Arthur to John, May 21, 1941
(This letter is missing pages 1 & 2)
Written on: Stevens House stationary
...illness is only one example out of many.
Your recollection of me as a person probably justifies your designation of my approach to these things as being conditioned by a scientific education and its consequent point of view. This was certainly true up to the time I mention, somewhere around my fortieth birthday, perhaps my thirty fifth or so. I was stubbornly committed to such a method and its resulting attitudes. But no more. Quite naturally, I can never dispense with them, I would bitterly resent any attempt to force me to do so, in the field or category which science rules. You mention G. P. (Gilbert Pember, I judge). He, rest his soul, insulted what I was then pleased to call my intelligence; and said insult alienated me from the church for over ten years. This estimable man, were he alive today, could stir me up to all those old antagonisms even now, with this difference: I would now just tell him to go to hell and proceed on my screwy modernist way with unimpaired serenity. But to attain to such serenity was the work of many years of ponderous plodding and tricky adjustments. Nothing unique about that, I suppose. And if I am spared it is quite likely some of my present attitudes will have to go, or at least be modified.
I hesitate to launch into the fundamentals of the subject. Yet I think a bare sketch of it may be provocative of further discussion between us, and so contribute to keeping this correspondence alive. My present position is the result of a gradually evolved set of notions about the ultimate nature of truth. Ever since (and long before) Pontius Pilate asked "what is truth?" mankind has played around the idea. If you talk to a highly trained Roman Catholic apologist, he starts his syllogistic chain of reasoning with some such statement as: "You must admit a priori that the human mind is endowed with the capacity to recognise truth when it is presented to it! And right there we part company. The more I think of it, the more I am convinced that we cannot do it. Take a simple proposition like 2 + 2=4. Now I will freely admit that every time I have checked up on it, the answer has always been the same 4. I will further admit that I have never run across anybody who seriously claimed to have noticed anything to the contrary. Ample evidence for - absence of evidence against. So I am willing to admit that it is extremely likely that here we have hit upon a tiny crumb of God's eternal truth. But I am not willing to say that even here is absolute certainty. Or take another proposition. Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492. Again I admit that every authority I have consulted makes this statement. And I never heard anything to the contrary.
But I remember Doc Cook's story of reaching the Pole, and its entirely fortuitous disproof by Peary. Just maybe, the Columbus story was also a hoax. Not likely, but I can imagine his coming upon a wrecked ship of an earlier navigator, and his appropriating the log-book and the glory. I do not want to appear captious or childish. To all intents and purposes I accept the Columbus story. Now I am also assured that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Ghost without the agency of a human father. There is a very respectable body of testimony to that effect. And while the records are silent as to any duplication of this remarkable event in any case since then, still, there is a dearth of convincing evidence that it did not so happen. But is this truth? All I care to say about it is that it is very much less likely than the Columbus story, and infinitely (no, not infinitely, but immeasurably) less likely than that 2+2=4.
So that our ability to apprehend truth is only relative. It is like the "variables approaching a limit" that we studied in calculus. The truth itself, as an abstraction, a pure, cold, inviolate principle, we cannot reach. When we talk about it, we are talking about God. It is beside the point to argue whether it is a manifestation or property of the Godhead, or whether it is God Himself. I incline to the latter view, but in any case, we mortals can do no more than draw near and touch the hem of His garment. We are, however, under an intellectual compulsion to function in the realm in which we operate, and be ready at all times to re-examine and reject or reclassify the data that observation and experience presents to us. And failure to do so is a sin against the Holy Ghost, who is alleged to be able to lead us into all truth. Hence all these fundamental sanctions have an empirical or tentative character. That need not destroy their validity. We are enjoined to love our enemy. Check and countercheck, weigh and measure, argue pro and con. It may finally appear that this command is the silliest of foolishness. On the other hand, if the fruits of study and meditation lead us to give it a trial, and under that trial results are satisfying, then the idea will do until something better comes along. And if you say that there is nothing better, I will say that I am inclined to agree with you, even to the extent of joining you. But to me it remains a sporting proposition. I have always been willing to back up my opinion with a small wager. I think St. Louis will win the National League pennant and have posted a few dollars at appropriate odds. So also, I cannot prove the validity of the sanction "love thine enemies." But I will bet my life it is true. (This bet is proposed by Suddard-Kennedy in a poem written in 1918.)
May I comment briefly on some of the remaining portions of your letter? To my way of thinking, the duty or at least the desirability to examine our sanctions in detail is as great or even greater than to examine our techniques. After all, we can modify our techniques as we go along, but if the original sanction is weak of foolish, the resultant cut-and-try is costly and wasteful. Hence the general appearance of your letter arouses my criticism. In each case your sanction is put forth in a few brief words, without amplification or inquiry. Some of this amplification to be sure is implied in the more lengthy comments on the techniques. But why work out a technique for an unpromising sanction? Also one or two, notably the third one, and particularly the last one (Mary Rhineheart) are essentially techniques and not sanctions. Mrs R's sentiments are not a creed, but a rule of life. Trite, as you say, but of unexceptionable merit. I do not disagree with a thing you say. I do question a little the arrangement, not just to be captious but in the interest of orderly presentation.
Before starting on this business trip I neglected to mail your X Club proceedings. I would like to return them with a set of books, but maybe you have them. If not, perhaps you can get them. They have colored my thinking and influenced me more than I can say. One of my prophets is James Branch Cabell. Read his "Jurgen" and his "Beyond Life." Also Walter Lippman's "Preface to Morals." Read the first 2/3 of that one and throw the book aside. That last 1/3 bogs down and is lousy. Read a book called "Thobbing" by a chap named Hutchinson. Also "We Northmen" by Lucien Price is a recent joy. Some passages from this last are gems of purest ray serene. All in all, I am right in putting Mr. Cabell at the Top of the list, even though I cannot agree with all his conclusions. He is so tremendously subtle, however, that perhaps I do not know just what some of these conclusions are.
This business of the relativity of truth is a fascinating angle. As I said, I gave you but the barest outline, but ill-presented though it was, I hope you can follow it out further. If you think it foolishness say so and I will try to enlarge upon it to justify my enthusiasm for this attitude of mind and method of approach, and probably mire myself still deeper in a bog of words. At a later date I will take a hint from you and try my hand at a systematic presentation of sanctions and techniques. My compliments to you for your effort in that direction.
With very best regards Arthur
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