The Elusiveness of Demonstrable Truth

Passage from Tocqueville’s letter to Eugène Stöffels, Oct. 18, 1831

There is yet another fantasy of early youth which one must guard against. When I first began to reflect upon the world, I believed that it was full of demonstrable truths; that one had only to look hard to see them. But when I applied myself to considering matters, all I perceived was a tangle of doubts. I don’t have words, my dear Charles, to express the horrible state into which this discovery cast me. I’ve never been more miserable; I can only compare myself to a man who, seized with vertigo, feels the floor quaking underfoot and sees the walls around him shifting. I’m still horrified when I think about that period. I daresay I wrestled mightily with doubt and in a spirit of rare desperation. And only yesterday (!) did I convince myself that the search for absolute, demonstrable truth, like the search for perfect happiness, is futile. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t some truths worthy of our whole-hearted conviction, but you can be sure that they are very few. For the immense majority of questions to which we need answers, all we have are likelihoods, approximations. To despair over this is to despair over being human, for therein lies one of the most inflexible laws of our nature. Does it follow that man should never act because he can never be sure of anything? That is by no means my creed. When I must determine something important, I carefully weigh the pros and cons, and, instead of despairing over the lack of absolute certainty, I soldier on as if I had no doubts at all. Experience has taught me that it is better, all things considered, to strike out vigorously in the wrong direction than to stand paralyzed by indecision or to act feebly.

One must therefore resign oneself to the elusiveness of demonstrable truth. But, you say, the doubt to which one resigns oneself will always be a painful state. True, I consider doubt one of the great banes of existence; I place it right after sickness and death. But it is because I have this opinion of it that I don’t understand why so many men impose it upon themselves gratuitously. That is why I have always considered metaphysics and all the purely theoretical sciences, which serve no useful purpose in the reality of life, as a willful torment that man has consented to inflict upon himself.



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