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Truth And Facts

( Originally Published 1912 )



Successful, argumentation has its proper basis in truth and may be defined as any statement or belief supported by sufficient proof. Sir William Hamilton defines truth as "a harmony, an agreement, a correspondence between our thought and that which we think about."

Thomson says "Truth means that which is certain, whether we think it or not," . while Goethe describes it as a huge torch which we try to steal past with blinking eyes, fearing to be burnt. Newman calls it certitude, or "the perception of a truth with the perception that it is a truth."

Our first business, then, is to get. our thoughts to correspond with the facts. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," should be our constant aim. When we are desirous of reaching a certain place, we do not usually ask about beautiful landscapes, nor easy paths, but for, the right road, and the shortest route. In our thinking habits, let the invariable question be: "Is this the truth?" We must seek truth for truth's sake, for very love of it.

In this pursuit, however, we must exercise much patience and perseverance. Before a chain of evidence is complete, many scattered links may have to be found and put in their proper places. The process is sometimes tedious—often too great for mediocre minds-but there is no other way. The man who really feels the "divine patriotism" in his soul will be satisfied with nothing less than the truth itself.

Every man has some capacity for truth. The student of argumentation should be satisfied at first to solve simple problems. Apparently insurmountable difficulties may be entirely overcome by occupying the mind with a little at a time, and working gradually from the known to the unknown. South calls truth a great stronghold, "barred and fortified by God and Nature ; and diligence is properly the understanding's laying siege to it, so that, as in a kind of warfare, it must be perpetually upon the watch, observing all the avenues and passes to it, and accordingly make its approaches. Sometimes it thinks it gains a point; and presently again it finds itself baffled and beaten off; yet still it renews the onset, attacks the difficulty afresh, plants this reasoning and that argument, this consequence and that distinction, like so many intellectual batteries, till at length it forces a way and passage into the obstinate enclosed truth, that so long withstood and defied all its assaults."..

In our search for truth we may at first seek lines of least logical resistance. We must make our ground good as we pro-coed, lest we become entangled in many diverse opinions and prejudices. It is not sufficient that our proofs be above suspicion, they must be demonstrated. 'The test of mature judgment rests in our ability to give it immediate expression. Certitude should produce in the mind something of the sensation one feels when the feet are upon solid ground.

We should be cautious about taking sides too soon. A free and full investigation of any subject demands that the door of our mind be wide open. As Carlyle says : The thing is not only to avoid error, but to attain immense masses of truth." To do this successfully a man, according to Drummond, "must work, think, separate, dissolve, absorb, digest; and most of these he must do for himself and within himself."

The minds of men have in all times fluctuated between truth and error. For example, they first thought the movement of the earth to be progressive and non-rotating. At a later time, men said the earth was fixt in space and simply moved from side to side. Again, that it rotated on its own axis and moved around the sun. Limited in his grasp of absolute truth by human capacity, however, the man of science continues in his conquest of the skies.

There are some things we can not know. We know, for example, that numbers can not be brought to an end, that they are infinite, but we can not say what that infinity is. We believe God is infinite, but who can adequately describe Him,

Many of our beliefs come to us as a matter of course, or of habit, rather than from careful and deliberate reflection. We are prone to accept what others say to us without question or adequate authority, and follow blindfold many customs for no better reason than that they have been long established. We receive truths second hand, and repeat them to others, but do not possess the arguments that support them. We must cultivate the habit of thinking and judging for ourselves. The truth we first have made our own, is the only truth we can give to others.

There are two sides to every question, and we should therefore be careful not to allow prejudice to take possession of our judgment. George Eliot said, in a letter to a friend, "It is possible for two people to hold different opinions on Momentous subjects with equal sincerity; and an equally earnest conviction that their respective opinions are alone the truly moral ones." Men vary in their experience; consequently they vary in their opinions. But "truth is one forever, absolute, while opinion is truth filtered through the moods, the blood, the disposition," hence the sincere seeker after truth will endeavor to discover mistakes in his own reasoning as well as in that of others.

It will be seen, then, that' we should be intellectually true to the truth. Prejudice, personal interests, early training, obstinacy, and passion, must not be permitted to blind our mental vision. Our aim should be the truth, even tho we have to modify or abandon altogether long-settled and oft-exprest opinions. The presence of others should not prevent us from seeing and frankly acknowledging error when it is made clear to us. If we lose our point in public argument, we must not let our sensitiveness rob us of the truth, nor in case of victory should we make it an occasion for gloating over our opponent.

A man is not to be blamed for not assenting too soon. He properly demands valid and sufficient reasons. If he is a logical thinker, he has learned to reason with caution. He knows that his opponent may be biased by personal inclinations acid motives. He desires to weigh and consider every statement. The danger of prejudice, of insufficient proof, of hasty presumption, is ever present.

The student should remember that an ocean of truth lies all about him. It is too great for one mind, and he can at most possess only a small part. The words of Sir Isaac Newton, just before he died, are not without suggestive value: "I don't know what I may seem to the world, but, as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.''

Not the least of the pleasures of intellectual investigation is what has been called "logical satisfaction," the intrinsic pleasure of following a line of thought to a conclusion. How far a man will seek to enforce upon others the results of his truth, must depend upon himself and circumstances. He may decline to argue with a man whom he knows to be unreasonable and lacking in common courtesy. He may think it not worth while to set forth his arguments to a certain class of men who hold stubbornly to an opinion, and upon being dislodged shift to another position, and by artful dodging from place to place seem never to be cornered or embarrassed. Argumentation, even as a game of skill, hardly worth while unless conducted under conditions that give pleasure to the participants.

Newman says that a man who is certain of a fact is slow to enter into dispute, is not disposed to criticize others, nor to become angry at their positive statements ;

is neither impetuous nor overbearing; avoids intemperance of thought and language ; and does not impute motives to others nor accuse them of sophistry. He thinks that men have not yet attained to certitude who are impatient of contradiction, and by vehemence of assertion attempt to silence others. "A man's over earnestness in argument," he goes on to say, "may arise from zeal or charity; his impatience from loyalty to the truth; his extravagance from want of taste, from enthusiasm, or from youthful ardor; and his restless recurrence to argument, not from personal disquiet, but from a vivid appreciation of the controversial talent of an opponent, or of his own, or of the mere philosophical difficulties of the subject in dispute. These are points for the consideration of those who are concerned in registering and explaining what may be called the meteorological phenomena of the mind, and do not interfere with the broad principle which I would lay down,. that to fear argument is to doubt the conclusion, and to be certain of a truth is to be careless of objection to it—nor with the practical rule, that mere assent is not certitude, and must not be confused with it."

It is nothing less than marvelous that such men as Plato and Aristotle must have begun with their alphabet, making syllables out of letters, words out of syllables, and finally using words as the vehicle of masterly thoughts. These simple first steps, like the well-known simile of great oaks and little acorns, are characteristic of every study.

The student of argumentation, be he lawyer, politician, clergyman, public speaker, or salesman, should early seek to get a good foundation of facts. In most matters of dispute, one naturally asks : "What are the facts?" and from these he makes deductions and formulates his judgments. "Facts are stubborn things" and are indispensable to the successful advocate.

The natural indolence of man prevents him from studying a subject in all its details. He will find plausible reasons for terminating his research long before reaching accurate and final conclusions. Interruption, weariness, and a host of other excuses are advanced for slipshod work.

To get at the facts of a subject, we must proceed deliberately and carefully, satisfied with little steps at first, not ignoring even the commonplace, until at last by inexhaustible patience and application we have pursued our subject to the end. To do this with intellectual repose and unwavering faith, is to insure the most gratifying results.

What is a fact? That which can be positively demonstrated, as distinguished from a mere statement or belief. It is an agreement between a thing and what is said about it. Stephen, in his "Digest of the Laws of Evidence," says :

"A matter of fact is: (1) Everything capable of being perceived by the senses; (2) every mental condition of which any person is conscious. By a matter of fact I understand anything of which we obtain a conviction from our internal consciousness, or any individual event or phenomenon which is the object of sensation. It is true that even the simplest sensations involve some judgment : when a witness reports that he saw an object of a certain shape and size, or at a certain distance, he describes something more than a mere impression on his sense of sight, and his statement implies a theory and explanation of the bare phenomenon. When, however, this judgment is of so simple a kind as to become wholly unconscious, and the interpretation of the appearances is a matter of general agreement, the object of sensation may, for our present purpose, be considered a fact. A fact, as so defined, must be limited to individual sensible objects, and not extended to general expressions or formulas, descriptive of classes of facts, or sequences of phenomena, such as that the blood circulates, the sun attracts the planets, and the like."

The student should classify his mental material in much the same way as he would papers placed in the pigeon-holes of his desk. This gives not only a sense of security, but makes such material ready for instant use. Aristotle suggests this method of classification, when he affirms that any judgment will fall into these ten categories:

1: Substance—It is a man, a horse, etc.
2. Quantity-It is two cubits long, three, etc.
3. Quality—It is white, etc.
4. Relation—It is half as large, greater, etc.
5. Action-It cuts, burns, etc.
6. Passion—It is cut, is burned, etc.
7. Place—It is the Agora, the Lyceum, etc.
8. Time—It is today, was yesterday, etc.
9. Posture—It is reclining, seated, etc.
10.Possession-It is having shoes, armor, etc.

It should be remembered that information is not necessarily insight. After one has the facts, he must know what to do with them, and how to apply them to advantage. We must understand the inner meaning of ideas before we can claim full possession of them. When we use such expressions as "The fact is," "As a mat-ter of fact," "In fact," etc., we should be careful to have the evidence to support this little word "fact."

Many men do not want the facts, and it is as difficult to convince them of error as to prove to a cat that it is wrong to like mice. A disposition to dodge the real issue, and a lack of frankness in facing the real facts, is a sure and certain way to lose one's influence over the minds of other men. When a man earnestly seeks the facts and gets full possession of them, he should speak positively, if at all, since most men have a sufficient supply of doubts of their own. But if he gives expression to his beliefs before they are fully substantiated in his own mind, they may be seriously impaired by a slight contradiction, a digression, or stipulation, on the part of a casual observer. Obscurity, let it be remembered, is not always in the other man's mind, but may be in our own; nor should we forget that "In the twilight even the plainest writing is rendered illegible." Where there is a firm hold upon ideas, there will be little danger of vague speculations.

The student of argumentation will ac-custom himself to define his terms. He will learn to call things by their right names, and therefore will have frequent recourse to his dictionary. The rules of definition by Thomson, abbreviated here for convenience, will prove helpful:

1. A definition must recount the essential attributes of the thing defined, thus: "Words are the articulate signs of thoughts.

2. A definition must not contain the name of the thing defined; this is some-times called arguing "in a circle."

3. A definition must be adequate—neither too narrow nor too wide.

4. A definition must not be exprest in obscure or ambiguous language, as : "The

divine nature is a circle whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere."

5. A definition must not be negative, where it can be affirmative, as: "Evil is that which is not good."

After the speaker has his facts, what then ? He must know how to marshal them, and how to send them forth as a living force into the minds and hearts of men. "Next to the knowledge of the facts and its law," says Emerson, "is method, which constitutes the genius and efficiency of all remarkable men. A crowd of 'men go up to Faneuil Hall ; they are pretty well acquainted with the object of their meeting; they have all read the facts in the same newspapers. The orator possesses no information which his hearers have not, yet he teaches them to see the thing with his eyes. By the new placing, the circumstances acquire new solidity and worth. Every fact gains consequence by his naming it, and trifles become important. His expressions fix themselves in men's memories, and fly from mouth to mouth. His mind has some new principle of order. When he looks, all things fly into their places. What will he say next

Let this man speak, and this man only."

There are many persons who have an inward conviction that they are in the wrong, but will not concede it because of stubbornness, or self-conceit, or fear of humiliation. The sincere seeker after truth should be willing and even anxious to acknowledge his error, for truth need never fear to be put on trial. But when a man feels confident he is right, that he possesses the truth, he is not to yield up his honest convictions to insolence and self-assurance. It is well to remember that error is prevalent in these days, and. stalks about disguised in pretentious and even presumptuous garb. It must be recognized that it may be silenced.

Sir Leslie Stephen once said that if two and two persisted in making four, one should stop putting them together. If you don't like an inference simply do not draw it. But this will not do for the honest truth-seeker. Whether his opinions and judgments be sustained or not, whether he be condemned or vindicated by others, he persists in his earnest and unwearied search for truth—truth based upon facts.



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