I’m not a poetic soul, but a few poems have stuck in my head over the years. One of the first was William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” For a kid who was brought up Catholic and always preferred readings from the condensed strangeness that is the Book of Revelations, Yeats’ poem seemed like a distillation and perfection of that theme. Even so, it featured one couplet that my understanding stumbled over.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
As a kid, that never made much sense. How could you be the best if you lacked all conviction? How could passionate intensity be a bad thing? The context of the rest of the poem didn’t help much, revolving as it did around a world falling apart and seeming to approach some kind of apocalypse. Maybe I just needed to mature a bit and learn more about the world, but the meaning of that couplet seems all too clear in these days, when the world is indeed falling apart and the future is looking darker than it has in a long time.
We’re surrounded by people who are full of passionate intensity these days. You see them at podiums, hear them declaiming the facts that they know, endure their scorn whenever you try to engage or argue with them. It’s the age of Trump, but he’s just the most visible modern version of a long-standing situation. Those of us from Northern Ireland will be just as familiar with Ian Paisley, whose granite-cold certainty admitted of no doubt and swept along many others in its wake.
Yeats’ poem is endlessly quoted because it’s endlessly applicable. Within the poem itself, it looked back to the devastation of the First World War, observed the bitterness of the Irish War of Independence, and looked forward to the horrors of the Irish Civil War and the Second World War to come. It seems prophetic because of what came after it was written, but it also simply records what always happens, and the couplet above is central to that.
The passionate certainty of those like Trump and Paisley comes from the fact that they rest their beliefs on certainties of their own. In Trump’s case, his certainty is that he is never wrong and never fails. Paisley’s was his own fundamentalist reading of the bible. If you’re certain, no time needs to be wasted in reflecting on the rightness of your actions: you have a launching point and a direction to travel in. Moreover, others will see your certainty and envy it, seeing in you someone to emulate and to follow. In your certainty, their own doubts will dissolve, or at least be forgotten about. They can forsake their own intellectual work in favour of having answers provided from someone who presents themselves as having them all.
What of Yeats’ “the best,” who lack all conviction, then? If the worst are those who never doubt themselves, the best are those who have spent large portions of their lives examining their own actions, developing a habit of doubt that haunts and slows them. They rarely share the dynamism of the worst, and without gifts of rhetoric or charisma, they struggle to convey just why it’s a good thing to question and to understand. In the world we now live in, “experts” are dismissed when their carefully constructed logic crashes up against dearly-held certainties.
Of course, this is a simplification. The world is complex, and not all of those who interrogate their beliefs are paralysed by doubt.
We’ve been lucky until quite recently, living in the shadow of the twentieth century’s horrors. We’ve had living reminders of the damage that Yeats’ “worst” can do, of what handing over our doubts and fears to those who seem utterly certain of their rightness will lead to. Having a strong public education system helps with that too—the world is massively complex, not least in how the people within it interact, but giving people the tools to decipher it for themselves lets them make an informed decision as to whether they will go along with others’ certainties.
Amazingly, I managed to get all the way through that without mentioning Brexit. Draw your own conclusions from that—or maybe I’ll return to that particular collision of dreadful certainty and earnest doubt at a later date.