You’re a painter. You’re working on a portrait of a spirited stallion bracing at the bit, and you find yourself obsessing over the animal’s mouth. What makes that frothy foam so infuriatingly elusive? By now, you must have wiped that small cross-section clean at least a dozen times. The sponge is grey with mixed paint, and you begin to lose faith. Each time, your stroke is hastier, until finally, you’ve had enough: In a fit of rage, you fling the sponge at the canvas.
As the red haze before your eyes dissolves, you gather the strength to peek at the portrait.
And there before your eyes is the foam of your dreams — glorious, frothy and totally accidental.
The sponge’s hurtling course brought it straight to the animal’s lips and dashed them with exactly the desired texture and tint. Unintentionally, you’ve made a masterpiece.
I first read about the painting of the horse in Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus’ “Outlines of Scepticism” two days before the election. At the time, Sextus did not strike me as one of the more compelling philosophers in the Directed Studies philosophy curriculum. He seemed to me a remote theorist, an indulgent epistemologist and a real oddball in his outright rejection of knowledge. But when I heard Sextus’ skepticism analyzed in Wednesday morning’s lecture just hours after the Trump was pronounced President-elect of the United States, I began to think otherwise. Before the media’s barrage of explanatory articles began — before I could even process the result myself — I looked to Sextus for guidance about how to approach the unpredictable and the unexplainable. When professor of philosophy Michael Della Rocca began his Nov. 9 lecture by declaring, “You know nothing,” I thought to myself: I know.
In the story of the horse painting in the Outlines, Sextus’ painter achieves tranquility indirectly and accidentally when he stops trying to create a specific effect. Sextus advocates for the suspension of belief, arguing that one should apply reasoned doubt to all narratives so as not to become entrenched in dogma. Such suspension becomes a counterforce to the single-minded pursuit of one comprehensive explanation. Nevertheless, Sextus in no way advocates abandoning the pursuit of knowledge. He encourages investigation with the goal of avoiding rather than reaching a definite conclusion, rejecting the existence of unequivocal truth.
Even more radically, as professor Della Rocca noted in lecture, Sextus goes on to suggest that we have no real basis for preferring one perception over another, that people perceive things differently and that it is impossible to survey all human beings and their diverse perceptions. Recent accusations against Mark Zuckerberg for allowing Facebook to propagate fraudulent articles force us to consider how we perceive the information with which we are confronted. The impossibility of surveying everyone’s perceptions causes polling inaccuracy, which became painfully apparent after election night. As I listened to the lecture and now as I think back to it, the philosophy of Sextus seems more and more predictive of exactly how unpredictable people and their perceptions can be.
And yet, countless opinion pieces have been published since Nov. 8 attempting to explain why the election went the way it did and how we could have — why we should have — predicted it. Many of them are compelling yet mutually contradictory. On Nov. 10, CNN published a list of 24 theories. And I wondered: Would Sextus approve of how the news outlets are covering the election? What would he make of the New York Times’ opinion section, littered with articles presuming to present the explanation, the preeminent analysis, like Columbia professor Mark Lilla’s Nov. 18 op-ed “The End of Identity Liberalism?” Taken separately, Sextus would likely disapprove of such articles and anyone claiming to have one right answer. But taken together, these articles illustrate one of Sextus’ central premises: namely, that arguments are often equipollent and that we should not ignore reasoned counterclaims. Sextus essentially warns against confirmation bias by advocating for fair treatment of all arguments.
Sextus’ brand of skepticism seems to me deeply positive and hopeful in its ability to, as professor Della Rocca put it, “help us overthrow our most fervently held beliefs.” Through the story of the horse painting, Sextus reflects on the personal attainment of tranquility, which cannot be achieved by a dogmatic pursuit of definite knowledge (analogous to methodical painting to achieve a predetermined effect). Rather, it is achieved by a “suspension of belief” which enables and encourages perpetual investigation through reasoned doubt and debate.
As I write, I recognize that the election has affected my lens of analysis and the way I have chosen to approach the text. Sextus does not refer to political parties or pay nearly as much attention to political regimes as many of his contemporaries. The scope of Sextus’ work is wide, and it can mean different things for different people. For me, his philosophy has served to reinvigorate the foundational values of democracy in a manner bare of the antagonism and dogmatism coming from both sides of our current political aisle. Sextus sparked in me a profound admiration for doubt, curiosity and argumentation that extends to the political sphere and encourages an ideological flexibility much needed today.