timon wrote that he was “unconceited and unbroken by all the pressures” that attack most people, that he wasn’t weighed down “with passions and opinion.”
Pyrrho’s was a serene mind, untroubled by searching, questioning, opinions, and judgments. Pyrrho attained ataraxia (a “not” and taraktos “disturbed”), the ideal state of mind according to Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius, a state of mind not unlike the Stoic goal of apathia.
Pyrrhonism and the Web
I suspect Pyrrho would’ve smirked at the whole idea of “information literacy.” He knew the mind’s limits.
But what’s really interesting is that millions of people today are Pyrrho-like perceiving the mind’s limits.
The mainstream media’s army of trolling reporters, the Internet’s orc-like hordes of web pages, and the dragon of online libraries have helped many people realize a few fundamental truths about knowledge and information that most people just 20 years ago didn’t appreciate: (1) You never have all the facts. (2) Whenever you trust a source of information, you are undertaking a leap of faith in the source’s authority. (3) No authority on factual matters is definitive.
As a younger man, I once wrote, “The redneck substitutes blanket skepticism for wisdom.” Now that I’m getting older, I’m beginning to think the redneck ain’t so dumb. In fact, the real wise man understands that he knows very little when contrasted with everything there is to know. I suspect today’s suffocating avalanche of information makes every person a bit wiser in this respect, a bit more like Pyrrho.
But is that all Pyrrho has to offer? An “existential suspense of judgment”?
The Skeptic Meets the Dogmatist
Toward the end of his life, St. Thomas Aquinas became silent. It was 1273 and he had just returned from Mass. He put aside his unfinished Summa Theologica, right in the middle of his treatment of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and stopped writing. His friend Reginald asked him why. St. Thomas simply said, “I can write no more. All that I have hitherto written seems to me nothing but straw.”
Straw? St. Thomas? A man consistently ranked in the top 10 of history’s best thinkers?
What happened? Nobody knows for sure, but most think he had a mystical experience. The German philosopher Josef Pieper said it was because Thomas had been “allowed a glimpse into the inexpressible depths of that mystery that is not reached by any human thought or speech.” After that awesome glimpse, Thomas figured there was nothing to say.
Sometimes I fancy that the overwhelming glut of information and potential knowledge gives all of us a glimpse of whatever St. Thomas saw: What’s the point of trying to capture all, or even some, of it? I realize it’s ridiculous to compare one’s zombie trance after hours of Internet surfing to St. Thomas’ mystical calm after Mass. Still, I think there’s something there. The Dumb Ox had overloaded with Too Much Information hay, albeit of the divine radiance kind.
Switch back to Pyrrho.
To Timon’s question: “Why is it that you alone among men stand forth in the manner of a God?” Pyrrho responded, “For the right rule of truth do I have in this saying: That the nature of God as of Good exists in eternity, and from there proceeds for man the most just and equitable.”
God, not all the statistics and assertions and opinions and dogmas and Indian yogis that swirl around American or Achaean society. But God. That, Voegelin said, was the “enigmatic force that let Pyrrho appear as a saintly, semidivine figure to his contemporaries.” Pyrrho’s, like St. Thomas’s, was the silence of the mystic.
The Existential Options
Information literacy or God? A federal grant to learn whether Wikipedia is reliable or Pyrrho and Thomas? A textbook on efficient web surfing or mystic calm?
Are those the options?
I’m not willing to say.
You can read into that whatever you want.
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Thanks. I was wondering how this would be received.
It was kinda lying around. I submitted it last spring to a friend-editor, who said he liked it but couldn’t use it. I blind-submitted it to a pop philosophy magazine, but they didn’t respond. When going through my archives this weekend to prepare for this new feature, I remembered it.
Disclosure: This was my “best foot forward” with this new feature (“From the Notebooks”). I have a few others that are comparable, but the other FTNs posts I’ve prepared (45 so far), are of uneven quality. A few are just a handful of quotes, some are ruminations with no conclusions, some are rough around the prose edge. There are a few more full-blown pieces in the batch, but most FTN posts won’t be nearly as polished/completed as this one.
BTW: I greatly enjoyed going through my journals, and I plan on unleashing a lot of stuff here, with the result that TDE won’t be closing shop for quite awhile. Sorry for the earlier false alarm.
By the way, what’s going on with Godspy?
I was just going to say they haven’t put anything
new up in a while, but I just checked and found
a lot of new stuff. Anyway, they re-launched the site and got off to a great start, but it was
stagnant for a while. Did you submit anything there?
Weren’t you involved in the site at one point?
For a fleeting second, when you quoted St Thomas Aquinas, I had a snickering thought that God allowed him to see the Internet, and that’s why he stopped writing. Then, of course, about three sentences later, you expounded on that in a thought-provoking way. I hope you keep this going, Eric.
[...] to make them work. Some of the older philosophies might make a comeback, like Stoicism and skepticism, but all those science-enamored philosophies? The information age is crushing them to the [...]
[...] going to happen? Heck no. I think nuthin’. If you haven’t noticed, I officially went Pyrrho many months ago, especially on economic matters. Starting about two months ago, I went Candidish. [...]
[...] have squarely landed myself in the latter camp, and I find great solace in my company there: Pyrrho, Heraclitus, Montaigne, Peirce, Hayek. Aquinas toward the end of his life. Even Christ. He, of [...]
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