Silvanus Phillips Thompson.

The quest for truth online

. (page 1 of 7)
Online LibrarySilvanus Phillips ThompsonThe quest for truth → online text (page 1 of 7)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Mrs. F. L. Paxson

Swartbmore lecture



Cloth boards^ is, net each.

1908. — Quakerism : A Religion of Life.
By R. M. Jones, M.A., D.Litt. (Also in
paper covers, 6d. net.)

1909. — Spiritual Guidance in the Ex-
perience of the Society of Friends •
By William C. Braithwaite, LL.B.

1910.— The Communion of Life.
By Joan M. Fry.

1911. — Human Progress and the
Inward Light.
By Thomas Hodgkin, D.C.L.

1912. — The Nature and Purpose of a
Christian Society.
By T. R. Glover, M .A.

1913. — Social Service : Its Place in
the Society of Friends.
By Joshua Rowntrec.

1914. — The Historic and the Inward
By Edward Grubb, M.A.

1915.— The Quest for Truth.
By Silvanus P. Thompson, F.R.S.

Swartbmore %cctmc

The Quest for Truth



Published for the Woodbrooke Extension Committee










The Swarthmore Lectureship was established
by the Woodbrooke Extension Committee, at a
meeting held December 9th, 1907 : the minute
of the Committee providing for " an annual
lecture on some subject relating to the Message
and Work of the Society of Friends." The name
" Swarthmore " was chosen in memory of the
home of Margaret Fox, which was always open
to the earnest seeker after Truth, and from
which loving words of sympathy and substantial
material help were sent to fellow-workers.

The Lectureship has a two-fold purpose :
first, to interpret further to the members of the
Society of Friends their Message and Mission ;
and secondly, to bring before the public the
spirit, the aims and the fundamental principles
of the Friends.

The previous lectures of the series have been
as follows : —

1908: "Quakerism a Religion of Life," by
Rufus M. Jones, M.A., D.Litt., of
Haverford College, Pa.


6 preface

1909 : " Spiritual Guidance in the Experience

of the Society of Friends," by
William Charles Braithwaite, B.A.,

1910 : *' The Communion of Life," by Joan

Mary Fry.

1911 : ** Human Progress and the Inward

Light," by Thomas Hodgkin, D.C.L.
1912 : " The Nature and Purpose of a

Christian Society," by T. R. Glover,

1913 : " Social Service : its Place in the

Society of Friends," by Joshua

1914 : " The Historic and the Inward Christ,"

by Edward Grubb, M.A.
The above lectures have been delivered on
the evening preceding the assembly of the
Friends' Yearly Meeting in each year.



Introduction. What is Truth ? — Corres-
pondence between fact and word — Violation
of that correspondence is untruth, and is
condemned in the court of conscience ii

Veracity. The moral obligation of truth-
speaking 12

Equivocation and Casuistry, Opinions of

Lecky, Ruskin and George Tyrrell - - 17

Intellectual Integrity. Conventional lies —
Truth for its own sake — The habit of truth-
fulness -19

The Use of Words. How words change ^heir
meanings — Disputations over words — The
misuse of words 24

Confusions in the Use of Phrases. The
difference between categorical and ana-
logical statements — Error arising from
confusion as to the nature of a statement - 31

Hindrances to the Quest for Truth. Over-
respect for authority — Dislike of suspense —
Neglect to use discrimination — Inexactitude
of language 34

The Quest for Truth in History. The beset-
ments of Historians — Carelessness in
selection — Unwarranted guesses — Modern
methods of testing history - - - 36

8 Contents


The Quest for Truth in Science. Verification
by experiment — Numerical precision —
Meaning of a proof — Inviolable correspon-
dences called natural laws — Danger of
determinism — Hypotheses and their
verification — Independence of authority - 41

The Quest for Truth in Religion and
Morals. Danger of casuistry — Influence
of education and environment — Avoidance
of superstition 54

Pious Frauds. The lapse from truthfulness
allowed by some Early Fathers — Pious
frauds approved in ecclesiastical literature
— Lecky's stern reproof - - - - 57

Parables. Their use and abuse - - - 65

Legends of the Saints. Pious legends are folk-
lore and not history — Not to be condemned
as lying — Froude on their origin - - 67

History and Folklore. The natural growth
of adoring legends — The doctrine of the Fall
— Accretions gathered round Truth - - 71

Adventitious Aids to Truth. Miracle-working
supposed to demonstrate truth of proposi-
tions. — The Oriental state of mind —
Veneration of relics - - - - ^6

The Gospel Narratives. Degree of historicity

— The conclusions of competent scholarship 82

The Fulfilment of Prophecy. Meaning of
" prophecy " and " fulfilment " — Rabbinic
mode of thought — Detection of anachro-
misms 84

Certitude and Truth. Mental states that
lead to certitude — Discrimination must be

Contents 9


used — Tests of what is true — The appeal to
persistence — The test of pragmatism —
Postulates of science ; principles that
cannot be denied without intellectual
confusion — Postulates of ethics and religion
— Authority and the imposition of dogma —
True authority and the method of intuition 92

Intuition and Truth. Intuition in scientific
discovery — A supra-rational faculty —
Bergson's philosophy - - - - 106

The Inner Light. Immediate spiritual
experience, " That of God in you " —
Experiences of Fox, Penn and Penington
— Fox's assumption — The synthesis of
internal and external witness — The test
of spiritual experience - - - - 108

Individual Experience and Corporate
Control. The unorganized but real
control of environment and of spiritual
influences of the past and the present - 115

Experience and Conviction. The sharing
of convictions and confirmation of experi-
ence by experience — The Resurrection of
Jesus Christ from the dead - - - 118

Reconstruction. Changes of belief —

Growth in enlightenment - - - - 120

Courage and Truth. Many views of truth —
Difficulty of reconciling and correlating
isolated convictions — System-mongering
the besetment of theologians — Jesus
Christ revealed no comprehensive scheme
of theology ; He bestowed words of Eternal
Life — He propounded no theories — His
methods were spiritual and interior — His
witness for the Truth - - - - 123

" For this cause came I into the world, that I should
bear witness unto the truth." — John xviii. 37.

" Strive for the truth unto death, and the Lord shall
fight for thde." — Ecclesiasticus iv. 28.

" Happy is he whom truth teacheth by itself, not by
figures and words that pass, but as it is in itself."

" De Imitatione Christi," I., iii.

" Trt4th emerges more quickly from error than from
confusion." — Francis Bacon.

" It makes all the difference in the world whether we put
truth in the first place, or in the second."

Archbishop Whately.

" It is only by virtue of the opposition which it has
surmounted that any truth can stand in the human mind."

Archbishop Trench.

" The longest Sword, the strongest Lungs, the most
Voices, are false measures of Truth."

Benjamin Whichcote.

" Truth is like a torch : the more 'tis shook, the more
it shines."— Sir William Hamilton.

" The more readily we admit the possibility of our own
cherished convictions being mixed with error, the more
vital and helpful whatever is right in them will become."

John Ruskin,

*^ Am I therefore become your enemy because I tell you
the truth. ^" — Paul (Galatians iv. 16),

" Blame not before thou hast examined the truth ; under-
stand first, and then rebuke." — Ecclesiasticus xi. 7.

^be (Slueat for ^rutb


In the age-long quest after Truth, men have
sought far and wide. They have questioned
the starry heavens ; they have dug into the
bowels of the earth ; they have rifled the treasures
of the antique world ; they have consulted the
reputed oracles of human wisdom ; they have
sought for truth in the depths of their own
consciousness ; they have looked for some divine
Revelation. Has any one — the wisest,the purest,
the most enlightened of them — found the answer
to the age-long enigma : What is Truth ?

Yet from the dawn of human history men
have known as by some divine instinct the vital
difference there is between fact and not-fact, and
have despised the man who should say the thing
that is not. They have learned to discriminate
between the man who unwittingly says that which
is not, and they have styled his untruth as error ;
and him who wittingly and of deliberate purpose
says that which is not, and they have branded
his untruth as a lie. Perhaps it has been easier

12 Swartbmore Xectute

to define the negative, untruth, than to define
the positive, truth. But whether positively
defined, or negatively, man has ever possessed a
consciousness of the difference between them.
At whatever stage of prehistoric development
man attained the endowment of speech, he has
instinctively expected and required a correspon-
dence between the fact and the word which
expressed it ; and has been conscious that if that
correspondence were violated some wrong has
been done to him ; and he has resented that
violation. Untruth, then, in its most
elementary form consists in a violation of
the correspondence between fact and word ;
and truth, in its essence, consists in the strict
observance of the correspondence between word
and fact. Any violation of that correspondence,
whether accidental through carelessness or
ignorance, or purposed through malevolent
intention, leads to confusion. When discovered,
it offends against the instinctive sense of
right and wrong, and is condemned in the
court of conscience.

And here we must distinguish between that
which is, and a man's conception of that which

XTbe (Quest tot Utntb 13

is. If a man honestly expresses in speech, or
in action, that which he conceives to be the
fact, we credit him with being veracious, even
if what he conceived to be the fact should after-
wards turn out to be a mistaken or imperfect
conception of the real fact. He has not lied ;
and yet what he spoke may after all not have
been the truth. Veracity, which is always a
commendable quality, implies a correspondence
between what a man believes and thinks on the
one hand, and what he says, and acts upon, and
does on the other hand. But Truth is much
more than mere veracity. The quest for truth
demands much more than following the habit
of veracity. It implies the effort — the continued,
intelligent, honest effort — ^to bring one's
conception of things into accurate corres-
pondence with things as they really are ; so that
one's speech shall not merely voice empty or
confused or untrue opinions or impressions,
but shall express, so far as possible, the thing
that is. The ascertainment of truth, and
its discrimination from error and falsehood,
is therefore a different process and a much
more exacting one than mere truth-speaking.
Veracity is quite compatible with honest error ;
may co-exist with confusion of thought and

14 ^ Swartbmote Xecture

ignorance. Yet deliverance from confusion
or ignorance cannot be expected to be brought
about through anyone of whom veracity is
not the habitual practice. The discovery of
truth is not for him who is careless of truth
in speech, or deed, or in habit of mind. Neither
is it for him whose thinking apparatus is in a
state of confusion.

This is not the place or time to enter upon the
abstract question sometimes raised, as to why
we ought to speak the truth, or why morahsts
in all ages' have insisted on truthfulness as
the necessary foundation of all the other

^ In ancient Egypt, we find Truth set forth as amongst
the highest titles of God. In the Book of the Dead
(ch. xlii. and xliv.) we read :

" God is Truth ; he lives through Truth ; he is
nourished on Truth ; he is King of Truth ; and Truth
he erects over the world."

And the verdict prononuced on the soul of the
justified person runs f

" He lives in Truth, nourishes himself on Truth."

Socrates was pre-eininent in Greece for his stern and
outspoken love of truth. Blackie, in his Four Phases
oj Morals (pp. 19-34) has thus written of him : —

" Socrates, therefore, was right, not only for Greece
in the fifth century B.C., but for England at the present
moment, and for all times and places, when he pro-
claimed on the house-tops that the first and most
necessary wisdom for all men is not to measure the
stars, or to weigh the dust, or to analyse the air, but,
according to the old Delphic sentence to know them-
selves, and to realize in all the breadth and depth of its

XTbe diuest for ZTtutb 15

In the dialogues of Plato there is a very
remarkable passage in which that sage gives
a vision of souls choosing their lives* before

significance what it is to be a man, and not a pig or a
god. . , , Truth, therefore, unadulterated truth
in thought and act, was the pole-star of his navigation."

Plato, in the Republic, declares a lie to be a thing
naturally hateful both to gods and men.

The Zoroastrians also had strong perceptions of
Truth. In their conception of the universe there were
two great conflicting principles of good and evil, personi-
fied as Ormuzd and Ahriman. Of Ormuzd they said :
" He is the Truth." The power of Ahriman is " in the
lie." One of their legends states that Yima, the fallen
spirit, fell through a lie : " His glory [i.e., the truth)
was seen leaving him in the likeness of a beautiful bird."

^ The passage occurs in the Republic, ch. x., 617, and
is worthy of being quoted at greater length.

" But first of all there came a prophet who arranged
them in order ; then he took from the knees of Lachesis
lots and samples of lives, and having mounted on a high
pulpit, spake as follows : ' Hear the word of Lachesis,
the daughter of Necessity. Mortal souls, behold a new
cycle of life and mortality. Your genius will not be
allotted to you, but you will choose your genius ; and let
him who draws the first lot have the first choice, and the
life which he chooses shall be his destiny. Virtue is
free, and as a man honours or dishonours her, he will
have more or less of her ; the responsibility is with the
chooser — God is justified.' . . . ' A man must take
with him into the world below an adamantine faith in
truth and right, that there too he may be undazzled by
the desire of wealth or the other allurements of evil,
lest, coming upon tyrannies and similar villainies, he do
irremediable wrongs to others and suffer yet worse
himself.' ' Even for the last comer, if he chooses wisely,
and will live diligently, there is appointed a happy and
not undesirable existence. Let not him who chooses
first be careless, and let not the last despair.' "

Jowett's Dialogues 0^ Plato, Vol. III., pp. 334-6.

i6 Swattbmore Xectute

they enter the world of men, and puts as the
first qualification for the momentous issue
this : — " A man must take with him into the
world below an adamantine faith in truth and
right." That is, he must cherish truth-speaking
and right-doing as cardinal points of conduct
in this life.

I need not dwell upon this moral obligation
to speak the truth, or on the ethical reasons
that have been assigned for it by different writers.
For us, at least, the obligation may be put on
the highest grounds. We have the words of
Christ,' *' Let your communication be. Yea,
yea ; Nay, nay ; for whatsoever is more than
these cometh of evil.'* But we have also, in
the words of Paul,«what seems to be the real
reason why, ** putting away lying," we should
** speak every man truth with his neighbour,"
namely this : — " for we are members one of
another." The solidarity of human life requires
of us that we should use our words so that they
correspond to the thing that is, and so
abuse not the gift of speech. " The great
basis," said Babbage,3 "of virtue in man, is truth

* Matthew v. 37.

* Ephesians iv. 25.

3 Passages from the Life of a Philosopher," p. 404.

XTbe (Huest for Zvntb 17

— that is, the constant application of the same
word to the same thing/' There is, as Professor
Jacks has declared,^ " no surer road to a state of
alienation from what is best in modern life,
and to the forfeiture of good men's confidence,
than that of a careless handling of the standard
of truth."


The casuists have immemorially raised the
question whether one is bound at all times and
in all circumstances to speak the truth ; whether
under stress of personal danger, or under threat
of violence, one is not justified in dehberate
untruth ; whether in dealing with madmen
or criminals one is debarred from using a lie
in the interests of truth ; whether a physician
is permitted to conceal the truth from a patient
in a critical state of health ; whether an ad-
vocate may plead for the innocence of a client
whom he knows to be really guilty. Little
good can come from arguing out casuistical
cases^ on a priori grounds. Everyone will

' Hibbevt Journal, Oct., 1906.

» Lecky, in his History of Rationalism (Vol. I., p. 394),
has stated the position as follows : —

" Whatever may be the foundation of the moral
law, it is certain that in the eyes of the immense majority

i8 Swattbmore Xecture

agree that the less of casuistry there is in the

world the better ; that every departure from the

standard of truth, however excusable it may

seem in the stress of difficult circumstances, is

in itself evil and debasing to the moral sense.

Still less would one care to defend or justify

the perversions of truth that pass current almost

unrebuked in many departments of life. No

one has denounced more clearly the evils of

prevarication, of the false insinuation, than

John Ruskin. Hear him as he speaks in the

Seven Lamps : —

" Do not let us lie at all. Do not think of one falsity
as harmless, and another as slight, and another as

of mankind there are some overwhelming considerations
that will justify a breach of its provisions. If some
great misfortune were to befall a man who lay on a sick
bed, trembling between life and death ; if the physician
declared that the knowledge of that misfortune would
be certain death to the patient, and if concealment
were only possible by a falsehood, there are very few
moralists who would condemn that falsehood." . . .
*' It is not very easy to justify these things by argument,
or to draw a clear line between criminal and innocent
falsehood ; but that there are circumstances which
justify untruth has always been admitted by the common
sentiment of mankind, and has been distinctly laid down
by the most eminent moralists." Lecky quotes Jeremy
Taylor and other divines in support of this temporizing
view. A careful statement of the Roman doctrine of
Equivocation will be found in a letter, dated from
Stonyhurst, October 5th, 1901, by Rev. Father Canning,
S. J., printed as Supplementum VI., on p. 287, of H. H.
Spink's book. The Gunpowder Plot (1902).

trbe (liuest tor XTtutb 19

unintended. Cast them all aside ; they may be light and
accidental ; but they are an ugly soot from the smoke
of the pit, for all that ; and it is better that our hearts
should be swept clean of them, without over care as to
which is largest or blackest. Speaking truth is like
writing fair, and comes only by practice ; it is less a
matter of will than of habit, and I doubt if any occasion
can be trivial which permits the practice and formation
of such a habit. To speak and act truth with constancy
and precision is nearly as difl&cult, and perhaps as
meritorious, as to speak it under intimidation or

" And yet it is not calumny nor treachery that do the
largest sum of mischief in the world. But it is the
glistening and softly spoken lie ; the amiable fallacy ;
the patriotic lie of the historian, the provident lie of the
politician, the zealous lie of the partizan, the merciful
lie of the friend, and the careless lie of each man to him-
self, that cast that black mystery over humanity,
through which we thank any man who pierces, as we
would thank one who dug a well in a desert."

" There are some faults slight in the sight of love, some
errors slight in the estimate of wisdom ; but truth
forgives no insult, and endures no stain."

Hear again the late Father George Tyrrell : —
" There is something worse than deliberate lying,
and that is the habit of gratuitous assertion ; of saying,
not what we know to be untrue, but what we do not
know to be true. Nine-tenths of our untruthfulness
is of this sort ; and it is fostered by the credulity or the
indifference of our hearers."


Experience of life brings home to us the
desirability of keeping out of deceptions, of

«o Swartbmore Xectute

avoiding the disaster that follows on dwelling
in the false security of illusions. It seems
indeed strange that men willingly live on the
lower planes of truthfulness, rather than
on the higher. In every rank we find con-
ventional lies taking the place of truth. Each
man, wherever he is placed, has to contend,
not only against the outward falsities, but
against the temptation to say to others the
things that seem pleasant, and things service-
able for the hour, rather than the things
that are. Every class has to fight with its
own misleading prepossessions, every age has
to meet its own falsehoods. In an environment
where men are careless of truth, it is easy to
slip into inexactitudes of speech. The habit
of looking at things carelessly begets in men
the inability to see things truly. They cannot
read aright the things that are. And this, the
saddest, if not the most wicked, form of lying,
eats as a canker into the character ; it is what
Francis Bacon called " the lie that sinketh
in." There are some who imagine that it is
an easy thing for a man to speak the truth ;
that even after lapse of exercise the faculty
remains unimpaired. But he who supposes that
truth-speaking is a casual function, which after

Ubc ^xxcst tor XTrutb 21

habitual neglect may be at any time resumed,
has never gone to the root of the matter. It
seems deplorable, but after many years I have
come to the conclusion, that the majority of
men do not want to know the truth about things.
They will admit that truth is many sided ;
but they want to hear one side^ only. They
do not want the truth, but only that particular
aspect of it which suits them.

*' Am I become your enemy because I
tell you the truth ? " was the question
directed by the great Apostle of the Gentiles
to some of his subverted followers. It was
ever thus ; men, even though veracious and
honest in speech, are not by nature lovers
of truth, anxious to know the thing as it is.
Rather they wish to believe the thing as it seems
in their imaginations. They are lovers of their
fancies, their own cherished prejudices*. To

* How many men make a practice of reading both
sides of even passing politics ? Tbey prefer to hear
the organs of one party only. In religious matters, how
many men read the views of those who differ from them ?
How many subscribers to the Christian World read also
the Inquirer or the Tablet ? How many readers of the
Inquirer read also the Guardian, or the Church Times,
or the Dublin Review ?

^ " In the same way all those superficial and
inadequate, too often also harsh and severe, judgements
which we see and read daily amongst men in the common

22 Swartbmore Xectute

become lovers of truth for its own sake they
need to undergo a moral, and in many cases
an intellectual, regeneration ; to be baptized
into the truth.

And this is truly sad, that some of the best
of men think that truth is endangered if that
side of it which they call particularly theirs is
submitted to scrutiny. As though truth could
not endure enquiry, or were unable to stand
the test of examination. Nay, it may almost
be said that everything that has been established
as true has been established by being contested,
and having stood the test.

No one has spoken of truth in relation to
men's preconceived opinions more wisely than
Dr. Whately in the second series of his Essays.

converse of life, are the result of a habitual carelessness
as to truth, of which habit only too efficiently conceals
the grossness. And under the bitter inspiration of
ecclesiastical and political warfare, men, when speaking

1 3 4 5 6 7

Online LibrarySilvanus Phillips ThompsonThe quest for truth → online text (page 1 of 7)