What and Whom to Believe (or How to Cope with Disillusionment)

What do we believe?  Whom can we believe and why? Is trust gratuitous or earned?  Experience and “common sense” (that ever-so-rare attribute) may help us address these questions.  But wait … how reliable are our evaluation tools?  Even our rules of logic and rationality will fail us when the information supplied is false, incomplete or skewed.

Over millennia philosophers have pursued their quest for meaning, truth and justice, aware of the limitations imposed by the availability of empirical data and the psychological and societal constraints of one’s culture, heritage and local environment. Whether we like it or not, we are children of our generation, and our language, social environment and education condition us to believe certain things and not others. It takes a certain temerity to jump over one’s shadow and to attempt thinking outside the box, test our own premises and consider extraneous perspectives. Are we sure that we ourselves are true and honest? Do we ever test our premises?  Do we practice what we preach? Do we have good reason to trust the morals and intellectual honesty of our leaders?

Admittedly, human existence does not depend on philosophical reflection – live first, then philosophize — primum vivere, deinde philosophari  (Cicero in a letter to his son Marcus).  Undoubtedly, however, our perception of the spirituality of the universe and our conscious participation in the emotional landscape of our civilization can be immensely enriched by developing an awareness of our own selves – nosce te ipsum (the Delphian γνῶθι σεαυτόν), of our instincts and inclinations, preferences, prejudices.  Such awareness puts the cosmos in context and facilitates our understanding of chronologies, relationships, cause and effect. Life is so much more exciting when we connect with our own consciences, when we are free to evaluate persons and events and make our own minds about things, rather than just joining bandwagons, echoing others, participating in “groupthink”.

Growing up means advancing from naïveté to critical judgment, keeping an open mind, questioning more, discarding old canards, acknowledging that we have been mistaken here and there, recognizing incongruities and rejecting cognitive dissonance.

Greek and Roman philosophers Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Cicero, Horace, Seneca, Juvenal — among others – endeavoured to fathom the human psyche, our fears and beliefs.  They also appreciated the wisdom of keeping a certain distance from people and events, recognizing the importance of cool judgment, remaining impervious to surprise or disappointment.  Indeed, a certain detachment and equanimity are sure values – they called it “nil admirari”.

Don’t get me wrong. None of these philosophers were nihilists – on the contrary, they recognized that it is crucial for the human being to have a set of beliefs and reference points. Especially young people need to believe – even temporarily – in fantasies.  Young people cannot and should not be “detached” but should instead go from surprise to surprise. Indeed, there is an added value to surprise — and young people should not be deprived of it.  After all, they do need role models and should not be prematurely sceptical, blasé or cynical. Youth should feel the rush of adrenalin that goes with enthusiasm, the excitement of discovery, the euphoria of falling in love, the infatuation with infatuation, the illusion of heroism that buoys the heart and enriches imagination. Youth has a right to be in awe of Olympic achievements and individual achievers, should endeavour to imitate them, not be afraid of asking questions, testing established customs, making personal experiences — both good and bad — and most importantly, they should believe in something!

While lessons learned confirm the Roman maxim nil admirari,  this kind of stoicism is really something for post-adolescents.  Only those who have experienced highs and lows can afford the temerity of questioning everything and believing only in what is properly substantiated.

As we grow older we gradually evolve from innocence and credulity to a measure of realism and resignation. When we are 20 we are full of optimism and purposefully look for heroes, halls of fame, iconographies of courage, virtuous causes … By the time we are 30, we begin to shed some illusions and honour fewer heroes. By the time we reach 40 we realize that most of our heroes were hardly knights in shining armour and that even they had their negative facets. By the time we are 50 we start asking ourselves why we ever thought that a given author or politician deserved our admiration, why were we so receptive to caricatures in the media and history books?  Why we trusted the Zeitgeist and embraced the commercial and geopolitical propaganda served to us every day by the corporate media.  By the time we make 60 we know that we have been programmed to believe in some politicians (and look down on others), manipulated to accept historical icons and certain convenient socio-economic myths (like the invisible hand of the market). By the time we are 70 we have come to terms with the fact that we have been lied to for most of our lives — resigned to the fact that previous generations have gone through a similar process of indoctrination and disenchantment — as probably will be the fate of succeeding generations.

And if we ever survive to 80 or 90 — we may look back at the world and smile at it all in taciturn equanimity, aware that each generation must make its own experiences and arrive at its own value judgments, conscious that there is good in the bad and bad in the good, that we all have the “right to be wrong”, that it is wise to forgive others – and ourselves – that vicarious living and “virtual reality” are only forms of escapism. Instead, for as long as we are alive, we owe it to ourselves, our families and friends to remain optimistic.

If we have no more heroes, if we no longer believe in Camelot, let us at least continue to admire the exuberant beauty of the universe, the splendour of our fauna and flora, the elegance of the Vanessa Atalanta butterfly, the ephemeral poetry of sunrise and sunset, the metaphysical truth of Bach and Beethoven! There is plenty to believe in!

Alfred de Zayas is a law professor at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and served as a UN Independent Expert on International Order 2012-18. He is the author of twelve books including “Building a Just World Order” (2021) “Countering Mainstream Narratives” 2022, and “The Human Rights Industry” (Clarity Press, 2021).