Thursday, January 5, 2017

The virtue of truth

Two or three discussions, the details of which lie out of our track, or have been noticed in other parts of our paper, have lately raised in different forms the question how far, and in what sense, truth is a virtue. Of Cardinal Wiseman and his Pastoral we have said enough elsewhere. Dr. Newman's singular duel with Mr. Kingsley is still dragging itself along, to the amusement and occasional instruction of all beholders. It is no business of ours to search into the consciences of the eleven thousand clergymen who informed the Archbishop of Canterbury the other day that, in their opinion, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council had made a mistake; but all these, and some other recent occurrences which might be mentioned, lead one to ask what the parties concerned think of truth. Every one resists the imputation of throwing the least doubt upon the proposition that truth is a virtue. Dr. Newman is stung to the quick by the suggestion that he is not an honest man. He feels that it would destroy his influence if it were proved, and that it would be the one stain on his honour which nothing could wash out. It is the same with every one else. The Archbishop's eleven thousand visitors all suppose that they would rather be exposed to any suffering than save themselves by a deliberate lie, and many are perfectly correct in the supposition; and Cardinal Wiseman and his followers are sure to repudiate with intense indignation the charge of having garbled Garibaldi's address. And yet Dr. Newman does believe in the most wonderful miracles. The eleven thousand clergy unite in an assertion which is either an equivocation of the most misleading kind, or else an assertion which many of them cannot seriously intend to make. Cardinal Wiseman does take a line about science which differs only in phrase and style (and the difference is not in favour of the Cardinal) from the passionate appeals of an Old Bailey or Middlesex Sessions orator to a British jury not to convict a man who calls a dozen respectable witnesses to his character, merely because a few scientific detectives have found somebody else's plate buried in odd corners of his cellar, and have traced his footmarks to the place where it was stolen. Why is this? How is it that so many and such respectable and virtuous people consider lying so wicked, and yet care so little for truth on a large scale? The reason may perhaps be thrown into the shape of a sermon which we will suppose to be delivered by some preacher, no matter of what denomination, who finds a difficulty in adjusting the claims of faith and reason. The preacher would probably express himself somewhat as follows:—“In addressing you on the subject of truth, I feel that I am treading on delicate ground. There are difficulties, on all hands, which for centuries have perplexed the wisest. That it is a sin to lie, no one doubts. That in some particular points it is a sin to doubt, is equally or even more certain. That facts are sometimes plausibly alleged to be true which tend to cast a doubt on these points, or at least appear to do so, is equally well established; and the question is, how are the general public to act when such a state of things is shown to exist? You will be saved from much embarrassment upon the subject if you succeed in getting one leading distinction firmly established in your minds. It may not be easy to carry it out in all its details, or to state with perfectly satisfactory completeness the theory of which it forms a part, but some of its leading features are sufficiently plain, and may be easily explained. The theory in question is founded upon the vast difference which exists between telling the truth in the common intercourse of life, and knowing what happens, in point of fact, to be true. The one is unquestionably a duty, the other is a mere accident. No doubt you are bound in the strongest way not to deceive your neighbour. Honesty, for obvious reasons, forbids you to do so; but it is one thing to do this, and quite another to be limited, superficial, or inaccurate in your own knowledge. Every one is so, and indeed must be so, more or less. Omniscience is not possible to human creatures, and so long as we fall short of omniscience we must, upon some points more or less numerous and important, be subject to ignorance. There is nothing morally wrong in being mistaken. Error is one thing, and deceit another, and perfect truth and honesty is compatible with a degree of simplicity which may perhaps be stigmatized as infantile. A child of seven years old may be as honest as a grown-up man or woman, though it is ready to believe whatever you please to tell it, and though its imagination is so much more active than its reason that it sees no particular ground for doubting the truth of fairy tales and ghost stories. Not only is such a disposition not vicious, but in many respects it is highly favourable to the highest form of virtue. The childlike, teachable disposition is far more open to good impressions than the hard-headed and sceptical turn of mind which is acquired by long experience of life, and which appears to be necessary for success in its rough pursuits. Yet if by truth you understand, not the opposite of deceit, but correctness of thought upon a variety of subjects, there can be no doubt that the temper of mind in question has less to do with it than the stirring self-sufficiency which makes all the disturbances and leads to all the troublesome controversies with which the world is so much distracted. Truthfulness is a moral virtue. The obligation to tell the truth arises from the fact that it is one branch of the general command not to injure your neighbour, and to lead him astray is one way of doing so; but we are under no definite obligation to acquire knowledge. The passion for doing so is essentially self-regarding, and may, like any other passion, be immoderately indulged. You are all acquainted with the evils which are the natural result of an immoderate indulgence in it, and I need not insist upon them.'

Such is the view, more, or less distinctly held, which a large proportion of the clergy of all denominations are apt to take on the subject of telling the truth. They are apt to regard it as something essentially distinct from the habit of investigating into facts—as one amongst many duties which people owe to each other in ordinary life, and which must be considered to be important in proportion to the gravity of the consequences which may accrue from a violation of it, or the circumstances with which it is connected. The extreme form of this view of the subject is to be found in those theories upon the duty of truthfulness which are maintained in casuistical writings, and which accurately distinguish between the cases in which a lie is a venial and those in which it is a mortal sin—between the guilt of a lie pure and simple and a lie under the sanction of an oath. It is not confined to any one form of religious belief, but it has a far greater affinity to Popery than to Protestantism, and might probably without much injustice be described as the clerical, or emphatically as the Roman Catholic, view of lying.

The Protestant or scientific view of the nature of truth is broadly distinguished from this, and appears to be connected with a far sounder and more philosophical estimate of morality than that which regards it as a mere collection of rules enforced by penalties. If men are viewed not merely as beings who are capable of being punished for breaking through a particular set of prohibitions, but as beings who have it in their power to improve the condition in which they live, to strengthen their faculties, to enlarge their whole sphere of action, and, in a word, to put out to interest a vast variety of talents of different kinds and degrees, truth will be something very much wider and deeper than a mere absence of the injury inflicted by deceit, just as goodness will be something altogether different from mere innocence. The importance of truthfulness, and the breadth of the way in which it is conceived, depend to a great extent upon the degree in which activity is included in our conception of morality. If people are to act at all, they must act upon things as they are, not upon things as they are not. But all action is guided by thought, and all successful action is guided by true thought – by thought which corresponds with facts, instead of diverging from them. Hence, in proportion to the degree in which our ideal of goodness is active, truth will come to be not a virtue, but the virtue— a thing needful, not on particular occasions in order to avoid particular frauds or injuries, but always and in all pursuits as an indispensable element of that success which it is the great object of life to achieve. Let people once get their minds saturated with the leading belief that they are put into the world to make the best of themselves in various directions, that every honest calling is a sacred thing to be honoured and respected as part of a vast general dispensation of which all men ought to promote the objects each in his own sphere, and truth will be viewed as the highest, the most universal, and the most entire of all obligations. Every deviation from it once admitted into the general scheme of things becomes a constant source of failure and confusion, like a mistake in a sum till it is set to rights. For instance, a legislator deviates from truth by misconceiving the object for which a law ought to be made, and he makes his law wrong. His mistake will repeat itself in a thousand ways, and will vex that part of mankind who are affected by it for centuries, it may be, but certainly as often as the law is put in force and until it is corrected. According to this view, there is the closest possible relation between error and falsehood. In fact, there is no difference between them, except that the one is wilful and malicious, and not the other; and the guilt of lying consists mainly in the fact that the liar is consciously and expressly faithless to the great object of life—namely, the general improvement of the human race, to which truth is as necessary as oxygen to the circulation of the blood. Dr. Newman tells us that, according to the morality of his present creed, an inpure wish is a much worse thing than a lie. This a natural consequence from his general view of morality. For well-known reasons, his teachers view with a semi-Manichaean horror every concession to the animal nature even if it begins and ends in the mind of the individual who makes it. A Protestant would say that the one offence differs from the other as wasting a sovereign differs from putting a bad sovereign in circulation. In the first case, the owner suffers for his weakness. In the second, he is accessary to the robbery of as many people as pass the coin to each other before it is finally nailed to the counter.

Perhaps no one has seized to fully this broad view of truth as Mr. Carlyle. The conception of it which we have been trying to describe is that which is to be found in nearly every one of his writings. Every part of his Life of Frederick the Great, even those chapters which record his occasional falsehoods, are full of praise of his hero's “veracity”—that is, of his power of seeing things as they really were, and of his consciousness that error and delusion, however seductive, never come to good. This may appear to superficial observation a small and obvious thing, but in reality Mr. Carlyle, is perfectly right in viewing it as one of the rarest and highest of all intellectual gifts, and as intimately connected with all personal virtues. The duties of the intellect are as severe and fully as important as the duties which more immediately relate to the passions, and they are active as well as passive, and indissolubly connected together. No one will long continue to speak the truth unless he habitually thinks the truth, nor will he be able to do this unless he keeps his mind in vigorous and healthy exercise.

Saturday Review, May 28, 1864.

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