Palinodes or the courage to say ‘I was wrong’

Intellectual honesty is a virtue universally accepted, and any perceived departures from it are usually condemned. The ability to act on the available evidence and to speak one’s mind – truth and freedom –, are features of a healthy intellectual environment and the characteristics of an honest thinker. But often the evidence changes, the views shift, and the statements no longer apply. What you once considered truthful, reasonable and appropriate may not be the case anymore, and you might want to change your mind about it. If it’s something you’ve written, you might want to un-write it. If you can’t or won’t un-write it, then you might consider writing a palinode.

A palinode was originally a song, poem or ‘ode’ in which the writer withdrew a view expressed in an earlier work. Like most ancient words, the palinode (meaning ‘back-song’ in Greek) became a general concept for any work in which the author retracted an earlier view.

There are ancient examples of palinodes, but the historical record suggests that the practice of retracting one’s views in writing was quite popular in the Middle Ages. In a sense, the Western medieval period is bookended by two of the most remarkable palinodic gestures ever made: St Augustine’s Retractationes and Dante’s Divine Comedy.

St Augustine’s ‘Revisions’ (Retractationes in Latin, which ended up giving us the verb to retract or withdraw) were an opportunity for the great Christian thinker to revisit his earlier works in chronological order and occasionally review his views and position on many issues. Augustine died before he could finish the project, but, just like his Confessions, it foregrounded the issues of the self, of intellectual honesty and self-growth for subsequent centuries.

Dante, on the other hand, went even further and in his characteristically radical manner, cast Beatrice, the embodied (not allegorical, as in previous writers such as Boethius) female teacher in Paradiso, as his palinodic voice. Beatrice more than once modifies Dante’s view on different topics (from optics to theology), rendering the palinode in astounding versified dialogue whereby Dante the pilgrim/student is proved wrong by Beatrice-the-teacher and compelled through rational demonstration to recant his earlier, erroneous views.

Augustine and Dante’s palinodic writings offer us a glimpse into how these pre-eminent writers understood the evolution of their own thought. They hold up the promise that to be wrong on an issue is not a flaw, as long as you acknowledge it with openness and the commitment to rise above it.


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