Jacob Bronowski on the dangers of certainty

On February 2, Simon Critchley remembered Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, the writer’s 1973 television series for the BBC, in the New York Times. In an essay called “The Dangers of Certainty,” Critchley discussed the 11th episode of the series, “Knowledge or Certainty,” which concludes with Bronowski’s visit to Auschwitz. I also remember this well, for my father insisted that I watch the series and particularly this episode, back when it ran on PBS in the United States. It has stayed with me; a clip from the episode is below.

We would like to think that the example of Auschwitz (as well as the examples of the Soviet gulags and similar events around the world, which continue these days in places like Syria) is a special case, but they are only exemplars of our own egocentric pride in our own certainty, writ on a grand, political, global scale. Critchley writes:

The play of tolerance opposes the principle of monstrous certainty that is endemic to fascism and, sadly, not just fascism but all the various faces of fundamentalism. When we think we have certainty, when we aspire to the knowledge of the gods, then Auschwitz can happen and can repeat itself. Arguably, it has repeated itself in the genocidal certainties of past decades. …

When someone said to [physicist Leo] Szilard in Bronowski’s company that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was science’s tragedy, Szilard replied firmly that this was wrong: It was a human tragedy.

And it is human; and although we all think we are not capable of the cruelties visited upon the Other in these situations, enough of us have proven capable of it in the past to deprive this sentiment of any comfort to us. For we are capable of it, and while we may not have the ability to practice these cruelties on such a grand scale, I imagine that many of us practice small cruelties to each  other, to family, friends, and strangers, every day — and often rationalize these cruelties with reference to  our own sense of rectitude, certainty, and justice, whether scientific, moral, ethical, emotional, or personal. There were enough members of my family still milling about Ukraine in the 1930s, I’m sure, as the famine was going on, and I’d like to think that they did not collaborate with the Soviet authorities in engineering this famine, and that they did not inform on or turn in their neighbors. But I can’t be certain of this. Perhaps they did. It happened all the time. (I can recommend a fine memoir about this period of human history, Miron Dolot’s Execution by Hunger.) Perhaps the lesson of Auschwitz is that this cruelty seems to lie hidden (often, not so hidden) in all of us, and that we are guilty of these trespasses against others every day. To pretend, to congratulate ourselves, that we’re not capable of them is to turn a blind eye to the darkest element of our own humanness, and so to guarantee that we continue to commit them. For we are indeed capable. And we are capable because we know we are always in the right.

One of the tasks of art is to remind us of this, to explore it, without the comfort of resolution or closure or our confidence in our inability to engage in such large and small cruelties ourselves, whether as individuals or as a species.

The clip from the above-referenced episode of The Ascent of Man is below.

2 thoughts on “Jacob Bronowski on the dangers of certainty”

  1. Agreed, George. We need often to be reminded of this.

    Trying to recall whether I had put into a tweet a highly condensed form of the same warning, I searched a notebook program and found it, from two years ago: not only my tweet but also a link to an NYT Sunday Review essay that makes much the same point with reference to the Roman Inquisition. That essay includes, on its second page, a quotation from Sir Isaiah Berlin that I admire. Instead of bringing that in here, I’ll simply repeat my tweet (hoping not to seem vain in doing so):

    “How quickly people rush to certainty. Certainty is dangerous, I think. Cullen Murphy is inclined to agree: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/12/opinion/sunday/the-certainty-of-doubt.html

  2. I’ll be glad to bring Berlin’s quote in here, John, since it’s quite relevant:

    “The idea that some single course is right and necessary — and, being right and necessary, must trump everything else, for all our sakes — is a seductive one. Isaiah Berlin knew where this idea of an ‘ultimate solution’ would lead — indeed, had already led in the murderous century he witnessed: ‘For, if one really believes that such a solution is possible, then surely no cost would be too high to obtain it: to make mankind just and happy and creative and harmonious forever — what could be too high a price to pay for that? To make such an omelet, there is surely no limit to the number of eggs that should be broken. … If your desire to save mankind is serious, you must harden your heart, and not reckon the cost.'”

    Thanks for pointing this out to me.

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