Program Particulars: A History of Doubt

Program Particulars

*Times indicated refer to web version of audio

Album art

(02:01) Music Element

"Multiples of One" from Awakening, performed by Joseph Curiale


(05:00) Philosophical Term of Cynic

The Greek word kunikos, from which cynic is derived, was originally an adjective meaning "doglike," from kuon meaning "dog." It's thought that the term was used to describe Cynic philosophers because Diogenes of Sinope is reported to have been seen barking in public and performing other physical functions without shame.

Diogenes rejected the worship of gods because he said they didn't need anything from humans, and that it was outside the bounds of daily living. Also, he sought to understand the material composition of the world and reasoned that the primary essence of the universe was air. In a passage from the reported sayings of the Diogenes, he said:

And my view is that that which has intelligence is what men call air, and that all things have their course steered by it and that it has power over all things. For this very thing I hold to be a God and to reach everywhere and to dispose everything and to be in everything. And there is not anything which does not partake in it. Yet no single thing partakes in it, just in the same way as another. But there are many modes both of air and of intelligence, for it undergoes many transformations. Warmer and colder, drier and moister, more stable and in swifter motion, and it has many other differentiations in it and an infinite number of colors and sabers.

In the mid-16th century, the term Cynics was first used to label members of this philosophical sect. Several decades later, the word connoted "faultfinder," which has contributed much to our modern sense of the term. This meaning is thought to have come from the behavior of Cynics who, in their pursuit of virtue, pointed out the flaws in others.

(06:59) Story of Diogenes and Alexander the Great

Diogenes of Sinope, a leader of the Cynics, was admired by Alexander the Great, who is purported to have said, "Were I not Alexander, I would be Diogenes." Diogenes is said to have said the same of Alexander. In Doubt: A History, Hecht writes about an exchange between the two men:

Before a large crowd, Alexander the Great approached Diogenes, who was lying in the street, sunning himself. Standing above him, the young conqueror offered the philosopher anything he wished. It was a sneaky offer, since it was both a reward for Diogenes' wisdom and a teasing effort to tempt him away from it. Diogenes said that perhaps there was something he would like and, after a moment, asked Alexander to please stop blocking his sun.

Album art

(07:39) Music Element

"Berliner Messe, Agnus Dei" from Arvo Pärt: I Am the True Vine, conducted by Paul Hillier


(08:01) Reading of Diogenes

The extended version of the reading in the program is excerpted from a Fast Company interview with Tom Morris, a former philosophy professor at Notre Dame:

One day, Alexander the Great visited Diogenes. Alexander was Diogenes's biggest fan and had dropped by to pay his respects. At the end of the visit, Diogenes asked Alexander what his plans were. Alexander answered that he planned to conquer and subjugate Greece. Then what? Diogenes asked. Alexander said that he planned to conquer and subjugate Asia Minor. And then? Alexander said that he planned to conquer and subjugate the world. Diogenes, who was not easily dissuaded from a line of inquiry, posed the question again: What next? Alexander the Great told Diogenes that after all that conquering and subjugating, he planned to relax and enjoy himself. Diogenes responded: Why not save yourself a lot of trouble by relaxing and enjoying yourself now? Alexander the Great never really got the point. Our lives are made for success — and not just for enjoying it, but for seeking it as well. As a matter of fact, the people who are most likely to enjoy success are those who most enjoy seeking it. Those people are able to find satisfaction in the journey, not just at the end of the road.

Album art

(08:53) Music Element

"Starry Night, Opus 384" from Hovhaness Treasures, conducted by Gerard Schwarz


(09:04) Philosophical Term of Skeptic

The Greek verb skeptesthai, from which the word skeptic is derived, originally meant "to examine carefully." There are two schools of skepticism: Pyrrhonism and Academic Skepticism. The latter, which Socrates belonged to and Hecht discusses during the program, spanned the 3rd through the 1st centuries BCE. Members of this school include Protagoras, Socrates, and Democritus.

Pyrrhonism was indirectly founded by Pyrrho of Elis in the 4th century BCE and flourished primarily during the 1st century BCE. For a more in-depth overview of these schools of ancient skepticism, read entries in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Album art

(13:04) Music Element

"Stélé" from The Guitarist, performed by John Williams


(13:51) Reading from Epicurus' Letter to Menoeceus

Epicurus (341-271 BCE) founded a school in Athens around the time he was 30. He argues that people not only can be virtuous but happy in this world. To him, there are three obstacles to happiness: fear of death, fear of pain, and fear of the gods.

The following passage was excerpted from Epicurus' letter to Menoeceus:

Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young nor weary in the search thereof when he has grown old, for no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul. And to say that the season for studying philosophy has not yet come or that it is passed and gone is like saying that the season for happiness is not yet or that it is now no more. Therefore, both old and young ought to seek wisdom. The former, in order that as age comes over him he may be young in good things because of the grace of what has been. And the later, in order that while he is young he may at the same time be old because he has no fear of the things which are to come. So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since if that be present, we have everything. And if that be absent, all our actions are directed toward obtaining it.

(16:35) Reference to Book of Job

The Book of Job is considered a classic biblical story of faith in which an abiding and good man is tested by God. Through his trials and suffering, he emerges a better man and is awarded by God. In her book Doubt: A History, Hecht writes:

There is something grand about a story that tries to reconcile human beings to loss, to letting go of the things that the universe has allowed us to amass and keep for a while—including the idea that after we lose everything, there is a good chance we'll get it all back someday. Could the Job author have been satisfied with this as a parable of divine justice? It is not a parable of divine justice. It is a parable of resignation to a world-making force that has no justice as we understand justice. God comes off sounding like a metaphor for the universe: violent and chaotic yet bountiful and marvelous. The Job story is a story of doubt. God's list brings Job back into the fold, but the fight has transformed that fold. With Job, the paradigm of a just God was carried to an extreme that immediately identified the problem with the idea: the world is not just. If justice exists, the Book of Job concludes, it does so in a way inconceivable to humanity. Job asked deep questions and they have lingered for millennia.

(19:33) "A Howl Against the Injustice of the World"

Hecht cites the biblical book of Ecclesiastes as a classic work in the history of doubt: "Where Job was a howl against the injustice of life," she says, "the author of Ecclesiastes approaches it more with a stoic shrug." Readers of older translations of the Bible know the beginning of Ecclesiastes as "Vanity of vanities. All is vanity." Here's a modern Jewish translation from the Book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 1 of the Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures:

The words of Koheleth son of David, king of Jerusalem.

Utter futility!—said Koheleth— Utter futility! All is futile! What real value is there for a man In all the gains he makes beneath the sun? One generation goes, another comes, But the earth remains the same forever. The sun rises, and the sun sets— And glides back to where it rises. Southward blowing, Turning northward, Ever turning blows the winds; On its rounds the wind returns. All streams flow into the sea, Yet the sea is never full; To the place [from] which they flow The streams flow back again. All such things are wearisome: No man can ever state them; The eye never has enough of seeing, Nor the ear enough of hearing. Only that shall happen Which has happened, Only that occur Which has occurred. There is nothing new Beneath the sun.

Sometimes there is a phenomenon of which they say, "Look, this one is new!"—it occurred long since, in ages that went by before us. The earlier ones are not remembered; so too those that will occur later will no more be remembered than those that will occur at the very end. I, Koheleth, was king in Jerusalem over Israel. I set my mind to study and to probe with wisdom all that happens under the sun.—An unhappy business, that, which God gave men to be concerned with! I observed all the happenings beneath the sun, and I found that all is futile and pursuit of wind:

A twisted thing that cannot be made straight, A lack that cannot be made good.

I said to myself: "Here I have grown richer and wiser than any that ruled before me over Jerusalem, and my mind has zealously absorbed wisdom and learning. And so I set my mind to appraise wisdom and to appraise madness and folly. And I learned—that this too was pursuit of wind:

For as wisdom grows, vexation grows; To increase learning is to increase heartache.

Album art

(23:12) Music Element

"Sarabande from Suite No. 3 in C Major" from The Cello Suites Inspired By Bach, performed by Yo-Yo Ma


(21:01) Reference to Mishnah

In Hebrew, Mishnah means "to repeat one's learning," and is the codified core of the Oral Law, which provides analysis and interpretations of the Torah. The Mishnah originated some time in the sixth century BCE after the Jews returned to Judea and continues on to this day.

One of two parts of the Talmud, the Mishnah is divided into six sedarim, or orders, which are composed of 63 massekhtot, or tractates.

The six orders of the Mishnah are:

  1. Seeds: discusses problems, laws, and rituals related to agriculture issues;
  2. Festivals: issues the laws and rules for fast days and festivals;
  3. Women: covers relations between men and women;
  4. Damages: provides a code of civil and criminal law;
  5. Sacred Things: pertains to rituals, offerings, and sacrifices; and
  6. Purities: addresses matters of personal hygiene and food preparation.

(22:22) Jesus' Last Words

Hecht cites an example in the passion narratives of Mark and Matthew in which Jesus' doubt becomes part of the Christian story:

Mark 15:34

At three o'clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Matthew 27:46

And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"


Album art

(23:12) Music Element

"Sarabande from Suite No. 3 in C Major" from The Cello Suites Inspired By Bach, performed by Yo-Yo Ma


(23:37) Reading from The City of God

St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE) is one of the most prominent figures of medieval philosophy whose authority and thought have had a lasting influence. Augustine is one of the main figures who merged the Greek philosophical tradition and the Judeo-Christian religious and scriptural traditions. Some of his best-known works are the The Confessions and City of God.

Krista reads passages from two works by Augustine, as excerpted in Hecht's book. The first appears De Trinitate:

Nobody surely doubts, however, that he lives and remembers and understands and wills and thinks and knows and judges. At least, even if he doubts, he lives, if he doubts, he remembers why he's doubting; if he doubts, he has a will to be certain; if he doubts, he thinks; if he doubts, he knows he does not know; if he doubts, he judges he ought not to give a hasty ascent. You may have your doubts about anything else, but you should have no doubts about these; if they were not certain, you would not be able to doubt anything.

And the second comes from The City of God:

I am quite certain that I am, that I know that I am, and that I love this being and this knowing. Where these truths are concerned, I need not quail before the Academicians [Skeptics] when they say "What if you should be mistaken?" Well, if I'm mistaken, I exist. For a man who does not exist can surely not be mistaken either, and if I am mistaken, therefore I exist.
Album art

(25:30) Music Element

"Starry Night, Opus 384" from Hovhaness Treasures, conducted by Gerard Schwarz


Album art

(28:01) Music Element

"A Scotts Tune (Rowallen Lute Book)" from Lute Music from Scotland and France, performed by Jakob Lindberg


(28:15) Reading of Descartes' Meditations

Rene Descartes (1596-1650), often called the father of modern philosophy, created a new way of thinking about philosophy and mathematics by rejecting the traditional, scholastic methods in which ideas were based on assumptions or emotional beliefs. He accepted only ideas which could be proven by direct observation. At the starting point of his methodology, Descartes begins with universal doubt and concludes there is only one thing that cannot be doubted, doubt itself. From this postulation comes the famous phrase, Cogito, ergo sum, or "I think, therefore I am."

The extended passage that follows was excerpted from the chapter "Meditations I: Of the Things of Which We May Doubt," which is part of Descartes' work Meditations, written in Latin in 1641:

SEVERAL years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation, if I desired to establish a firm and abiding superstructure in the sciences. But as this enterprise appeared to me to be one of great magnitude, I waited until I had attained an age so mature as to leave me no hope that at any stage of life more advanced I should be better able to execute my design. On this account, I have delayed so long that I should henceforth consider I was doing wrong were I still to consume in deliberation any of the time that now remains for action. To-day, then, since I have opportunely freed my mind from all cares [and am happily disturbed by no passions], and since I am in the secure possession of leisure in a peaceable retirement, I will at length apply myself earnestly and freely to the general overthrow of all my former opinions.

(31:12) Islamic Golden Age

Hecht says that as the Roman empire collapsed and Christianity was on the ascent, philosophers headed east to the Byzantine Empire, and then to Muslim cities such as Antioch and Baghdad, where, doubt gains a foothold. At about this time, the Golden Age of Islam began during the eighth century CE and ended during the 14th century CE.

Several important factors contributed to the rise of the Islamic Empire: the encouragement of scholarship, including learning to read in order to study the Qur'an; the propagation of the sciences; a unified territory that brought about a sharing of ideas; the development of paper, which increased the availability of texts; and a common language in Arabic that improved discussions among scholars. Hecht says that al-Razi, Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya' al-Razi Al-Razi, was a great Muslim doubter.

(34:26) Reference to Maimonides

Read more about Maimonides, a great Jewish philosopher who questioned the Torah. He composed the Mishneh Torah, a book that intended to guide Jews on how to behave in all situations by reading the Torah, without having to spend large amounts of time searching the Talmud.

Album art

(36:57) Music Element

"Allemande from Partita a-Moll in A Minor" from Bach: Chamber Music for the Flute, conducted by Jean-Claude Gérard


(37:02) Reading from Franklin's Autobiography

The following passage was excerpted from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin:

That I was scarce 15 when, after doubting by turns at separate points, as I found them disputed in the different books that I had read, I began to doubt of revelation itself. Some books against Deism fell into my hands. It happened that they wrought an effect in me quite contrary to what was intended by them, for the arguments of the Deists which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than their reputations. I soon became a thorough Deist.

(41:50) Edison and the Afterlife

Hecht cites the article, "'No Immortality of the Soul' Says Thomas A. Edison." In the interview appearing in the October 2, 1910 edition of the New York Times, Edison says:

"No, all this talk of an existence for us, as individuals, beyond the grave is wrong. It is born of our tenacity of life — our desire to go on living — our dread of coming to an end as individuals. I do not dread it, though. Personally, I cannot see any use of a future life."

Album art

(49:49) Music Element

"Prayer of St. Gregory (interlude from opera Etchmiadzin)" from Classic Wynton, performed by Wynton Marsalis


(42:51) God and Patriotism

Hecht says that the tradition of doubt in the United States was stifled with the advent of the Cold War because communists disbanded religion and were equated with atheism. It's during this time that the injection of the word God in the pledge of allegiance and on American currency occurred. In Religious Liberty in America: The Legacy of Church and State, On Being discusses the evolving versions of the pledge since its creation in 1892.

(44:15) Reading of Elizabeth Cady Stanton

The following excerpt comes from the collected writings of the 19th century American social reformer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who describes her encounter with a free-thinking doubter of her age, the abolitionist Lucretia Mott:

I found in this new friend a woman emancipating from all faith in man-made creed. Nothing was too sacred for her to question. It seemed to me like meeting a being from some larger planet to find a woman who dared to question the opinions of popes, kings, senates, parliaments, recognizing no higher authority than the judgment of a pure-minded, educated woman. When I first heard from the lips of Lucretia Mott that I had the same right to think for myself that Luther, Calvin and John Knox had, and the same right to be guided by my own convictions and would no doubt live a higher, happier life than if guided by theirs, I felt at once a newborn sense of dignity and freedom. It was like suddenly coming into the rays of the noonday sun after wandering with a rush light in the caves of the earth.

(45:42) Terms of Atheist, Agnostic, and Believer

Hecht says that the modern terms atheist, agnostic, and believer are "wrong-headed and calcify" the discussion. In Doubt: A History, Hecht describes these categories:

The categories believer, agnostic, and atheist stand out as very recent ways of dividing thought on this issue. They may not be the most interesting or useful ways anymore. According to common usage, the term agnosticism holds that we cannot reasonably make an assessment on the question of whether God exists. Why not then extend Skepticism to all knowledge; that is, why are agnostics supposed to be Skeptics only in question? Agnosticism often ends up being a catchall term for those who do not think there is a God, but who harbor a tiny allowance that there might be some force that creates meaning and makes possible an afterlife. What of the difference between belief and atheism? There have been mystics and philosophers who said they believed in God but who did not believe anything about the universe that was different than how the atheists described it. They just called something about it "God." If your idea of God is a being that thinks, does things, or even exists, you would have to re-classify a great many self-titled believers as atheists. If, instead, what divides belief and atheism is that believers have a taste for religion and atheists think it's dangerous bunk, then what of the great atheist religions? Believer mystics and believer philosophers have more in common with atheist mystics and atheist philosophers than with those who accept a Creator God who is aware of us and does things. I think politics drives a lot of clinging to the three terms, but I also think it is easier to force yourself to be clear if you avoid using believer, agnostic, and atheist and just try to say what you think about what we are and what's out there.

(47:24) Krista Reads from Hecht's Book

The passage read by Krista comes from the introduction the Hecht's book, Doubt: A History:

The great doubters and believers have been preoccupied with another great schism: the one between what human beings are and what we wish we were, what we do and what we understand. That we love, and that love, among other possibilities, brings forth life, is very strange. We cannot say it is inexplicable, and yet, when it happens (either true love, or conception, or both) we stand amazed. Love can drastically alter a rational person's world. The birth of a child can bring extraordinarily religious feelings because it is such a good thing, but also because it makes no real sense. Where did this miniature human being come from? Technically, we made it out of nine month's worth of French toast, salad and lamb chops. Technically, our bodies hold tiny little instructions for how to build human eyes, a language center in a human brain, and a human spirit—fussy, joyful, or otherwise. But how strange that such a thing as fussy exists and is created thusly.

Album art

(49:53) Music Element

"Prelude from Suite No. 1 in G Major" from The Cello Suites Inspired By Bach, performed by Yo Yo Ma


Album art

(52:07) Music Element

"Sarabande from Suite No. 3 in C Major" from The Cello Suites Inspired By Bach, performed by Yo Yo Ma


Share Episode

Shortened URL

Voices on the Radio

teaches in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at The New School in New York City. She has written two volumes of poetry and three books of non-fiction, including Doubt: A History.