When the Plot Is Lost: How Shakespeare, Descartes, and the Author of Kings Navigated Cultural Crises

by Tim McIntosh


This summer Gutenberg hosted a conference entitled, “What the *Bleep* Can We Know?” The title was fitting for an uncertain era. Other conference speakers discussed how science, philosophy, and faith could lead to knowledge. I was charged to speak about literature and knowledge. Not an easy task.

Literature seems only distantly related to knowledge. Unlike science, math, and philosophy, literature seems not to furnish knowledge. Jane Austen’s Emma provides a vantage to experience but not knowledge per se.

But literature—specifically, story-telling—is arguably the discipline required to maneuver through our uncertain age. Without weaving experience into a meaningful story, we could neither navigate everyday life nor the great ruptures of human existence.

Let me put it another way: Our information-glutted age does not need more information. Our era needs meaningful information. Sifting the meaningful from the more is possible if we know the plot.

When Enron lost over $11 billion in shareholder revenue, outsiders presumed that Enron executives hid information. But almost every Enron business deal was public; most of the incriminating documents were accessible via Internet searches. To nab Enron, prosecutors had to separate the important from the irrelevant. Sifting the more from the meaningful is the business of narrative. Let me illustrate (how fitting) by telling story.

This summer I visited Kiva Grocery in downtown Eugene. I needed some cardboard boxes for a move. While gathering boxes at Kiva, a woman in a blue shirt stepped straight toward me and said, “Panjra said she’s going to call.”

Huh? I blinked.

“Panjra,” she repeated, “said she’s going to call.”

At this point, I had no plausible explanation about what was happening. Who was this blue-shirted woman? What was she talking about? Who was Panjra and why would she call me? What was going on?!

To solve my little crisis I imagined three possible stories that lead to this moment. (My mental responses are listed in italics.)

  1. The blue-shirted woman has mistaken me for someone she knows. She assumes, thus, that I know her friend Panjra.
    But this seems unlikely. If she knew me, surely I would know and recognize her.
  2. This woman does not know me, but she thinks I know this person, Panjra.
    This also seems unlikely. If she’s never seen me before, why would she assume I know this Panjra?
  3. This woman, seeing me lifting cardboard boxes, has mistaken me for a Kiva employee.
    Yes, this story fits! It accounts for why she 1) approached me, 2) did not introduce herself, and 3) assumes I know this Panjra.

I test this story by replying, “I do not work here.”

“Oh,” she replied, “I’m so sorry.” With that she spun around to find a real Kiva employee. My imagined story was confirmed. The confusion abated.

Imagining stories is such a deeply ingrained habit of humans that it often passes unnoticed. Even a crisis as small as misplaced keys requires us to imagine a sequence of events, motivations, and meanings. “Ordinarily I plunk my keys down here on the desk,” you think, “but I was anxious about Bobby’s grades. Perhaps I put them by the sink.”

The remainder of my essay compares two characters mired—not in small crises in a grocery story—but in titanic epistemic1 crises. These two characters illustrate how we might successfully navigate—or fail to navigate—our way from the epistemic crisis that now permeates our culture. One character successfully navigates the crisis by replacing a failed, false story with a true, intelligible story. The other fails, not because he poses a false story, but because he ignores the narrative nature of knowledge.2

The first character is Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in 1600, a year of chaos. A generation earlier, Europe’s story was Catholic, geocentric, and culminated with itself rising as the apex of human civilization. In Shakespeare’s day, that story was crumbling. Copernicus showed that the solar system was not geocentric; Protestants showed that the Catholic Church was not teaching Christ’s creed; and reports from the new world showed, not pagan savagery (as Europeans expected), but burgeoning civilizations.

Shakespeare’s Europe screamed in rivalry and change. Many scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet as a mirror of his age. With Hamlet, Londoners would have wondered, “Who am I?” “Who can I believe?” “What is the truth?”

Hamlet is not experiencing an epistemic crisis as the play opens. He is sad because his father, the king, suffered a premature death and his mother, Gertrude, married her deceased husband’s brother.3 Hamlet is sad, but he is not in crisis—until his father’s ghost appears.

Hamlet’s father (as a ghost) pronounces that almost everything Hamlet believes is false. Before the ghost arrives, Hamlet believes 1) his father died of natural causes, 2) his mother loved his father, 3) his mother loves him, 4) his mother is trustworthy, 5) his uncle is trustworthy, and 6) that he, Hamlet, stands next in line for the throne. But his father tells Hamlet that 1) he did not die of natural causes, 2) his wife did not love him, 3) Hamlet’s mother does not love Hamlet, 4) Hamlet’s mother is untrustworthy, 5) Hamlet’s uncle is untrustworthy, and 6) Hamlet is likely perceived as a threat to the throne.4

Hamlet is in a radical crisis.

Hamlet escapes his confusion in the same way I solved my Kiva crisis: by embracing another story. But Hamlet’s alternative story is not just any story. The story must be true. Hamlet’s life and kingdom are at risk. Thus, Hamlet will only believe the story if it meets these criteria:

  1. It provides a coherent, intelligible account of all the known facts: facts like his father’s death, his mother’s remarriage, the hastiness of her marriage, etc.
  2. It explains why Hamlet was fooled earlier. His father’s story certainly does this: Hamlet was fooled earlier because Hamlet’s uncle and mother want him to be fooled. If Hamlet knew his father was murdered, he would surely seek revenge.
  3. It allows for investigation. Hamlet is provided just such an opportunity when an acting troupe arrives at the castle. He commissions it to enact the murder of a king on stage in the same way Claudius supposedly murdered his father. As the play-within-the-play unfolds, Claudius and Gertrude react in terror, thus confirming the ghost’s story that they are guilty.

Shakespeare solves Hamlet’s disorientation in a way common to human understanding: by replacing a false story with a true story. If René Descartes had only followed his direction.

Where Hamlet succeeds, Descartes fails. I will explain by (again, how fitting) telling Descartes’ story.

Like Shakespeare, Descartes was a child of Europe’s epistemic crisis.5 He grew up in France and was probably six years old when Hamlet was first performed in London.

Doubts besieged Descartes even in his youth. Although he attended the best schools, he found their philosophy lacking certainty. “Despite being cultivated for centuries by the best minds,” he wrote, “[their philosophy] contained no point which was not disputed and thus doubtful.”

When he was thirty-two years old (November 1628), a debate took place in Paris. At this conference, another philosopher tried to show how skepticism could be overcome by recognizing the force of probability. Since we cannot achieve absolutely certain knowledge, the philosopher argued, strong probability should be considered knowledge.

The audience cheered. Descartes booed.

Descartes rejected the claim that philosophy could be content with probability. Philosophy, he thought, must achieve certainty. The way to achieve certainty was to dig down to the basement of knowing. Once the rock-bottom was found, he would build up his house of knowledge.

To get to the rock-bottom, Descartes relied upon one tool: doubt. He began by doubting sense perceptions.6 His doubts then grew more extreme. He imagined a demon “of the utmost power and cunning” systematically deceiving him. So severe grew Descartes doubts that, at one point, he wondered if he existed. Here Descartes stumbled upon his “solution,” a bedrock that could not be doubted: You can only think if you exist. Therefore, “I think therefore I am.”7 With that, Descartes dug out from his epistemological crisis. Or did he?

Descartes’ project fails for two reasons. First, he does not keep his own rules. He says he will radically doubt everything, but he does not doubt his ability to communicate with readers or his ability to express the same thought in two languages (he wrote in both French and Latin). Furthermore, many of his “spontaneous reflections” were later found verbatim in his Catholic textbooks.8 By not evenly applying his doubts, Descartes’ solution is considered a failure. His inconsistency dooms his project.

But another failure—one more difficult to detect—is, for our purposes, more telling. Descartes ignores that knowledge is story-shaped. Descartes came from a story—medieval Catholicism—that was failing. Instead of quitting that doomed story for a valid story, Descartes forsakes story altogether.

We, unfortunately, are heirs of Descartes. We stubbornly tend to accumulate more data to solve big problems. To be sure, accumulating data helps solve complicated puzzles like putting a man on the moon, creating the polio vaccine, and harnessing electricity. But the uncertainty that troubles us today seems resistant to data-based solutions because the kernel of our problem is existential. Like Hamlet, we wonder today,

What is a man,
if his chief good and market of his time
be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.

This uncertainty developed, not because we forgot how to multiply or divide, but because we lost the plot.

In 600 b.c., the Jewish people were enduring an epistemic crisis. Three hundred years earlier, they basked in the sunlight of God’s promised blessings. David and Solomon had secured Israel’s borders, built a great temple, and prospered the country. What’s more, Israel’s reputation had spread across the ancient world. After the Queen of Sheba visited, she told Solomon, “It was a true report which I heard in my own land. However, half was not told me” (I Kings 10:6-7). The “great nation” promised to Abraham a thousand years earlier seemed fulfilled.

But now Israel was captive to pagan nations and smack in the middle of an epistemic crisis. All Israel surely wondered: How did we become exiles in Babylon? Were Israel’s kings guilty of financial mismanagement? Poor international relations? Skimpy defense spending? What of God’s promises to make us a great nation? What of His promise that David’s kingship would endure forever?

To make sense of the people’s crisis, the author of Kings9 did not write philosophy, a textbook, or a political pamphlet. He wrote a story. The story begins at Israel’s zenith–Solomon’s wise and wealthy rule—and turns on a devastating indictment: “But King Solomon loved many foreign women … and his heart was not loyal to the Lord his God” (I Kings 11:1, 4). The story does not dwell on defense spending statistics, the names of diplomats, or lengths of kings’ reigns. Yes, facts are mentioned. But the Israelites’ crisis went deeper. They needed to remember who they were, what led to their demise, and what would lead them out.

Our age is awash and lost in data. Another piece of data will not solve our crisis because of the nature of our crisis. Other places in the world are struggling to find food, shelter, and clean water. But we are struggling to know if life means anything. Annie Dillard wrote that Western society, after World War I, lost its shared sense of meaning:

We became, all of us in the West, more impoverished and in one sense more ignorant than pygmies, who, like the hedgehog, know one great thing: in this case, why they are here… [from Living by Fiction]

Our crisis does not yield to more information. We need meaningful information. Sifting the meaningful from the more is only possible when we sift within the context of a true story.

Public dispute today tends to be—like Descartes’ thinking—stripped of a broader narrative. Sure, preachers, presidential candidates, and other public persona might toss in personal anecdotes amid haggling over doctrines, numbers, and issues. But, absent a broader narrative vision, listeners struggle to separate the meaningful from the meaningless.

Imagine instead discourse changing focus from databits to narratives. Imagine wrangling with contrasting narratives of who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.

Stories are not somehow more true than statistics, facts, or databits. They are not, because of their narrative nature, worthy of special status. Stories can, of course, be false. Communist leaders in Russia (as an example) offered a bold story of where Russia came from, who she was, and where she was going. Today, their vision of a selfless brotherhood serving the state sounds like a fairy-tale unworthy of a precocious toddler. The Communist story is false.

Like statistics, facts, and databits, stories must be evaluated, scrutinized, judged. I do not believe stories should receive special epistemological status. But I do believe that we must relocate this grand dispute from spreadsheet to story. Without a relocation, we cannot bridge our present rupture.

_________

Endnotes:

1 Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know.

2 This portion of essay was inspired by, and relies upon, an essay by Alasdair MacIntyre called “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science” (1974). Thanks to Joe Gunby for reminding of this essay.

3 Hamlet has a hunch that something is not quite right, saying, “That it should come to this // but two months dead, nay, not so much, not two!” Things do not quite feel right, but he is not yet in crisis.

4 King Claudius creates another severe problem of knowing for Hamlet: Everyone is potentially a double-agent working for his uncle—including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (his friends), Polonius (advisor to the king), and even Polonius’ daughter, Ophelia (Hamlet’s girlfriend).

5 His influence on Western philosophy is hard to overestimate. He is considered the father of modern philosophy, and much of later Western philosophy is written in response to him.

6 “I have found by experience,” he writes, “that the senses sometimes deceive, and it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us even once.”

7 Discourse on Method, 1637.

8 Even his famous phrase “I think therefore I am” can be found in his Saint Augustine textbook.

9 The identity of the author of Kings is lost to history. Whoever he was, he seems to have composed Kings as one long story. Later it was split into the two parts we find in contemporary Bibles.

 

Copyright November 2012 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Tim McIntosh