A South-Sea Siren
No sooner had the customary small party assembled in the ‘Growlery’, for the fortnightly ‘palaver’, taken their seats at the table, lit their pipes, and passed round the demi-john for the first time, than—by way of opening the proceedings—Mr Beaumont was voted to the chair; and he immediately called upon their host for his promised contribution to the evening's entertainment.
Mr Richard Raleigh thereupon produced a manuscript, cleared his throat, and commenced to read, as follows, his—
Disquisition on Truth
Quand j'ai cherché la Vérité,
J'ai cru que c'était une amie.
Quand je l'ai comprise et sentie,
J'en étais déjà dégoûté.
‘As a preliminary to any inquiry concerning the moral attributes of truth, it is indispensable to agree upon a clear definition of the term, for there are few words in our language which embrace so wide a range of significance, and which are given to imply so many various—and in some respects, distinct—qualifications.
‘As a theme for discussion, then, let us first determine our premises.
‘Truth in the ordinary acceptation of the term—and it is in this restricted sense only that I propose to consider it—means what is real or positive, and in accordance with fact; as opposed to what is unreal or illusory, and not in accordance with fact. I shall purposely endeavour, as far as possible, to avoid using other expressions—synonymous in many respects—but calculated from conventional usage, to convey certain moral imputations, which it should be our aim to eliminate from the subject of our inquiry. Such expressions, for instance, as lying, imposture, deceit, which are deemed opprobrious, not so much on account of the element of untruth which underlies them, as from other unworthy and despicable characteristics.
‘Taken in its highest and most abstract sense, truth represents page 41 reality, and the question for investigation might be held to involve the momentous consideration of how far a knowledge of reality is essential to the well-being of mankind, and whether there be any necessary connection between what is true and what is good or useful.
‘It is not my intention, however, to attempt embracing so wide a field of inquiry, and it will, I trust, be deemed sufficient, on the present occasion, to confine our attention to the moral aspects of truth, as generally portrayed.
‘In the first place, it will be necessary to clear the ground of all extraneous matters.
‘We have nothing to do, for instance, with what is popularly known as “scientific truth”. The term is somewhat misleading, or rather it might be described as surplusage, for there is no such thing as its opposite, “scientific untruth”, any more than there could be “mathematical inaccuracy”.
‘Science is systematic knowledge, founded upon fact. It is essentially real, and lies within the scope of experimental research. In this respect it is quite distinct from philosophy. There can be no question of any moral qualification attaching to investigation of the physical conditions of the universe. The invention of printing, the discovery of gunpowder, or the applications of steam and electricity to the service of man, may be good or bad in their effects, according to the uses they may be put to, but they possess no innate virtue of the own. Science, therefore, must be true, or it is not true science; but it has no benevolent tendency—it is neither good nor bad, moral or immoral.
‘Yet there is a certain school of soi-disant “scientists”, who are loud in their claim to moral recognition in virtue of their profession. They have dubbed themselves “Apostles of Truth”, and on the principle that whatever is true must be good, and the contention that they are advancing the blessed cause of truth, they arrogate to themselves a species of sanctity all their own. As a matter of fact, they merely build airy fabrics, made up of hypothesis and conjecture, and having no solid foundation in experience, and which are misrepresented as scientific truths; virtue neither belongs to their calling nor to their accomplishments; it is an imaginary virtue tacked on to an imaginary truth.
‘An exception must also be taken to questions appertaining to religious truth, which resolve themselves mainly into articles of faith. It may be said briefly that “religious truth” is obvious to “the true believer”, and is dubious to the unbeliever, and that is about all that need be said on the subject. It used to be asserted of old by some of the most eminent of philosophers and divines, and the dogma has page 42 almost been accepted as essential to the Christian religion, that sinful man has an inborn and inveterate antipathy to truth. The human soul was believed to repel truth, very much in the same way as Nature was supposed to have a “horror of a vacuum”.
‘According to the profound Pascal, this natural aversion, although it may vary in degree, is never absent from the heart of man. He attributes it to self-love, which, I suppose, amounts to much the same thing as putting it down, with the orthodox theologians, to original sin, and the devil.
‘Possibly it may be this inherent absence of truth from our hearts which accounts for the lavish praises and unbounded adulation, which with one accord we ever proffer to the goddess——with our lips; for it is a distinguishing feature in human nature to appreciate best, and idolise most, that which it does not possess.
‘Thus it has come to pass that man has deified Truth, and transmitted her to the skies; but, judging from appearances, he does not wish her much nearer home. On the other hand, man has ever shown himself partial to Delusion; so he has taken her to live with him, and he calls her bad names.
‘At any rate, it must be admitted that if truth is—what she so often has been depicted—the moral sun that enlightens the world, then mankind, from time immemorial, has preferred to live in the shade.
‘In this glorification of truth, the poets of all men, have been the greatest sinners, but that is because—let it be said without offence–they are the greatest liars; sublime liars.
“For what can surpass in extravagance and untruthfulness the highest flights of poetry? In the outrageous perversion of fact, the absolute disregard of natural laws and natural condition, combined with supreme contempt for unities of time and place, and often for common sense, the poet stands alone, unapproachable. Let it be clearly understood that I am not disparaging him on this account; he stands also in the front rank of men, and among the noblest benefactors of his species, yet there is no truth in him. He is essentially an illusionist, who builds castles-in-the-air, and lives in Dreamland—an abode of bliss of which matter-of-fact truth has no official cognisance.
‘Let us glance, for instance, at one of the sublimest of poems—Milton's “Paradise Lost”. The wildest hallucinations of an inspired visionary could depict nothing grander or more untruthful than the description of Hell's conclave, after the decisive defeat of Satan, in his contest with the Most High.
‘Should any one be inclined to question this assertion, let him page 43 simply test the following quotations by the criterion of common sense.
‘After a nine days’ transit through space—the distance from Heaven to Hell—the “horrid crew”.
Lay vanquished, rolling in a fiery gulf.
There, after the first impressions of their altered condition had called forth some strong remarks, the leaders of the fallen spirits begin to converse in very grandiloquent language. They swim about in a “burning lake”, and amidst “billows of fire”, without being apparently much the worse for the immersion; they then spread their wings and take flight to the dry land, or rather to the “firm brimstone” which is also in a blaze. Here the multitude of demons congregate, and notwithstanding the heated surface of the soil, which burns their feet, they form themselves into martial array. A cherub unfolds the imperial ensign, ten thousand banners flutter in the rear, while with the band in front,
All the while,
Sonorous metal blowing martial sounds,
they march off to a big volcano, in the distance, which is described as in full eruption.
‘Meanwhile a forward brigade had taken flight to this prominent spot, and set to work to erect a “a fabric huge” which,
Rose like an exhalation, with the sound
Of dulcet symphonies and voices sweet,
Built like a temple, where pilasters round
Were set, and Doric pillars overlaid
With golden architecture; nor did they want
Cornice or freeze with bossy sculpture grav'n;
The roof was fretted gold.
The building of this stupendous structure, which could contain all the millions of Hell, was accomplished in one short hour, under the direction of a certain architect, who had previously served his time in Heaven, and distinguished himself there; for his hand was known,
by many a towered structure high,
Where sceptred angels held their residence.
In this magnificent edifice the fallen angels hold a council-of-war, at which it is decided—as is most usual with councils-of-war—not to fight; but to send off their chief on a hazardous voyage through space, in search of an unknown world, which at last he discovers hanging to Heaven by a golden chain, and which turns out (worst luck) to be our poor little planet.
‘We get a very different picture of Lucifer in Dante's Inferno, but whether any more truthful likeness to the original may be open to doubt.
‘The Italian poet's devil is a thing of horrors: a monster of terrific dimensions, with three faces to his head, six eyes, which are always weeping, and three mouths, which are perpetually crunching away at the bodies of mangled sinners. One of these unfortunates is held as a mouse by a cat, with his head inside the monster's jaw. A realistic picture, truly!
‘Poets who deal in the sentimental are not a whit less extravagant in their flights, and when we read of the moon turning pale with envy, and hiding her face behind a cloud, on account of the superior attractions of some dark-eyed damsel who had taken the poet's fancy, it is time to shut up our books on Natural Philosophy.
‘It is no wonder, therefore, that in depicting Truth the poet should have drawn considerably on his proverbial license, and that the portrait, charming as it generally is, should be as unlike the real article as anything can well be imagined.
‘In fact, I do not know of any topic upon which greater liberties have been taken with the truth, than about Truth herself.
‘She is mostly represented to us a goddess, surpassingly beautiful, with a sweet engaging smile on her classic features, and arrayed in spotless white. Sometimes she carries a lamp, sometimes a looking-glass. She appears on some occasions as a young and seductive maiden; on others, as a queenly personage of maturer age, and more sedate, but always lovable and divine. She also undergoes numerous metamorphoses, at times appearing to our exalted imagination as a bird of wondrous plumage that soars in the highest heaven, but occasionally approaches nearer this lowly earth, and condescends to drop us one of her feathers. She seems to inhabit all manner of places, from the bottom of a well up to the skies, where she is made to shine, either as a “bright, particular star”, that guides the storm-tossed mariner, or else as the still brighter luminary that enlightens the universe.
‘In Landor's charming allegory she is described in more homely terms, as a pretty and sportive damsel, full of innocent fun, although it must be admitted that when, with a view of playing a practical page 45 joke on an elderly gentleman, she contrives to run a thorn into the fleshy part of his person, her behaviour can hardly be considered becoming in a well-trained young lady, even though she be a granddaughter of Jove.
‘Now all this is very nice, very elevating, maybe, to our moral sense, but what analogy, may I ask, does it bear to the truth?—“that is the question”.
‘Let us, therefore, endeavour to investigate the question on its merits, candidly, fairly, and without parti-pris. Let us inquire from our own experience and knowledge of the world, in what respects truth has proved herself, as alleged, to be beautiful to see, lovable to know, good in all her actions, and eventually always victorious. But let us also constantly bear in mind that we are not dealing with a mere abstract conception, or a moral principle, but with matters of fact, with truth as she appears in real life, and affects the happiness and well-being of our practical existence.
‘Look at truth in her ordinary aspect—her every-day garb, so to speak. She is evidently not considered attractive, otherwise why should all the world take such infinite trouble to conceal or disguise her. There is no getting over that fact; it speaks volumes, and is superior to the most exalted poetry.
‘Society is one vast make-believe—a huge sham. It is not only in personal appearances, where every artifice that ingenuity can devise or wealth purchase is employed to hide Nature's defects, or to supply Nature's deficiencies—false teeth, false hair, false figure, false colour, and a thousand other falsities; but also in our social aspects, which are equally disguised or misrepresented.
‘Deception is essential to our common existence; it is the current coin of social interchange; the armour in which alone we can face the battle of life.
‘The hackneyed quotation: “Speech was given to man to conceal his thoughts”, is literally applicable to most men and women in polite society, and it is difficult to conceive how we could manage otherwise without committing what, in social etiquette, is “worse than a crime”—a breach of good manners.
‘All sensible people are careful to keep their respective skeletons locked up in their cupboards, and to wash their dirty linen in strict privacy, nor is there any valid reason, either moral or politic, why they should do otherwise, although truth would have it so.
“So much for outward appearances. If we turn to the “inner man” we find him constitutionally inscrutable, and constrained by the very instiacts implanted in his nature, to conceal his real character.page 46
Heaven's sovereign saves all beings but himself,
That hideous sight—a naked human heart.
‘Thus we are driven to the conclusion, however much we may deplore it, that truth, in real life, is nearly always plain, and not unfrequently ugly and repulsive. We make it our business to hide her from view, and she would be much better represented as a sourvisaged, old sibyl, than as a lovely bride.
‘What we really do admire and worship under the name of truth is not the thing itself, but our fond illusion of it; it is like the exquisite blue of those rugged hills in the distance.
‘The amiable qualities ascribed to truth are on a par with her alleged good looks, or, if anything, they are still more questionable.
‘Verily, truth is a heartless creature. Frigid, inflexible; she may be pure, but she is certainly not sympathetic. When she does appear on the scene of our humble lives it is generally under the guise of a “candid friend”, and her presence in most cases is more of a curse than a blessing. For she delights in wounding our pride, in exposing our little weaknesses and vanities, in divulging our secrets and in making us miserable. But often she is not satisfied with these minor provocations; she behaves like a perfect virago, raises the house, sets people by the ears, and destroys the happiness of peaceful families—but always, of course, with the best intentions.
‘Against all this it may be alleged that the fault lies not with truth, but with ourselves; she may not be fair to see, because to our weak eyes, blinded by self-love, the naked reality is seldom attractive; she may not be agreeable on account of our depraved tastes; the best medicines are often the nastiest, and the most wholesome food is by no means the most palatable.
‘Yet truth is good; she must always be beneficial, for does she not represent our highest ideal of what is pure and exalted? Is she not the prized object of all research, the result of knowledge, the criterion of belief, the salvation of mankind?
‘Fine words these, but will they stand the test of rigid inquiry? That remains to be proved.
‘In the first place, it must be clearly understood, that we are not concerned with ideals.
‘An ideal is an illusion, for it can have no positive existence. The ideal of truth may be, for aught we know, the most illusory of illusions, and we are now dealing with matters of fact—with real, not imaginary, quantities.
‘Secondly, the paramount importance attached to truth in the vital page 47 concerns of our chequered existence, will be found to depend very much on the standpoint from which we view the question.
‘If this, our earthly life, is looked upon as a thorny pilgrimage to a heavenly goal, then the only truth worth inquiring about is the truth of Revelation. All else sinks into insignificance. That was the great Pascal's view. It is also the theme chosen by the poet, Cowper, when in impassioned verse he apostrophises truth—to him, only another name for his religious faith.
‘On the other hand, if happiness is considered as the principal end and aim of life, it is not always easy to see where truth comes in, because, in the words of the immortal line:
Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise.
‘Lastly, there is the modern pessimistic school, which maintains that the real condition of life is thoroughly miserable; in which case it must be admitted that truth is an indispensable adjunct, and may safely be relied upon to make us unhappy.
‘Thus it would appear that opinion must differ on the question, which does not admit of being absolutely determined.
‘It may, indeed, be freely admitted that it is often to our advantage to know the truth, but is it always so?
‘It is well, at times, to look stern reality in the face, but who would discard hope and fancy and the thousand illusions which contribute so materially to the buoyancy and happiness of our lives.
‘Wisdom and truth are often associated, yet at times they are far apart.
‘It may also here be remarked that the term “truth” is a very misleading one.
‘As it is generally employed it embraces many qualities which it has no right to, and it has numerous independent virtues tacked upon it, which belong to quite a distinct category; so that, really, Dame Truth is often paraded about to our admiring gaze under false colours.
‘Thus we speak of a man who opens his purse to us in our need as a true friend, of a true heart as a lovable one, of a true verdict as a just one, and of true gold as the unalloyed metal; yet generosity, affection, justice, and purity are not by any means identical with truth.
‘One of the most charming aspects of truth is sincerity, yet a sincere character is not to be confounded with a truthful one. The former conveys an expression of honesty and is therefore lovable, while the other merely indicates inflexible veracity. There is no reason why a page 48 stem, cruel and heartless man should not be eminently truthful; indeed, there are many such instances on record.
‘Finally, it is constantly asserted—and this is supposed to be a “clincher”—that Truth Must Prevail. Beautiful or plain, sweet or bitter, good or bad, truth must eventually conquer; therefore it is considered best to bow at once to her rule, and to accept the inevitable. I must confess that this argument has always appeared to me singularly weak.
‘Truth must prevail—so must death. All things change, all hopes vanish, and all life must perish, but is that any reason why we should give ourselves up to despair and rush headlong to premature destruction?
‘It has, indeed, been taught by many religions and argued by many philosophers, that because all pleasure is fleeting we should discard it; that because all the aims and achievements of life are vain and transient we should renounce them, and rivet our gaze on what alone is eternal and immutable.
‘But unfortunately there are two insuperable difficulties in the way of this drastic course: the first is to ascertain for certain what is eternal and immutable—and here truth is our stumbling-block; the second, to dispense with the all-pervading and all-controlling Present. There is a practical side to life that cannot be ignored. The philosophy of common sense, which is tacitly followed by the generality of mankind, irrespective of “schools” and doctrines, would incline us to make our lives as advantageous and comfortable as possible—in other words, “to make the best of it”; and in doing so we must ever bear in mind that what is often brightest, sweetest, and most attractive is essentially unreal.
‘Although many of us may exclaim in the bitterness of our hearts—
When I consider life, 'tis all a cheat,
yet we should remember that it is this very “cheat” that makes life tolerable to us.
‘The poet may sing sweetly—
Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
But, as a matter of fact, we know nothing of the sort; it may be so in heaven, it certainly is not so on earth.
‘On the contrary, everywhere we must discriminate.page 49
‘Let us take the administration of justice, for example. Here, more than anywhere else, it might be supposed that truth was absolutely indispensable; but it is not so.
‘Justice, indeed, makes use of truth so far as suitable for practical purposes, such as obtaining evidence as to questions of fact, but beyond that the two have not much in common.
‘Law and equity are often inconsistent with truth.
‘Thus, a true statement may be pronounced libellous, and punished as a crime; while, on the other hand, a false statement, even when made on oath, is not held to be perjury unless it has a direct bearing on the case at issue.
‘Moreover, the admission or rejection of evidence turns upon legal practice and technicalities, so that truth may be knocking at the door and be refused entrance, or she may be ruled out of order and turned out of court for endeavouring to speak her mind.
‘There are, indeed, few places where truth fares so badly as in a court of law, and the unfortunate suitor for justice, who has nothing beyond truth to rely upon, may fare badly also.
‘If we turn now to veracity, or truth-speaking, in the ordinary concerns of life, we find that it is quite a conventional matter.
‘It can only be regarded as a habit, which varies according to custom and education, clime and nationality.
‘Englishmen have a characteristic love of truth-speaking, just as they have a characteristic love of fair play. It is considered with us as a mark of courage and manliness. Religious training is also largely concerned in our regard for personal veracity. But in other countries, and under other conditions of society, falsehood is not deemed to be dishonourable.
‘On this point an examination of the current literature of fiction of the day will throw some interesting light.
‘Thus, in an English novel the leading personages are nearly always assumed to be truthful; they tell lies, of course—everybody does—but they tell them with some appearance of compunction, some plea of extenuation. It is bad form to lie without good cause. An English lady, if she is made to tell a downright fib, is at least expected to blush, to cough, or to look another way, and the author to apologise for the irregularity.
‘Now, in French fiction, such an idea never enters anybody's head. There, all the dramatis personæ lie with grace and aplomb on every available occasion, and apparently without the slightest notion that they are wrong in so doing.
‘Innocent childhood and venerable age, the lover and the beloved, page 50 the priest and the philosopher, all tell lies, complacently or emphatically, as the occasion may require, and often with the best intentions or under a sense of duty. Indeed, we frequently find revelations pieusement mensongères emanating from the purest lips.
‘In polite society the imputation of falsehood has everywhere been deemed a mortal insult, but that is not out of any moral regard for truthfulness, but because the charge is held to imply cowardice.
‘The young sparks who, in the old duelling days, would “draw” at such an affront and swear to wash it out in blood, were notorious for their lying capabilities; indeed, the art of “polite lying” was then and has in all times been looked upon as a necessary accomplishment for a man of fashion.
‘Truth should never be confounded with worldly wisdom.
‘Machiavelli, that astute master of statecraft, could find no place for truth in his enumeration of a wise prince's virtues, although he admitted that a pretence to it, or a reputation for truthfulness, might often prove serviceable.
‘The greatest heroes of all history, the leaders of men, the conquerors, rulers, and prophets of the world, have not, as a rule, been very firm in the allegiance to truth: the utmost that can be said of the most of them is that they made use of truth when it suited their purpose to do so; while the most prominent name of modern times is generally reckoned to have been one of the most accomplished liars that has ever been known.
‘The principal virtue claimed for truth is of a negative kind; it lies in the contention—not so much that verity is good as that its opposite (error) is bad. To expose error has therefore been the main object of philosophers in all ages, and their proudest boast; yet it remains to be shown that illusion is naturally harmful, and that, apart from the religious idea, deception is essentially evil.
‘The experience of the world would rather point in an opposite direction.
‘For the most profound historians have traced the decadence of great nations to the gradual disappearance of their religious customs and beliefs, and yet we know that these customs and beliefs were all founded on the most egregious fallacies.
‘Socrates, the wisest of men, conformed minutely to all the religious practices and duties of his time, although he realised their absurdity; and in this he showed his supreme wisdom, because he made the necessary distinctions between what is good and bad in error, and while he exerted all his powers to enlighten ignorance and discard harmful illusions, yet he cherished others which he knew to be page 51 beneficial. His heaven was a receptacle for virtuous and exalted conceptions—the home of the prophet, the rhapsodist, the poet, the artist, the musician, and other refined and elevated natures, all divinely inspired, but only distantly related to the realities of existence.
‘And truth, it must constantly be borne in mind, is reality.
‘It would be easy to descant on the multitude of cruel and debasing superstitions which have afflicted mankind in all ages, and also the errors that have retarded the progress of civilisation; but, on the other side, it might with equal facility be shown that many of the purest and noblest convictions that have inspired the actions of great men and contributed to regenerate society have no certain foundation on fact.
‘What wonderful achievements have not been accomplished under pure delusion!
‘What mighty conquests have not marched under false banners!
‘Indeed, it only needs a little candid reflection to perceive how much of what we most admire and revere, both in nations and individuals, is based upon mistaken or exaggerated notions of things.
‘Thus, the religions of the world (always excepting our own) must be convicted of error, however beneficial or elevating they may have proved. We know that patriotism has ever flourished on ignorance and prejudice, that hero-worship arises from magnified vision, and that love is proverbially blind.
‘In conclusion, let us endeavour to interpret nature on the subject.
‘It is extremely difficult to establish principles of right or wrong from the contemplation of the government and conditions of the universe, for natural phenomena cannot be said to be either good or bad, in the moral sense which is usually attached to these definitions, yet it is a noteworthy circumstance, in the prevailing aspects of animated nature, that while truth is nowhere to be found, deception is everywhere present. What is still more remarkable is the apparent fact that whatever bears the semblance of goodness or sympathy in nature is intrinsically bound up in deception; for where nature is most kind to us she blunts our perceptions and obscures our vision.
‘Let us take, for example, the maternal instinct, which is by far the most lovable trait in nature. Is it not generally attended with the most blind infatuation?
‘A doting mother will see in a deformed child the most perfect of God's creatures, and no amount of argument will avail to convince her to the contrary; or, if it were possible, by some mode of demonstration, to remove the scales from her eyes, indulgent nature would page 52 soon restore the illusion, and by that means afford her happiness in deception.
‘Our noblest and purest affections are more or less charged with mental delusion; thus—to take a typical illustration—while every devoted son sees in his mother the best of women, the outside world, which is much more likely to judge correctly, only perceives, in most instances, a commonplace individual, with the ordinary faults and frailties of her sex.
‘This, then, is one of Dame Nature's little guiles to cheat us into being kind, and it is evidently done pour le bon motif.
‘Apart from these amiable characteristics, however, nature is crammed full of wiles and deceptions; and she practices every species of fraud and stratagem to gain her ends, which nevertheless answer a good and useful purpose in her vast administration.
‘The cunning of animals in devising means for entrapping their prey, or for effecting escape when pursued, is well known, and affords one of the most interesting studies in the economy of life, while some creatures are born to dissimulation, and can only manage to exist by “false pretences”.
‘Towards man, nature's garb is universal illusion; her lights are everywhere misleading, her teaching is prevailing doubt, and by Divine law the Gorgon-face of reality is shrouded from his sight.
‘This, according to the Indian philosophy, is Mâya, “the veil of deception, which blinds the eyes of mortals, and makes them behold a world of which they cannot say either that it is or that it is not, for it is like a dream”.
‘For just as our planet rolls through space, enveloped in a soft cushion of atmosphere that protects it outwardly, disseminates the light of heaven, preserves to us the vital heat, and sustains all created life, so is our frail human nature, in its course through this earthly existence, surrounded and protected at all points by a thick mist of illusion, which softens to our eyes the insufferable glare of truth, preserves to us the warmth of our affections, and is necessary to our happiness and well-being.’
‘Gentlemen,’ said the lecturer, as he folded up his manuscript, ‘that is all.’
‘Thank God!’ ejaculated Arthur Irving.
‘The honourable member is out of order in making that remark,’ observed the president, gravely. ‘The proper person to render thanks is our reverend friend here. And now, gentlemen, after the usual spell page 53 for refreshments, I shall call upon the assembly to discuss the subject, keeping as nearly as possible to the subject, and with this imperative injunction—one at a time!’
And thereupon there arose a very animated ‘palaver’, which—the demi-john aiding and abetting—lasted to a late hour in the evening.