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Novalis Including Hymns to the Night

Novalis, George MacDonald, Thomas Carlyle


The Pictorial Key to the Tarot

Arthur Edward Waite


My Man Jeeves

P. G. Wodehouse


The Count of Monte Cristo

Alexandre Dumas


Evenings with the skeptics

by John Owen

Excerpt:

For my part, I cannot think the child is to be envied who knows nothing of this ideal paradise and who is born surrounded with the dark shadows of the prison-house. My development was so far different from yours, that it was not until I went to Oxford that I experienced a desire to analyse the stock of ready-made beliefs I had been accumulating during the preceding portion of my life. The study which awoke me from the ' dogmatic slumber,' to use Kant's words,in which I had placidly and pleasantly spent some twenty years, was the diligent perusal of Plato, to whose dialogues I was first attracted by the imagination of the disciple, though I soon felt the influence of the master's resistless logic, the quickening effects of his ' torpedo-shock.'

Trevor. I see: dialectics insidiously conveyed in the garb of ideabsm, like a powder hidden in jam. Precisely the treatment which an imaginative and, I have little doubt, poetic youth like yourself required. I can easily realise the rude shock which a thoughtful study and consistent application of the Sokratic Elenchua would have on a reflective and independent mind. By the way, it is a fact worth notice, that almost every one of the great thinkers of the world were wakened by some skeptical influence. So if Skepticism did no more than startle original minds, the function which Sokrates claimed for it, and impel them in the path of inquiry, it would still deserve the thanks of reasoning humanity.

Arundel. I knew, if I once set you two going on the congenial subject of Skepticism, you would not know when to stop. But I want to ask you, Harrington, whether you too have discovered, as Trevor claims to have done, that Skepticism is in itself a satisfactory conclusion to have arrived at—nay, the only possible goal of all human intellectual effort; and have you arrived by its means at the heaven of ataraxia, or philosophical calm?

Harrington. No, I cannot say that I have: Skepticism is to me only the best method for the discovery of truth. My philosophical motto would be, 'DisbeUeve, that you may believe.' For my part, I should regard doubt, considered as the final aim or inevitable goal of all mental effort, as opening up an exceedingly dreary prospect for humanity. My object and desired haven is solely truth, though I am content to pursue it in the cautious mode which becomes a modern philosopher. Hence, even when I think I possess it, I regard such possession as in most cases provisionary, and always await, what I find there is always need of—further light.

Trevor. Notwithstanding your disclaimer, there seems to me no great difference in our respective positions. For myself, I am content with Skepticism rather than truth for my object, from a sincere conviction of my inability to attain, and unworthiness to possess the latter. Paraphrasing the well-known words of Lessing, I would say truth is too mighty for me. It is the prerogative solely of omniscience.1 Hence I content myself with—nay, I deliberately prefer as more suitable to human weakness, continual research.

1 Lessing's remarkable words which Dr. Trevor here paraphrases are:— 'Were God in his right hand to hold enclosed all Truth, and in his left only the ever-energising impulse towards Truth, with the addition of a perpetual possibility of error, and were to say to me, Choose I Humbly would I bow before his left hand, and say, " Father, give; pure truth is for Thee alone 1"' Letting, Werke, ed. Lachmann, x. p. 120. But the distinction between Opinion and Truth, and the fitness of the latter for the gods only, is frequently asserted in early Greek philosophy. In the fragments of Parmenides, opinion is represented as necessarily false and opposed to truth. Diogenes Laertius quotes a fragment of Alcmaeon of Crotonia: 'Of things divine (i^aycW) and of things human (ovtjt&i'), the gods have perfect knowledge, men only guess.' Cf. Karsten, Parmenides, p. 141, note. So Varro, quoted by Augustine, 'Quid putem, non quid contendam ponam, hominis enim est, haec opinari, Dei scire,' Aug. De Civ. Dei, vii. 17. Comp. Diog. Laert. ed. Meibomius, viii. 83, page 542 note. So Lactantius, De Fait. Sap. chap. iii. says, 'In seipso habere propriam scientiam non hominis, sed Dei est.' Montaigne as well as Lessing prefers the process to the object of intellectual research. 'Je propose,' says he, 'des fantasies informes et irresolues, comme font ceulx qui publient des questions doubteuses a desbattre aux escholles, non, pour etablir la rente, mais pour la chercher.' Euaii i. ch. lvi., and a similar preference has often been avowed by other Skeptics.

Arundel. It may be some defect of mental organisation, but I have never been able to appreciate that position of Lessing's. It seems to me to be in philosophy the same sort of spurious humility which we have in some eminent religionists, and which does not exclude a considerable amount of pride and self-importance. Nor is the assertion that truth is the prerogative of omniscience quite decisive of our human incompetence to attain it, or at least some considerable share of it. Omniscience is not needed, I humbly conceive, in order to convince me of such elementary truths as the fact of my existence. Indeed, I doubt whether its possession could add anything to the strength of my present conviction on the point. Goethe, you know, said that you need not go round the world in order to maintain that the sky is blue.


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