Friday, October 22, 2021

'Study Not for Truth But Vanity'

In Sunday’s post I quoted John Finlay quoting Dr. Johnson in “The Unfleshed Eye,” his essay on one of Yvor Winters’ finest poems, “To the Holy Spirit” (Hermetic Light, 1994): “One does not make truth; one can only hope to find it.” I was unable to locate the source of the line until Thursday, when Dave Lull came, as usual, to the rescue. A variant of the sentence can be found in a sermon of uncertain date written by Johnson: 

“Let it be remembered, that the nature of things is not alterable by our conduct. We cannot make truth; it is our business only to find it. No proposition can become more or less certain or important, by being considered or neglected.”


You’ll find Sermon 20 on Page 215 of Vol. 14 in The Yale Digital Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson. Edited by Jean Hagstrum and James Gray, it was published in hardcover by Yale University Press in 1978. Johnson refutes man-playing-God presumption and attempts to rein in our will to remake everything from biology and weather to morals and aesthetics. The editors describe the sermon as a “vivid attack on scoffers and sceptics, who may conceivably range in intellectual prestige from college and coffee-house wits to such philosophers as Bolingbroke and Hume, Rousseau and Voltaire.” The sermon often recalls the themes and language of Johnson’s Rambler essays, as in the one published February 12, 1751, and written from the point of view of Pertinax, a recovering skeptic:


“[H]aving now violated my reason, and accustomed myself to inquire not after proofs, but objections, I had perplexed truth with falsehood, till my ideas were confused, my judgment embarrassed, and my intellects distorted. The habit of considering every proposition as alike uncertain, left me no test by which any tenet could be tried; every opinion presented both sides with equal evidence, and my fallacies began to operate upon my own mind in more important inquiries.”


This sort of putatively open-minded defiance of truth and unwillingness to decide in the name of "tolerance" and "fairness" remind me of J.V. Cunningham’s Epigram 30 (The Judge Is Fury, 1947):


“This Humanist whom no belief constrained

Grew so broad-minded he was scatter-brained.”


Late in life, Johnson assembled a list of causes of skepticism (which can be difficult to distinguish from cynicism and fashionable nihilism). Among them is “Study not for truth but vanity.”

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