Benjamin DeCasseres on Pyrrhonism and Acatalepsy


Benjamin DeCasseres, Letters / Tuesday, October 4th, 2022
The following letter to the editor of the New York Sun was published January 3rd, 1911.

Bankrupt Science

Mr. De Casseres on the Victories of Pyrrhonism and Acatalepsy.

To the Editor of The Sun—Sir: Mr. Gallatin’s remarkable letter in this morning’s Sun wherein the general bankruptcy of all scientific speculation is pointed out is a straw which shows us the drift of a world current. Are we going back, or going forward, to the doctrine of the Acataleptics? This doctrine was the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of things. Pyrrho is the supreme acataleptic among the ancients; Anatole France and Rémy de Gourmont are the supreme acataleptics among moderns. All opinion will finally become heretical. To say “I know” will be to put the stamp of ignorance on oneself. If catalepsy is a possession, acatalepsy is a state of ultimate freedom. The brain of the acataleptic was an eye that through an eternity of time focused its vision in an infinite number of directions. The world to it was a whimsey. Nothing can be proven; nothing can be disproven. “Eureka!” was uttered by a madman. And if this is true of science, why not of religion also?

Flux and reflux—what do we know? Belief of any kind is a species of hypnosis. Certainty is the superstition of sensation. Time is an illusion, said Kant. Eternity is a word, says Science. Each thing is only a mask for some other things—infinite veils. Names are the tags we put on incomprehensible objects. There is a Rabelaisian hilarity on the face of Nature, as if it would say, “Presto! Behold me! Behold me not! Whatever is is not. That is my supreme jest.”

Pyrrho and Montaigne arrive at ecstasy; the ecstasy of indifference. They lived in a world without longitude or latitude. The “I think, therefore I am” of Descartes would have been written by Pyrrho “I think, therefore I think I am.” At the touch of this Prospero of negations the dogmas, religious and scientific, that we have nuzzled to our bosoms turn to fantastic mockeries. If Shakespeare created a world, Pyrrho and Montaigne destroyed a sidereal system. “Only the absurd is true,” whispers Satan into the ear of St. Anthony in Flaubert’s great dream poem. The senses lie, the brain lies, the heart lies, consciousness lies. How do we know they lie? Because another lie proves it. Man, the eternal Sancho Panza on his ass of Certitude!

In the retorts of the brain of the Supreme Sceptic cosmologies and gods are melted. He puts his finger on Death and says: “Not proven.” He puts his ear to the heart of Life, thundering in its Gargantuan hulk of matter, and says: “Thou art only a seeming.” Crescent and Cross, Scarabee and Dragon are fused and evaporate in the mighty menstrum of this alchemic mind. One folly is pitted against another folly, one monstrous illusion rises to comfort another monstrous illusion. Mr. Gallatin’s reasoning solves the universe. The iron gates of God are papier mâché. Plato’s eternal Ideas are plaster paris. The celestial seraglios of Mohammedanism are sacrosanct pigsties, the “Mansion in the Skies” is in cinders. The First Cause of theology is a metaphysical spite wall. The Ego of the Romantics is a huge dummy swollen taut with flatulent German metaphysics. Anarchism, socialism, agnosticism, all isms, are merely mirage, the affabulations of temperaments. They are the passing incarnations of the Incomprehensible, the yawns of Maya, the god of illusions.

If, then, we are bankrupt in intellect, in faith, what attitude? While the battle rages the acataleptic polishes a spyglass. He belongs, then, to no army. He is not interested in victory or defeat. Only the spectacle enchants. His brain is ascetic; his eye alone is gluttonous. He is at Troy, at Waterloo, at Gettysburg. It is all the horseplay of ants on an unimportant star. And Aristotle, Plato, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Spinoza, Hobbes, Leibnitz, Pascal and Hegel? They are interesting but unimportant, like life itself.

According to Mr. Gallatin to know will be the cardinal heresy. Ah! This little man who comes all ahuff into the world and solves the riddle of Being! This self-constituted aide-de-camp to the Infinite! This sculpted piece of protoplasm who, with arms akimbo, budgets his prejudices into the ears of the Sphinx!

The smile on the face of this ironic nihilist—the Pyrrhonian sceptic—is a smile that is more terrible than the grief of a world. He is the grand dissociater of ideas, the surgeon of illusions, a snow that blankets all growing things. Anatole France, before his descent to socialism, and Rémy de Gourmont are the modern prophets of this creedless creed. With the bare bodkin of incredulity they have slain the eidolons of the ages.

“What do I know?” asks Montaigne. “Just that,” answers enigmatically Pyrrho from his tomb.

Benjamin De Casseres.
New York, January 1.