« IndietroContinua »
LOVE OF TRUTH, AND USE OF REASON IN THE SEARCH AFTER TRUTH.
SECT. I.-VALUE OF TRUTH.
"TRUTH," says Lord Bacon, "which only doth judge itself, teacheth, that the inquiry of truth which is the love-making or wooing of it, the knowledge of truth which is the presence of it, and the belief of truth which is the enjoyment of it, is the sovereign good of human nature." This, then, is the end which the mind should propose to itself in every attempt to attain knowledge, or form opinion; and the constant regard to this end will alone keep reason steady in its search, and preserve judgment from the false bias of prejudice or passion. By the love of truth, we mean far more than mere veracity or integrity, although it necessarily includes both. These are modes of action which may proceed from various motives, such as the fear of punishment, the force of early associations, or the desire of a good name; but the love of truth is a principle of action, leading not only to those moral habits of veracity and integrity already mentioned, but to mental habits no less important. Nor is it to be confounded with the desire to reach the truth in any one branch of knowledge. The naturalist, for instance, is undoubtedly animated by this desire in his own field of inquiry, yet he is not, for that reason, more impartial in his judgments, or more strictly honest in his dealings, than other men. But the love of truth embraces the whole circle of action, mental and moral. When acting on the intellect, it produces the love of knowledge; when acting on the conscience, it instils the love of moral beauty and purity; annihilates prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and by in
COMMON VALUE FOR TRUTH.
spiring hatred of falsehood and artifice, leads to the opposite virtues of sincerity, candour, and singleness of mind. Justice may be considered as the result of its united action on the intellect and the conscience, for we cannot be just without the impartial exercise of reason to ascertain facts, and the moral integrity to decide unbiassed by any interests but those of truth.
In this comprehensive form, love of truth is the rarest, as it is the noblest, of human qualities. But it is not uncommon to find it partially developed either in its moral or mental influence. Truth, as a subject of knowledge, is often loved and sought, where its moral effects are unfelt or disregarded; and, again, honesty and sincerity may be found united with utter indifference to intellectual truth, and with consequent bigotry, prejudice, and narrowness of mind. In the first case, the love of truth acts only on the reason; in the second, only on the conscience; but it must act equally on both, to produce its full results on the moral and intellectual character.
The necessity of truth in the ordinary intercourse between man and man is too obvious to be insisted on. The high esteem shown to veracity and honesty sufficiently proves it, and a little reflection on the innumerable cases in every day life, in which we are obliged to act upon the statements of others, and to rely upon their fidelity, will convince us that without those qualities society could not go on. They have, accordingly, drawn to themselves the greatest share of esteem, more especially in commercial countries. Where the most opprobrious terms which can be addressed to a man are those of thief and liar, we may feel sure that veracity and honesty will generally prevail in the community, and if not always practised, their appearance, at least, will be assumed as indispensable by every person pretending to respectability. They are the first duties impressed upon children, and are diligently inculcated wherever any principles are inculcated at all. Nor is the voice within wanting to give its sanction to the judgment of society, and the conscious blush of the child, who can scarcely lisp the falsehood prompted by fear, proclaims more eloquently than any argument that regard for truth is part of the moral law written on our hearts.
The value of truth, as the ground of knowledge and opinion, is neither so obvious nor so well acknowledged. Few, indeed, are bold enough to assert, in express terms, that truth and error are indifferent, or that truth is not infinitely preferable to error; but if we look to practice, we find a real indifference to truth as an object in itself, which proves that belief in its advantages is less universally felt than professed. Amongst the multitudes who read books, maintain opinions, and profess a creed, how
LOVE OF TRUTH IS NOT POPULAR.
many are there who, convinced of the supreme value of truth, have made it the first object in every inquiry, have sought for it earnestly and dispassionately, and have grounded their opinions and principles on the conclusions they have arrived at, maintaining them no further than those conclusions fairly warrant? Can it be doubted, on the contrary, that, as Lord Bacon says, "If there were taken out of men's minds vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, and the like, it would leave the minds of most men, poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?"
The love of truth, which places its possessor in unavoidable opposition to the prejudice, party-spirit, and unreasoning passions of other men, must, of course, be less popular than the simple veracity and fair dealing, of which the necessity is felt by all. The man who prefers truth to party, will generally be set down as a mere theorist (a grave accusation in this practical country), and incur the suspicion and dislike of all who differ from him. The woman who ventures to protest, by word or deed, against any of the conventional falsehoods which society has sanctioned, becomes at once the object of ridicule and malice, and finds that love of truth is the most dangerous of virtues in a world which only punishes lies as Sparta punished thefts, for the clumsiness which allowed their detection.
Again: free inquiry into the truth of received opinions, and the determination to test and judge them solely on the evidence adduced for them, will always be an offence in the eyes of the large majority, who take their opinions and their creed on trust, and both dread and resent any doubt cast on the infallibility of either, as an attack on the authority on which rests their whole system of belief and action. Hence, whilst in every charityschool, veracity and honesty are taught as the groundwork of morals, there is seldom any attempt made, even in the most careful education, to inspire the love of truth, whence both would naturally proceed as effects from their cause.
Whilst this is the general state of things, we can scarcely press too earnestly on those who are beginning the task of supplying the deficiencies of their early education, the motives which should urge us to seek truth, and the reasons for regarding it as the only safe foundation of opinion, judgment, and, consequently, of practice
In the first place, truth alone is real, and therefore to know the truth, is alone real knowledge.* It is, indeed, an error in
*It may be useful to point out here, the difference between knowledge and learning. The latter means acquaintance with books, with what has been
language to give the name of knowledge to that which is not true. We may suppose, imagine, or believe what is false; but we cannot know it, for it has no existence. As Lord Bacon expresses it—" The truth of being and the truth of knowing are one, differing no more than the direct beam and the beam reflected." Error is, therefore, but another name for ignorance; and to say that knowledge is not better than ignorance, on any subject connected with human happiness and improvement (and what subject worthy the interest of a rational being is not so connected?) is to maintain an absurdity. The absurdity, indeed, is so gross, that few, as we have said before, will assert it in express terms; but we act quite as absurdly when, in a serious pursuit, we allow any consideration to weigh with us more than the simple questionWhat is true?
In our present state of being, we can, indeed, know truth only in part. We are surrounded with mysteries, which our faculties are unable to solve, and the real essence of being, whether material or spiritual, human or divine, seems impenetrably veiled from our eyes. Much of our knowledge, therefore, can be only relative, but it is real as far as it is grounded upon the true relations of things. Thus, religious truth is the knowledge of the relations existing between man and his Creator, and the duties arising from them. Scientific truth is the knowledge of the relations between the different parts of the material world, as the causes of natural phenomena. Metaphysical truth is the knowledge of the essential principles of our nature, and their relations to each other and to the external world. The whole or absolute truth, on any of these subjects, we shall probably never attain; but our knowledge, if accurate, is truth relatively to us, to our present position, and so long as we remain in this position, we may act upon it with perfect security. A different position will not make that false which is now true; it will only show us that partial and relative truth, are steps to one greater and more comprehensive, in which they are included. This is best illustrated by the progress of discovery in physical science. Isolated facts are first
written or said upon one or more subjects. The former is acquaintance with facts, principles, or general laws. It is acquaintance with what is, not only with what has been said to be. Learning can only be acquired from books or conversation. Knowledge is attainable according to its degree, by the exercise of our own observation, reasoning, and judgment on the facts (of whatever kind) which present themselves to us. We may, for instance, be very learned concerning the mythologies of various nations, but we can be said to have no knowledge relating to Jupiter, Osiris, or Odin, except that such and such nations held certain opinions concerning them. This is a true fact, and as such we know it. From this definition, the proposition in the text follows as a necessary consequence.
observed; then their relations to each other, as cause and effect are traced out, and classed under a particular law. Gradually, new relations are discovered, between these and other classes of phenomena; and finally, as the methods of scientific investigation become more perfect, and the sphere of observation is widened, these numerous subordinate laws are found to resolve themselves into a few general ones, which are themselves, probably, portions of one still more general which yet remains to be discovered. How many partial and apparently isolated facts have thus been reduced under the law of gravitation? And this magnificent law, of which the influence extends to the furthest visible realms of space, seems itself on the eve of being resolved into one yet more comprehensive, which shall include all the infinite and wonderful phenomena of heat, light, and electricity. None of the previous discoveries are falsified by this progressive advance, though the theories founded on them may be proved to be more or less erroneous. It is only the relation they bear to each other and to us which is seen to be different.
In proportion as we become more accurately acquainted with such relations, our knowledge becomes power,-power by the use of certain means to produce certain results. Knowledge of the effect of different substances on the human frame gives us the power to heal or mitigate disease; but it is evident that this power depends on our knowing the true relations of things, or we may fall into errors as ludicrous as the learned physicians of the last century, who believed the sight of scarlet to be a cure for the small-pox. The vain labours and wasted treasure of the alchemist teach us the same lesson. The true alchemy was found when by patient investigation and repeated experiment the real laws of chemical action were discovered and applied to the arts which have created the wealth of nations.
Such irresistible proofs of the value of truth as the foundation of man's power over nature, have long since triumphed over the absurd prejudices which caused the persecution of Galileo, and which, by a singular union, made the Bible and Aristotle the sole sources and the final limits of human knowledge. With the exception of a small minority, too hopelessly prejudiced to be accessible to reason, every intelligent mind is now convinced that in physical science, at least, truth must be our sole object, and our search for it bounded only by the limits of our capacity.
But the same argument applies with equal if not greater force to religion, morals, and politics. Physical science, however necessary to the material civilization of man, however powerful its indirect influence in raising and refining the mind, must still yield in importance to those studies which directly bear upon