“Faith” is a fine invention (185)
“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!
Gentlemen, secure with their wealth and virtue, know they have to take charge. They have to see, or more properly, have to proclaim they are seeing. Maybe that is why “faith” is in scare quotes and “see” is italicized. That they say they can see necessitates faith: it is both found and made. Whether or not anything is actually seen, well, that’s another question. As is the sort of faith, which pertains to society more than an individual.
On a first reading of this poem, one might be tempted to say “microscopes,” the active seeking of scientific, empirical knowledge, decisively counters the so-called seeing of faith and tradition. But that’s crazy. When are microscopes prudent in an emergency, excepting movies about contagion? The only thing prudent in an emergency is a clear head and clear vision, i.e. parts of prudence itself. Prudence comes from people like “Gentlemen,” who have an ability to keep steady because of “faith.” It isn’t enough to know; one must be able to act based on knowledge; an emergency calls for the best response possible, which does not necessarily stem from knowledge alone. Looking at the littlest details could cost one everything. Still, Dickinson moves us to the littlest details, the smallest part of the whole.
The tension between faith and knowledge with regard to one’s own affairs is sharp, to say the least. In a way, they can be reconciled. The Gentlemen who see, having faith, only need the microscopes in case of emergency. Their “faith” takes care of most issues, but it is precisely their faith that will not prove adaptive enough. Microscopes needed in case of emergency have less to do with the knowledge they actually yield, knowledge of an empirical character that might be said to be reality-based. They have more to do with the vision of the Gentleman, who in a certain sense takes the world for granted.
Actual knowledge of the world is necessary to act prudently, but not sufficient. But what is sufficient isn’t really seeing the world itself in order to act in it, but the addition of a “fine invention” that is as far away from knowledge as one can get. No wonder “faith” is in scare quotes. Belief has the character of infinite regress. The second you believe as zealots do, without doubting anything, you’re acting like you have knowledge. That’s not really belief. What belief is: you start with a “fine invention” that gives what looks like insight, at first. Then something happens that doesn’t test it directly – emergencies are not the character of everyday life – but still calls the whole character of it into question. An existence between faith and knowledge, where one can only hope for a greater knowledge, is the individual.