Quote of the Moment: Licking My Bear Cub

I’ve been reading a bit about Franciso Sanches, a Portuguese medical doctor and skeptic from the 16th century now mostly forgotten. He seems to have fallen into a crisis of doubt about fifty years before Descartes, and climbed out of it with a model of science some fifty years before Bacon.

In an opening letter to his most famous work, “Quod Nihil Sictur” (“That Nothing is Known”), he mentions to a friend (patron?) that he had written the work nine years before. He had put it aside on the advice of the poet Horace, who suggested that authors put their finished parchments away for nine years and then come back to them.

Horace would never make it as a blogger.

Now that he was coming back to his work, Sanches was struck by the urge to tweak the text. He decided that if he started that, he’d never stop. Then he rolls out the strangest metaphor I’ve seen in a while:

But if it were necessary to wait until nothing remained to correct or alter, I should be like Sisyphus rolling his stone; never should I make an end of licking my bear-cub into shape, and I should never publish anything.

Apparently, there was a myth that mother bears give birth to a shapeless lump. They then lick the ball of cub into the proper shape. This was apparently accepted knowledge that went all the way back to Pliny and Aristotle.

As bad natural philosophy goes, it’s not as silly as weasels conceiving in the mouth, but it’s still pretty odd. And it’s somewhat ironic to find in the work of one of the first great western skeptics, and the cousin of Michel de Montaigne no less.

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