Montaigne’s Goat: Certainty & Uncertainty

Sterling Eisiminger

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“If I had been a Jew living under Hitler, I hope I would have mustered the courage to enter a plot to kill the blighter. Holed up in an attic overlooking a street leading to the Reichstag, I would have pawned a kidney if necessary to buy a rifle from a deserter on the black market. Hearing the trains in the distance headed to Auschwitz, I hope I would have done unto Hitler before he did unto me.” Skip Eisiminger

Skip the B.S.

By Skip Eisiminger

Heidelberg Castle.

Heidelberg Castle.

I. “One never knows, do one?”—Fats Waller

Sterling (Skip) EisimingerCLEMSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—December 2017—I must have been seven or eight when Hannelore and I took the trolley to the Heidelberg Castle. Two sights from the visit have stuck with me for almost 70 years: a giant barrel in the cellar to store the castle wine, and a footprint in stone. Our family’s governess was a well-read young woman who by all rights should have been a student at the local university, but the recently concluded war in Europe prevented that. At any rate, I respected her knowledge of local history and thus believed her story of how that 60-thousand-gallon barrel was drained every Saturday night.

The single footprint in stone, however, was another story: I refused to believe that a 30-foot fall would leave such a deep imprint even if the knight errant had been in full armor. I expressed my doubts rather bluntly: “Where’s the other footprint?” I wanted to know, and watched Hannelore’s face fall. I wasn’t sure why, but having watched our own children’s faces fall as various myths and legends fell like scales from their eyes, I now understand her disappointment.

The Heidelberg barrel.

The Heidelberg barrel.

Several years later, I watched as my younger sister’s face fell. She had placed Mother’s last carrot next to her Easter basket and gone to bed to dream of chocolate bunnies. The next morning after inspecting the rewards of her faith and before our parents came downstairs, she went to pour herself some milk and spotted that lonesome carrot in the refrigerator. Her fallen face said she knew.

By age twelve, I understood the lies adults tell children because if Jesus had appeared to me as he did to Thomas, I would have stuck my finger right in that lateral gash. To paraphrase a Jewish “wisdom tale,” if someone had confidently announced that Jesus had returned while I was planting my garden, I would have finished planting before greeting the Messiah. Montaigne had a similar experience after someone told him that drinking goat’s blood eased the passage of kidney stones. But when he saw stones in his butchered goat’s kidney, he was reasonably certain the remedy was a hoax and turned elsewhere for a palliative.

I respect faith and treasure the modicum I retain, but my education taught me the virtues of doubt and preparedness. That’s why we did not build our house on the flood plain under high-voltage power lines that one realtor offered us over 30 years ago. In September of 2017, as Hurricane Irma was churning its way up Florida’s Gulf Coast, the place where my wife and I live fell within Irma’s “cone of uncertainty.” Eventually, the eye swung to our west, but we still received four inches of rain served up in 40-MPH gusts. Living with that uncertainty was unsettling, but some relief was found in “reasonable probability.” While a few of our neighbors left town or dropped to their knees, I cleaned the gutters, took down the hummingbird feeders, and trimmed branches. The result was a house plastered with wet leaves and a cubic yard of debris that the city collected three weeks later.

Einstein at the blackboard.

Einstein at the blackboard.

II.“Light on the Autobahn knows its limit—
even Einstein couldn’t raise or trim it.”—The Wordspinner

That’s not entirely true, for Einstein knew that light could be slowed by passing it through various translucent mediums but, in a vacuum, light is constant. At present, light has been slowed to a record 38 MPH by passing a laser through an “optical molasses” consisting of very cold sodium atoms. That would not have surprised Einstein, but apparently successful efforts since his death to exceed 186,282 MPS would have troubled him, because the constancy of light is the hinge on which relativity swings. Suffice it to say that efforts to exceed the “divine limit” involve “spooky action at a distance,” as Einstein called it, “worm holes,” and “dark matter.”

But since Einstein added the dimension of time to Newton’s trinity of length, width, and height, the addition of some 20 more dimensions to reality, as some string theorists have proposed, may not have bothered him. Today, the rule in science appears to be that every law must contain a proviso. Recently, physicists at the Max Planck Institute reached a temperature one-half-billionth of a degree below absolute zero. However, before absolute relativism overwhelms us absolutely, there’s still absolute heat and, thus far, that line on the absolute thermometer has not been surpassed.

Hitler's bunker.

Hitler’s bunker.

III. “A quid pro quo or a turn of the cheek?
Neither is a course I would always seek.”—The Wordspinner

As for moral absolutes, the Golden Rule is “Golden” in every major religion, but I’ve long wondered about that suspicious consensus. If I had been a Jew living under Hitler, I hope I would have mustered the courage to enter a plot to kill the blighter. Holed up in an attic overlooking a street leading to the Reichstag, I would have pawned a kidney if necessary to buy a rifle from a deserter on the black market. Hearing the trains in the distance headed to Auschwitz, I hope I would have done unto Hitler before he did unto me.

It’s often been observed that after the Holocaust, no law is sacred, which is not to say that law-abiding behavior isn’t the best policy; it’s just not the only policy.

As early as the 1st century AD, writers such as Pliny the Elder have been warning, “The only certainty is that nothing is certain.” Fifteen-hundred years later, Martin Luther urged his protesting followers to “sin courageously.” And the Victorian poet George Meredith warned all souls “hot for certainties” that they would only get “a dusty answer.” As I used to tell young writers, “Always remember, never use always or never.”

Bertrand Russell and his son, playing chess.

Bertrand Russell and his son, playing chess.

IV. “To think is to doubt; I doubt, therefore, I am—
the handwriting on the wall may be a sham.” —The Wordspinner

What about Ben Franklin’s confident assertion that “nothing . . . is certain except death and taxes”? Judging from the fact that some of the rich have avoided taxes for decades, and the sufficiently poor never pay them, we can discount Franklin’s first “certainty.” Death is more difficult. But if motion is taken as a sign of “life,” the life span of atoms is 1025 years, which is long enough for me to call them “immortal.”

Bertrand Russell wrote, “Most of the greatest evils that man has inflicted upon man have come through people feeling quite certain about something which, in fact, was false.” Though Luther was certain the Pope was the Antichrist, though the Pope’s inquisitors were certain they knew a witch when they stuck pins in her, though Hitler was certain the Jews were “vermin,” though Stalin was certain collective farms were an efficient way to farm, though Mao was certain that smelting iron in backyard furnaces was the best way to catch up with the West, and though contemporary terrorists are certain that killing innocents is excused by God and man, they are all dead wrong. John Stuart Mill was mistaken in his belief that, “There is no such thing as absolute certainty,” for Luther alone disproves that. But Mill was right in thinking, “There is assurance sufficient for the purposes of life.”

And what is the source of this assurance if not absolute respect. Had the man I wanted to assassinate a few lines above survived the war that took some fifty-five million lives, I would have given him a fair trial. Assuming his lawyers failed him, I would have locked him away with all due respect.

August Strindberg, 1886.

August Strindberg, 1886.

V. “. . . the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude . . . .” —Matthew Arnold

To certify that Earth is, in fact, a globe, August Strindberg lay in a Berlin street one sunny day holding a broomstick perpendicular to the pavement. A life-long skeptic, the Swedish playwright lay there long enough to convince himself that the shadow of his gnomon was moving clockwise which, if Earth were flat, would not be the case, or so he thought. But, if Earth were a flat disc, the shadow would still move clockwise. Strindberg might also have been disappointed to learn that Earth is an oblate spheroid.

To order copies of Skip Eisiminger’s Letters to the Grandchildren (Clemson University Digital Press), click on the book cover below or contact: Center for Electronic and Digital Publishing, Strode Tower, Box 340522, Clemson SC 29634-0522. For Wordspinner: Mind-Boggling Games for Word Lovers, click on the book cover.

Skip Eisiminger's Letters to the Grandchildren

Wordspinner: Mind-Boggling Games for Word Lovers

Sterling Eisiminger

About Sterling Eisiminger

Dr. Sterling (“Skip”) Eisiminger was born in Washington DC in 1941. The son of an Army officer, he traveled widely but often reluctantly with his family in the United States and Europe. After finishing a master’s degree at Auburn and taking a job at Clemson University in 1968, he promised himself that he would put down some deep roots. These roots now reach back through fifty years of Carolina clay. In 1974, Eisiminger received a Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina, where poet James Dickey “guided” his creative dissertation. His publications include Non-Prescription Medicine (poems), The Pleasures of Language: From Acropox to Word Clay (essays), Omi and the Christmas Candles (a children’s book), and Wordspinner (word games). He is married to the former Ingrid (“Omi”) Barmwater, a native of Germany, and is the proud father of a son, Shane, a daughter, Anja, and grandfather to four grandchildren, Edgar, Sterling, Spencer, and Lena.
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