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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 32.djvu/282

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THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

Commerce" may find frequent occasion in future to introduce similar philosophical themes to the notice of its readers.

 

 

TRUTH AND ITS PURSUIT.

There is a well-known saying of Lessing's, according to which the pursuit of truth is rated as of higher value, and more to be desired, than the truth itself. Sir Henry Roscoe quoted this sentiment in his recent inaugural address to the British Association; and the London "Spectator," in a thoughtful article—all the "Spectator's" articles, we may say in passing, are thoughtful—raises the question as to whether Lessing's "paradox," as it calls it, conveys as much truth as is commonly supposed. It points out that, in scientific matters generally, the truths discovered are of value to thousands who take no part, and are incapable of taking any part, in bringing them to light; and that, even in regard to moral questions, it is impossible to conceive of the pursuit of truth having any value apart from a strong conviction of the value of the result to be arrived at. If the result is not itself of value, or at least is not believed to be of value, then there is nothing ennobling in pursuing it. If, on the other hand, the result is of value, and so far lends significance and dignity to the pursuit, how can we say that the mere pursuit, cut off from all hope of an actual realization of the truth, is of more value than the truth itself? How, indeed, can we regard it as having any elevating effect whatever?

All that can be said in reply to this reasoning, so far as we can see, is that we should not demand from Lessing's paradox more than, as a paradox, it is able to render. The function of a paradox, as we conceive it, is to draw attention to some aspect of truth which is in danger of being overlooked, and to do this by piercing below the level at which our thought ordinarily rests. Thus, in regard to truth, it is natural to think only of results, and to regard as failure all that does not lead to results. Here Lessing steps in to tell us, and truly, in our opinion, that more valuable than the discovery of any particular truth is the tendency of the mind toward truth in general. Truth, when realized, increases the resources of the human mind, or, as we may say, the intellectual capital of the human race. It is like the dollar won by honest labor, and henceforth available for the production of further capital. But, if such is the character and such the value of realized truth, what shall we say of the effort, of the concentration of mind and purpose, that led to its discovery? We can surely say that the discipline thus gained is often of far greater value, at least to the individual, than the final result of his labors. Thus, also, the dollar gained may really be of far less account than the qualities developed in the gaining of it. Of course, it may sometimes be the case, on the other hand, that comparatively slight labor and thought—mere accident even—may sometimes result in the discovery of some truth of the highest importance; just as one might, with slight or no searching, light upon a source of unlimited material wealth. From this point of view we have to consider what human life would be if all our discoveries came to us in this way without effort, and without any need for the self-control and patient industry which the serious pursuit of truth now involves. In trying to form a conception of this we seem to escape from all bounds of law, and to find ourselves in a region where the stable landmarks of human existence have disappeared. Work is man's discipline on this earth; and, without that discipline, he would be a poor, wayward, worthless creature, if, indeed, we can conceive him as existing as an intellectual being at all.

Lessing's paradox, then, presents us with an impossible situation. The choice between truth and the pursuit of truth could not conceivably be offered to any