Sunday, October 13, 2013


Michelle Zerba, Doubt and Skepticism in Antiquity and the Renaissance. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. x, 260. ISBN 9781107024656. $99.00.

Reviewed by Geert Lernout, University of Antwerp (

Version at BMCR home site


The title of this book is a bit misleading. This the present reviewer found out after he requested a copy, as did the author herself when the Library of Congress gave this interdisciplinary book a rather surprising call number: it ended up under "Speculative Philosophy."1 My own mistake was that I saw the book in the context of the rediscovery of Greek pyrrhonism in the early modern period that has been studied by scholars like Richard H. Popkin. This confusion is not an uncommon experience for us comparatists, who cannot help straddling different fields and disciplines.

Yet the book does not lack a clear focus: as the title clearly indicates, Zerba studies the concept of doubt in antiquity and in the Renaissance. Maybe the problem was that as a literary scholar she does this on the basis of relevant passages in a limited number of literary works, ranging from Homer, Sophocles, Aristophanes and Shakespeare to the political prose writings by Cicero, Machiavelli and Montaigne.

In a general introduction the author places the theme of doubt in its philosophical and historical framework, starting from the importance of doubt in contemporary philosophy (Charles Taylor, Martha Nussbaum). Her book aims to argue that "doubt, and not just dissent, inhabits Western thought from very early on in the Iliad and the Odyssey and gives rise to ways of thinking that are both part of the Western canon and critical of canonicity" (5). These two sides of the coin play an essential role in doubt, which, as Zerba reminds us, starts with etymology: the root for "two" marks most of the words denoting doubt.

This is not a traditional study of influence or a history of ideas: this book offers a genealogy of the dialectics of doubt (or the deconstructive turn), not just in the Greek plays (where we might perhaps expect it) but earlier in Homer and later in Roman and Renaissance political theory. As Zerba clearly spells out, she works from the assumption that this all important doubt can be understood "most productively" by examining it in the context of its representation in literary works and in "philosophical vehicles such as the dialogue, the essay and the technique of argument on both sides of the question (disputatio in utramque partem)" (9).

The book then takes a good look at the downward spiral of what Zerba also speaks of as "corrosive uncertainty" in Part One which is not accidentally called Farewell the Tranquil Mind, a quote from Othello. In the first chapter in this part, we take a close look at the doubt of Achilles in terms of Christopher Gill's concept of second-order thinking, "the ability to see from a distance and critically what is unscrutinized or often misrecognized in a social group" (27), which Zerba links to Pierre Bourdieu's notion of habitus. In book 9 the Iliad describes the confrontation of Achilles with the limits of the aristocratic ethos and with the role of shame in the heroic code of honor. When Homer describes the embassy (consisting of Odysseus, Phoenix, Ajax) that attempts to convince the hero to return to the war, the speeches of Achilles can be read as "a display of self-determined moral action that counts as the first monument of parrhēsia, or frank speech, in the Western world" (43).

In a second chapter Zerba moves on to a similar scene in Philoctetes, where the same sort of second-order thinking now moves not towards the isolation of Achilles, but to "unsettling" forms of community by means of a play within the play. The epic world has become tragic, when doubt is set into motion "when the role-playing Neoptolemus as actor becomes an onstage theatēs, or spectator, of Philoctetes' suffering" (55) in a psychomachia.

Also in Othello, subject of the next chapter, there is a play within the play that leads inevitably to a similar strategy, where the Moor embraces the scripted role that will lead him straight to ruin. Although it is Othello who goes through the most intense instances of doubt, Iago is the most accomplished skeptic. Zerba zooms in on Desdemona's handkerchief which is placed in useful contrast to the other objects that play such a crucial role in these works: Philoctetes' bow and the shield of Achilles.

If Part One in this book was "Jean-qui-pleure," Part Two is "Jean-qui-rit". It deals with the comic forms of skepticism and the term "polytropic strategies" in the title indicates the importance not just Odysseus but also his wife and his son. Zerba's description of the hero reminds the reader of why James Joyce chose to write a modern epic about Odysseus: "His capacity for adapting to a mutable world in non-dogmatic ways makes him our first skeptic, provisional in his outlook and, unlike Achilles and his tragic avatars, invested in the probable rather than the necessary" (85).

First Zerba establishes the skeptic context, with a section on the "Pyrrhonist" terminology in the Odyssey, where skepticism "emerges as a psycho-ethical response to a highly mutable world inhabited by multiple communities with disparate values and different cultural narratives" (91). Both Penelope and Telemachus are shown to be just as duplicitous and even polytropic as Odysseus. Zerba closes the first chapter in this second part with the judgment that in the epic it is Penelope who emerges as "the most complex embodiment of skepticism" (110).

The rest of the second part is taken up by readings of two comic dramas, Women of the Thesmophoria by Aristophanes and Shakespeare's As You Like It, focusing on cross dressing on the one hand and parody on the other. The Greek play is read as a parody of a tragedy, played in the mode of the grotesque, while Shakespeare's is seen in the rather different context of the commercial theater, "whose audience was not constituted as the assembly of the dēmos" (115) and where the parody is directed at pastoral romance. More than in the first part, these two plays are read side by side.

In the third part we turn to political theory and to the prose of Cicero and his Renaissance counterparts Machiavelli and Montaigne. Whereas the discussion of doubt in a literary context demonstrated that "doubt does not need a fully developed language of subjectivity" but can be "played out on a field of physical action" (145), Zerba now discusses a number of texts that belong to a borderland that is neither fully literary nor completely philosophical. At the center of attention is still the second-order thinking that allows participation in the habitus but with critical reflection, but it is now joined by Hans Baron's "civic humanism."

After looking at the philosophy of these three authors, Zerba first discusses their political skepticism in terms of Cicero's hope of a political reintegration of the honestum and the utile. She goes on to discuss sublimity and primitivism and ends by discussing the rhetorical construction of character.

The second chapter of Part Three focuses on Cicero's republican politics, beginning with its roots in Greek philosophy and political theory of which Zerba sketches the contours. The relationship of Cicero and his near contemporaries to Greek culture in general is thematized in this chapter, just as in the next chapter Zerba writes about Machiavelli's relationship with republican Rome as a paradigm of the kind of political system that he wishes to recreate in Italy, based on notions of virtù that may be either a social construct or in other circumstances an epic model of heroism. In a close reading of key passages from the Discourses and The Prince she demonstrates the relevance of Cicero's work to the Florentine's thinking. She explores the ambiguities in Machiavelli's notion of sublimity and the fact that the ruler can only manage the military might by means of a sublime rhetoric.

In the final chapter Montaigne's pyrrhonist politics are addressed in terms of his reading of both Cicero and Machiavelli. The supremely skeptical Frenchman is a particularly good choice as the final figure of this study of what has now, at the end of the book, become "the dexterity of doubt" (238).

All through this book, the texts (epics, plays, prose) remain at the centre of attention. Zerba zooms in to the level of the individual word. She always places her interpretations in the biographical and local context of the work and she always also relates her own reading to previous interpretations, both historical and contemporary, and to neighboring fields of expertise. Some of the most interesting passages in this book can be found among the asides that address figures or issues that do not always belong to the core of the argument. The result of all this work is an extremely well written and jargon-free book that demonstrates the advantages of an interdisciplinary form of interpretation. Doubt and Skepticism should be of interest to scholars in very divergent fields of expertise, not just the speculative philosophers. If they still exist.


1.   In a blog Zerba describes the pitfalls of interdisciplinary publishing: fifteen eightyfour: Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press.

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