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That Certainty Thing

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As the sacred center of Greek society, the Temple of Apollo at Delphi has long represented the core of European thought. Everyone in Europe and its many colonies knows the first of the injunctions written on the temple’s wall:

γνῶθι σεαυτόν (gnōthi seautón, ”know thyself”)

Wise and difficult words if ever there were wise and difficult words. And, oh, my, how the ancient philosophers ran with that ball.

The second of the injunctions is always with us, even if it has been a bit in the category of the aunt we all would rather not show up and certainly would rather not speak:

μηδέν άγαν (mēdén ágan, “nothing in excess”)

Yep, there it is: that “golden mean” thing that at least in my day was part of the fifth grade curriculum, along with proper grooming. We don’t like it. We don’t want it. But mēdén ágan will mess you up if you ignore it.

I speculate that those two bits of wisdom — in some form — appear in every self-help book ever. But there is a third, as wise as the other two, but did you know it’s on the Delphi wall:

Ἑγγύα πάρα δ’ἄτη (engýa pára d’atē, “certainty brings insanity”)

It’s telling that “certainty brings insanity” is not well known. That is exactly the sort of wisdom that Europeans and many of the people living in the places they colonized do not want to hear.

“Certainty brings insanity.”

Insanities such as war. Insanities such as theocracy. Insanities such as racism, sexism, and homophobia. All sorts of insanity.

“Certainty brings insanity.” Here’s my challenge to myself and to you: let’s listen to this; let’s stay away from certainty.

“Certainty brings insanity.” That’s why democracy had to be invented: the certainty of one tyrant means disaster. The certainty of one group of people forcing their point of view on others means disaster. Certainty is the enemy.

“Know yourself.”

“Nothing to excess.”

“Certainty brings insanity.”

We do well to remember all three. These are the ideals of a humanistic worldview. They call us to embrace both wisdom and love.

Unlike certainty, our world could use a good deal more wisdom and love.

First Unitarian Society

Din of Conversation — Humanist reflections on theology

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