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Essays on the pursuit of truth and on the progress on knowledge online

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are universally held. Philosophers unite in re-
garding truth as inseparably allied with human
happiness, and error as essentially hostile to it. It
was otherwise with the sages of antiquity, amongst
whom there was a prevalent dissociation of the
utility from the truth of a doctrine. It was sup-
posed that a dogma might be advantageous and
even necessary to society, to morality, and to po-
litical institutions, although it were false, and that
it ought in this case to be strenuously supported
and shielded from scrutiny even by those who were
aware of its character. With such a notion there
could not co-exist any conscious obligation, or any
inducement but sheer curiosity, to enter upon the
search after truth, and faithfully pursue it. On the
contrary, it unavoidably led to the employment of
fallacious arguments, hollow pretexts, disingenuous
connivance, and violent oppression, in order to main-
tain the authority of established doctrines. It could
not fail to be fruitful in falsehood, hypocrisy, fraud,


and despotic intolerance.* The same policy of a
double doctrine was inculcated by Machiavel, and
was, indeed, long acted upon in Europe prior to
the reformation ; it has been well characterised by
Mr. Stewart as the policy of " enlightening the few
and hoodwinking the many."

If similar views are yet occasionally entertained
amongst the ignorant or half informed, they are
seldom avowed. Even the hardly less revolting,
but certainly less consistent, principle of more re-
cent times, and maintained even by many of the
early teachers of the Christian Church f, that a true
doctrine may be rightly supported by false repre-
sentations, and by what are called pious frauds, is
discarded professedly, if not always really, by every
party, every sect, and every individual with the
slightest pretensions to a name in philosophy or
literature, or even to a reputable standing in so-
ciety. " Nothing," it has been well remarked, " can
be more irrational in the pretended children of
light than to enlist themselves under the banners

* " It seems," says Dr.Whately, in an instructive dissertation
on this subject, " to have been the settled conviction of most of
those who had the sincerest desire of attaining truth themselves,
that to the mass of mankind truth was in many points inex-
pedient, and unfit to be communicated ; that, however desirable
it might be for the leading personages in the world to be in-
structed in the true nature of things, there were many popular
delusions which were essential to the well-being of society."
Essays on the Writings of St. Paul, p. 3.

f Ibid. Also Middleton's Free Inquiry, passim.


of Truth, and yet rest their hopes on an alliance
with Delusion."*

There is, happily, a growing disposition in the
world, amongst the intelligent part of it at least,
to prize truth of doctrine and veracity of state-
ment; to look with disdain on all artifice, disin-
genuity, and disguise, both in speculation and
practice ; to regard the business of life no longer as
an affair which demands unremitted intrigue and
perpetual deceit ; to consider the great interests of
humanity as not requiring to be supported by igno-
rance, hypocrisy, and superstition ; to believe that
the suppression and concealment of facts and argu-
ments can be of no service except to the few at the
expense of the many; and that it is for the benefit of
mankind, as well as essential to their progress in all
which is virtuous and high-minded, that every im-
portant question should be freely and boldly ex-
amined, f This state of feeling, on the part of men
of cultivated minds, seems highly favourable to an
impartial discussion of the conduct which we ought
to observe, or, in other words, the moral sentiments

* Coleridge's Friend, vol. i. p. 53.

f " From the whole deduction which has now been made,"
says an able writer, "it appears that superstition is useless;
that truth and reason are alone to be depended on in giving a
regular and safe determination to human actions ; and that the
idea of managing mankind by means of prejudices and by arts
of deception is false philosophy, as unwise as it is immoral."
Dr. HARDY on the Progress of the Christian Religion, quoted in
Milts translation of Vitters on the Reformation, p. 58.


we ought to cherish, in relation to the pursuit of
truth ; and even if the present endeavour to trace
the duties connected with it shall fail of yielding
that entire satisfaction which it is seldom the destiny
of any thing human to give, it may animate the
conscientious inquirer, and serve as a groundwork
for more successful efforts.

Little has yet been effected in this part of ethical
philosophy; at all events, the subject has never,
as far as the author knows, been systematically
treated in the point of view here described : it is a
department of moral exposition yet to be created.
Locke, indeed, in his Conduct of the Understanding,
and in his Letters on Toleration, has thrown out
excellent remarks on some of the topics which it
embraces ; and these treatises, which cannot be too
warmly recommended, breathe an admirable spirit
of right feeling and sound judgment in relation to
the pursuit of truth.*

Malebranche, too, in his celebrated work, " De la
Recherche de la Yerite," abounds with instructive
observations, encumbered nevertheless with anti-

* Since the first edition of the present Essay was published
many works have appeared in which correct and ennobling
sentiments concerning the morality of investigation are inci-
dentally expressed, some of which the author has had the satis-
faction of tracing, or fancying he traced, to the influence of his
own inadequate exposition of the subject. The Essays and
Discourses of the late Dr. Channing may be particularly cited,
as abounding in fervent and forcible lessons on this great theme.
Occasional use of them is made in the following pages.


quated matter and exploded doctrines, through
which few in the present day will venture to toil.

Neither of these distinguished writers, however,
looked at the subject in the particular light in
which it is the object of the following pages to
place it ; and even if they had, the lapse of a cen-
tury and a half may be presumed to have brought
us into a more favourable position for viewing it in
its most important relations.




To inquire is simply to endeavour to obtain a know-
ledge of something we are ignorant of. Inquiries are
therefore of all kinds, trivial and important, easy
and difficult ; they may be directed to the properties
of matter or of mind, to the concerns of individuals,
or of communities, or of mankind at large, to what
at present exists, or to what has formerly happened;
they vary, from the casual question regarding events
of the day, to the laborious researches of the his-
torian, and to the long series of observations and
experiments by which the philosopher interrogates

What people usually have in their minds, how-
ever, when speaking in general terms of the pursuit
of truth and duty of inquiry, seems to be that sort
of investigation which has no direct reference to
ordinary exigencies, but goes beyond what the im-
mediate necessities and unimportant occurrences of
life require. Few would probably think it needful
to discuss the advantages or the obligation of seeking
to know whatever is directly requisite for guiding
their individual conduct on common occasions.

Systematic, or scientific, or speculative investiga-
tion is generally implied when the interesting topics


just mentioned are in question, and perhaps there is
usually a further implication that the inquiry,
whatever it may be, is one that concerns society or

On coming, nevertheless, to consider the subject
closely, it does not appear that any strict line can
be drawn between the different kinds' of investiga-
tion referred to. They pass into each other by
insensible degrees, are frequently intermingled, and
sometimes interchange characters; nor even, if they
could be clearly discriminated, would it be found
that the moral obligation to enter upon any re-
searches depends on such distinctions. It is the
circumstances in which a man is placed that must
determine (chiefly at least) how far it is incumbent
on him to engage in any investigation.

That there are duties to be performed in reference
to this matter, no one will be hardy enough to deny.
If truth is so important to mankind, as we have
shown it to be, there can scarcely fail to be circum-
stances which render it imperative on human beings
to strive to attain it, or which in other words bring
the pursuit of it under the cognizance of morality.
The problem before us is to determine what those
circumstances are.

In what Circumstances Inquiry is a Duty.

Although it may be universally admitted that
there are cases in which it is incumbent on mankind


to engage in the pursuit of truth, those cases may
appear on a first view too various and complicated
to be definitively classified. On further reflection,
nevertheless, it will be found that the most impor-
tant, if not the whole of them, may be comprehended
in a few general propositions.

The duty of inquiry will be generally acknow-
ledged to be obligatory upon every one in propor-
tion to his capacity and opportunities in the follow-
ing circumstances :

1. When any direct means are within his reach
of obtaining additional or more accurate knowledge
of the relation in which he stands, and the duty
which he owes to God.

2. When the extent and accuracy of his know-
ledge on any subject must have an important and
direct effect on his conduct in life, public or pri-
vate, professional or unofficial, and consequently on
the happiness of his fellow-creatures.

3. When he takes upon himself the office of in-
structing others; a case included, indeed, in the
preceding, but of such peculiar distinction from any
other, as to deserve a separate consideration.

4. When he possesses opportunities and abilities
for prosecuting historical, scientific, or philosophical
investigations, so as to enlarge the bounds of human

These four cases appear to comprise all the great
circumstances which can be considered by any class
of moralists, as rendering it the duty of mankind to

c 2


enter upon any regular and express inquiry ; and
they are all fruitful of important suggestions,
deserving the deep consideration, not only of the
moralist and philosopher, but of every human

1. Let us advert, in the first place, to the duty
of availing ourselves of any direct means within our
reach to increase and correct our knowledge of the
relation in which we stand, and the duty we owe
to the Great Author of the universe. In this are
obviously included both the study of his attributes
as displayed in the works of nature, and an inves-
tigation of the authenticity and import of any al-
leged communication from him to human beings.

If we admit that there are any moral relations at
all between us and the Supreme Being, we cannot
but conclude that our ideas of his attributes must
be pleasing to him and beneficial to ourselves, in
proportion as they are worthy of their object, or, in
other words, in proportion as they are accurate;
whence it evidently becomes a general duty to exalt
our conceptions of the Deity, by making ourselves
acquainted with the real constitution of nature, as
well as by correcting and. enlarging our views of
moral and intellectual excellence. If it were not
incumbent upon us on other accounts to neglect no
accessible means of acquiring a knowledge of the
universe around us, and of our own sensitive and
rational nature, this consideration alone would render
it obligatory to seize every opportunity of escaping


from ignorance and error. The conceptions of an
uninstracted, although a virtuous man, or of an in-
dividual, however conversant with physical science,
who has never investigated his own mental con-
stitution and the true nature of morality, must
inevitably be far less worthy of the Great Author
of the universe than the human mind is capable of
forming; and such unworthy conceptions cannot
possibly be raised or rectified in the slightest degree
by any other means than the removal of that igno-
rance to which they owe their imperfections.

The effect, too, of wrong ideas of God on man
himself must not be overlooked: it is, in truth,
a consideration of the highest moment. " The
Deity," says an able writer, " is proposed as
the object, not merely of our belief, but of our
practical adoration and love in the imitation,
limited and imperfect as it must be, of His moral
perfections. Hence the vital practical importance
of the most unimpeachable conception of those at-
tributes, and of removing any thing like a limitation
on their infinite moral excellence."*

The pernicious consequences of erroneous and
degrading conceptions of the Deity on the moral
conduct of mankind, have seldom been sufficiently
considered. To every man, the ideas which he
forms of God must constitute a model to which he
will naturally tend to conform himself, and accord-

* The Connection of Natural and Divine Truth, by the Rev.
Baden Powell, p. 212.

C 3


ing to which he will consider himself obliged in
many cases to shape his own actions. If, therefore,
he represents in his own imagination this Almighty
Being as of an arbitrary, malevolent, selfish, and
revengeful character (which are too often the actual
notions lurking in the minds of the unenlightened,
while the attributes of good and just and merciful
are on their lips), he will insensibly and without
any compunction become cruel, capricious, and
tyrannical in his own social sphere. Or, perhaps,
in many cases, it would be more correct to say that
he would remain so. For barbarous and ignorant
man first forms his notions of the Deity from his
own low standard of what an All-powerful Being
woulcjl do (beyond which, in fact, it is impossible
for him to go) ; and then having consecrated his
crude ideas by fixing upon them the imaginary
stamp of divinity, he fears to depart from them,
and it is with difficulty that he advances to more
accurate and enlightened views of moral excellence
than are warranted by the model of his own

The slow progress of the race in true morality is
to be ascribed in a great measure to these con-
secrated crudities of former ages. The ideas of
mankind, naturally progressive on this as on all
other subjects, are continually called back to the
venerated model while they have an irresistible ten-
dency to depart from it. To borrow an expressive
phrase from a modern writer, " they are tethered


to the stump of old superstitions." Thus the
morality of a nation may long remain rude, vacil-
lating, and inconsistent amidst the wonders of me-
chanical art, the achievements of physical science,
and the refinements of taste.

Looking then both at the relation in which man-
kind stand to God, and at their own social claims
and personal interests, it is unquestionably a general
duty on their part, according to their means and
opportunities, to enlarge and purify their concep-
tions of the Great Author of Nature, by making
themselves acquainted, as accurately and extensively
as possible, with his works, and investigating the
truths of morality. To observe, to inquire, to ex-
amine, to reason, to meditate, these are the only
means which they can employ to elevate their minds
on this great subject the noblest homage which
they can render at the throne of the universe.

" Much earnest, patient, laborious thought," says
an eminent writer, " is required to see this Infinite
Being as he is, to rise above the low gross notions
of the Divinity, which rush in upon us from our
passions, from our selfish partialities, and from the
low-minded world around us." " Every man's
elevation," observes the same writer, " is to be
measured first, and chiefly by his conception of this
Great Being."*

* Lecture on the Elevation of the Labouring Classes, by Dr.

c 4


Not less imperative reasons exist why we should
diligently apply ourselves to the examination of the
authenticity and import of any alleged commu-
nication from God to mankind, that wears the least
semblance of credibility. To neglect inquiry under
these circumstances, would not only be a breach of
the manifest duty arising out of the relation of a
creature to his Creator, but it would be to plunge
ourselves into those evils which an unacquaintance
with accessible knowledge, and, much more, any
positive errors on so momentous a subject, would
be sure to bring, as well as to sacrifice all those
benefits which would necessarily flow from the pos-
session of the truth. The disastrous consequences
which have arisen to mankind from mistakes on
this great question, are alone sufficient to teach us
the imperative obligation of entering upon the in-
quiry an obligation under which every human
being lies according to his means and opportunities,
not (let it be borne in mind) to his fellow-creatures,
but to that Omniscient Being who is alone com-
petent to judge how far it has in any instance been

Surely, if there is any one course of conduct
more than another which common sense and con-
science unite in pointing out as imperative upon
us, it is to devote ourselves to an investigation of
the genuineness and the meaning of a communica-
tion, asserting itself with any shadow of plausibility


to be a message from the great Author of Nature.*
In what way such an investigation, in common with
all others, ought to be prosecuted, will be shown in
a subsequent part of this essay.

2. It will be readily admitted that it is likewise
imperative on every one to* undergo the labour of
inquiry according to his means and opportunities
in regard to all subjects which have an important
and direct bearing on his social conduct ; which, in
other words, furnish grounds for determining what
that conduct shall be. Not to inquire in these
cases, would be to take steps involving the happiness
of our fellow-creatures, as well as of ourselves,
without knowing or doing all in our power to learn
the consequences of those steps : it would be staking,
in fact, the welfare of others and our own on the
mere chance of being ignorantly in the right. How
extensive and momentous this branch of duty is,
will appear to any one who reflects that reputation,
fortune, morals, health, life, are daily committed to
the statesman, the judge, the lawyer, the physician,
and the navigator, and must be placed in jeopardy,
not only by their neglecting to investigate each par-
ticular case as it arises, but by professional error or

* For a more adequate exposition of this part of the subject,
on which it would be here out of place to do more than briefly
touch, the reader may consult " Letters of an Egyptian Kafir in
search of a Religion," to which the present revised Essay must
acknowledge considerable obligations ; and which will be quoted
on several occasions in the sequel.


ignorance, which proper inquiry would have removed.
Nor is it a less powerful consideration that the
destiny of a family, as well as of a community, is
dependent on the due prosecution of inquiries con-
nected with its welfare, and especially that the
physical and moral being of a child may be irreme-
diably depraved for want of knowledge accessible
but neglected by the parent.

But there is a more general duty than any of
these, which comes under this head the important
duty too little adverted to, if not wholly overlooked,
of investigating the accuracy of our moral senti-
ments and the justness of our application of them.
Obliged every day to mingle in the conflicting pur-
suits and interests of mankind, where there is con-
stant opportunity for the exercise of every virtue
and vice incident to human nature, called also to
pronounce sentence upon others, to shape our be-
haviour to them accordingly, and thus to affect
their happiness by our words and deeds, it behoves
us to make ourselves well acquainted with the real
tendencies of human actions, to ascertain with the
utmost accuracy what is really worthy of approval
or censure, as well as to satisfy ourselves that the
action which we praise or condemn comes under
the class to which we refer it.

It is painful. to see how grossly this maxim is
contravened to witness the negligence of the
greater part of mankind in regard to a just appre-
ciation of social duties to mark the arrogant spirit


in which moral verdicts are flung about at random,
when it is manifest that the self-constituted judges
have never investigated the grounds on which
such verdicts are pronounced, never taken the
trouble to inquire whether the actions which they
applaud or stigmatise are really beneficial or in-
jurious to the happiness of mankind, or even
whether there is evidence that they have been
actually committed.

We shall have, hereafter, to bring into view the
bitter consequences of such negligence of inquiry,
and especially of such rash and ignorant judgments
in relation to human conduct in the very subject of
our present speculations, namely, the pursuit of

Meanwhile it is sufficiently evident from what
has been said, how extensive must be the influence
of the accurate or inaccurate direction of moral
sentiment both on a man's own conduct, and on his
application of the powerful instruments of appro-
bation and censure to the conduct of his neigh-
bours; and how strong, therefore, is the obligation
resting upon every individual, in proportion to his
opportunities, to acquire the knowledge necessary
for the correct discrimination of moral good a,nd

In reference to the general duty of entering upon
the task of investigation, as here inculcated, a mo-
dern writer makes the following judicious remarks.

"It is much to be feared," he says, " that the


opinions of men in general on subjects of the greatest
importance, and on which it most depends whether
their influence shall be beneficial or injurious to
mankind, are formed without inquiry or consider-
ation, and are the mere prejudices of education ;
or the effects of caprice ; or adopted because they
will promote their interest ; or because they are in
fashion, and propagated by those who have a direct
interest in deceiving the world. Very few even
think of examining into the truth of the opinions
which they find to prevail in the more respectable
classes of society ; but most men adopt them as
sound maxims, and regulate by them their judg-
ment and actions, even in cases in which they must
necessarily incur a very heavy responsibility. Yet
while they thus take no pains to avoid error, they
are always ready, when it turns out that they are
in the wrong, to plead their ignorance or error in
excuse for their misconduct ; though it be manifest
that neither ignorance nor error is a valid excuse,
where it might have been prevented or remedied
by such an attention to the subject, as its importance,
honestly considered, would have appeared to re-
quire, and by the use of the means which were in
their power."*

" The improvement of our judgment," says an-
other writer, " and the increase of our knowledge,

* Introduction to the Study of Moral Evidence, by the Rev.
J. E. Gambier, 3d ed. p. 132.


on all subjects included within OUT sphere of action,
are not merely advantages recommended by pru-
dence, but absolute duties imposed on us by con-

Of the lamentable effects of neglecting almost
all the duties specified under this head, a striking
illustration is furnished by an incident which oc-
curred within the memory of many now living.
A young woman, Eliza Fenning, was capitally con-
demned for the alleged crime of attempting to
poison part of her master's family, on evidence of
the most inconclusive character, and after a hasty
and insufficient trial. Subsequently to her con-

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Online LibrarySamuel BaileyEssays on the pursuit of truth and on the progress on knowledge → online text (page 2 of 17)