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I acquiesced in the proposal of my friend, and he read to me as follows:
SEEKING FOR TRUTH.
The desire of knowledge seems to be connate with man. However limited by capacity or circumstances, he wishes to know something of the world around him. The desire will be manifested in different ways-sometimes from curiosity, sometimes from pleasure—it may be from the consciousness of ignorance or from the impulse of duty—but, more or less, knowledge is sought by every one. The direction this desire takes is determined by the purpose or end of life. If the purpose be pleasure, variety will be sought; if power, practical knowledge; if usefulness and self-improvement, then truth.
Here we are met by an apparent difference between knowledge and truth. It is the difficulty of determining what the latter is that has been the vexed question of thinkers since the world began. Instead of the preliminary question being, What is truth? let us ask the more pertinent one, What is knowledge?
Some philosophers will tell us that at birth the mind is like a sheet of white paper, fitted to receive impressions, but at present without any. Hard as it may be to tell what the infant state of mind may be, these philosophers of sensation can scarcely fail to admit that, at its earliest moments, a babe will manifest by cries and gestures the presence, in its dawning life, of sensations which must be felt and therefore known. This first knowledge, which is instinctive, is the result of sensation; and this source of knowledge becoming developed, remains a powerful means of intellectual activity. But with the growth of sentient life there comes into operation the unfolding of the hereditary character which determines the direction of the faculty of sensation. The mind takes from this hereditary character a certain groove. What modifies this? The contact with others, by which other sensations are brought to view—other ideas are revealed; and the mind is called upon to discriminate. This discrimination is what we call judgment, and in proportion as our judgments are verified by the life around us our knowledge is apparent or actual.
Such is the general outline of the progress of knowledge, but we cannot omit to notice the originative power of the human mind. This power is not a common manifestation, and its advent can only be traced to reflex action, or to that intuition which is the reception of an influx from a higher source.
Knowledge, then, may be said to be arrived at from experience,
from others, or from intuition as a phase of life. In estimating their prevalence, we shall see that the bulk of the ideas we call knowledge is derived from others. Our own experience is but limited, yet in the sphere of that limitation we feel its certainty. The knowledge we receive from others we (at least at first) take on authority-and hence it is of the nature of belief. Intuitional knowledge comes to us with the force of sensation, yet, being an inward feeling, it retains somewhat of the nature of belief until tested by experience.
Zeuxis painted fruit so that the birds came to peck it-Parrhasius painted a curtain so that Zeuxis wished him to draw it aside; and so the ideas we receive, from whatever source, may be so vivid as to deceive us. If a child doubts the existence of anything, he tries to feel it; if a man cannot understand any idea, he thinks until he rejects or accepts it. The effort of each is to get at the reality, and reality is the test of knowledge.
How is this reality to be arrived at? There are two means given to man by which he may test his knowledge-reason and experience. Whatever has been experienced is accepted as an outward fact, but the idea we hold of it has to be stamped as genuine by reason. Every fresh experience is a link in the chain of experiences, and its relation to the whole determines its value. It may be the keynote that will rule the various modulations of thought. To identify and verify this is the prerogative of reason. And conversely the ideas of reason which are induced from observation, conceived by imagination, or deduced from other ideas, have to be subjected to the trial of experience to discover their value. The service which Bacon rendered to philosophy was in recalling to the votaries of knowledge the indispensable necessity of this test. The scholasticism of the middle ages was brilliant in intellectual power, yet its results were only theoretical from the want of that reality which experience confirms.
This leads to the solution of the question, What is truth? For if, in general terms, men signify by knowledge the ideas they hold, whether opinions or perceptions, the dignity of truth can only be claimed by those which have undergone the trial. Truth is knowledge verified; or as this may be regarded as begging the question, let us say more plainly, Truth is knowledge tested by reason and experience.
It will result from this definition that men have in general but little knowledge which can rightly be called truth. The rest of their knowledge is but apparent. If every idea we have were subjected to a rigid examination, life would be a round of ceaseless inquiry. It
is fortunate for us that habit has so much power that a large proportion of our thoughts, feelings, and activities are automatic. We are by this means able to enjoy and develop life on what must be called apparent truth. Yet this apparent truth, if in harmony with the ruling truths of our lives, may be the vehicle to other truths pertinent to our wellbeing, for it is often through apparent truths that we are led to the formation of belief.
If we consider the relative value of what knowledge we possess, we shall soon discover how largely belief enters into its quantity. The sources of our knowledge being from experience, from others, and from internal action, either reflection or intuition, it will be evident that the test of experience goes a very little way. Even the scientist, who is supposed to trust to experiment as his chief agent, will find that only in a narrow groove can he prove his data by this means. In other sciences, cognate or otherwise to that he pursues, he is compelled to rely on the results attained by others. History, which forms so large a part of human knowledge, and is one of the chief bases of opinion, affords another example of the necessity of accepting human authority. Research does much to verify, but there is left still more to be accepted on the affidavit of the narrator. In the realm of philosophy the principal test will always be reason, and that will have an individuality which will at least render its results difficult to be accepted by all.
If then we divide knowledge into two kinds, viz. of fact and of belief, we shall see that our knowledge of facts is conterminous with our experience, and our knowledge from belief conterminous with our reason. From this we are led to the conclusion that as our experience is limited the bulk of our knowledge consists of probabilities, which we are justified in accepting as truths if on inquiry they prove to be rational.
The chief source of our beliefs is extraneous to ourselves, and rests upon authority of two kinds-human and divine. We avail ourselves of the travels, experience, research, and opinions of others, and accept them in proportion to their credibility. That credibility is determined by the character of the communicator, or our estimate of the value of his past and present communications. But, however disposed we may be to the acceptance of his ideas, we cannot be said to believe them until we have assimilated them to our own minds by reflection, and gained a clear perception of their truth, or at least of their probability. The purest and profoundest thoughts of Plato, Bacon, and Shakespeare are valueless to us as truths unless they are confirmed by our own reason. They may be stored up in our minds
as ideas, but only so far as they are confirmed by our own reason and experience do they become dominant truths quickening and modifying our activities.
Similarly with our beliefs derived from a Divine source. The boldest of men must admit that the limitation of human power necessitates the revelation of truths of eternal moment. Infinite in its bearing as revealed spiritual truth essentially is, it is only so far as it becomes our own by reason and experience that we can perceive its verity. God Himself has said to us, "Come, let us reason together," and this appeal is of infinite wisdom, because only by this way can He lead us to the perception of heavenly truth.
What is the result? That the intellect is doomed to a round of
ceaseless inquiry without fruition? No! ceaseless our inquiries may be, but not fruitless, if we test the knowledges of fact and opinion we acquire by the criteria of reason and experience. There will always be a vast unknown, but what we have acquired will be of priceless value, for it will have been the means of development. Lessing said he would prefer the search for truth to having the knowledge of all truth bestowed on him; and he uttered a profound thought if we recognise the necessity of life to the reality of truth.
There are two ways of searching for truth-the one by negative criticism, the other by affirmative construction. Both are of value in the search. Their relative value may be best expressed by saying that negative criticism is like plucking weeds, and affirmative construction like planting seed. The result of the one will depend on the quality of the seed-the result of the other will depend on what is planted in place of the weeds, or on the possibility of wheat being plucked with the tares.
The best way of searching for truth is that which leads to the formation of great central truths. In physics we find it by the knowledge of force; in chemistry by the knowledge of definite proportions; in geometry by the axioms of Euclid; in physiology by the knowledge of respiration and the circulation of the blood; in sociology by the knowledge of sympathy and utility; in morals by the desire of improvement; in religion by the knowledge of God, and hence our duties to Him and to our fellow-men. And in every division or subdivision of inquiry we shall find that the central truth will illuminate the whole.
The necessity of each one seeking for truth will be evident if we wish to acquire wisdom, for wisdom is truth adapted to the welfare of life, and that is the true welfare of life which leads to the development of our highest capabilities. Whenever a new fact or opinion is pre
sented to us let us ask with Coleridge, "What is its meaning?" then let us ask with Stuart Mill, "Is it true?" and if so let us further ask, What good will it lead to? As the illimitable field of knowledge spreads before us, if we are earnest seekers after truth we shall cry with Goethe, "Light, more light."
When Amicus had finished reading this essay, we sat for a time thinking over it; and then followed a long and pleasant conversation which I cannot now narrate; suffice it to say that we both thought of the state we believed our friend had gone to, where God's Word is still a mine of the highest truth, where the Lamb is the light thereof, and where faith and love are known because they are felt. The beauty of holiness cannot fade-its joy will live for ever.
TO MY DAUGHTER ON PARTING.
JUNE 28TH, 1879.
WHEN at the heavenly throne I kneel,
That God may grant thee every good,
To strength, nor wealth, nor glory given;
When mortal visions take their flight;
If cloud or sorrow on thee press