“If God held fast …

If God held fast in his right hand the whole truth and in his left hand only the ever-active quest for truth, albeit with the proviso that I should constantly and eternally err, and said to me: ‘Choose!’, I would humbly fall upon his left hand and say: ‘Father, give! For pure truth is for you alone!’ –Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, 1729-1781, Philosophical and Theological Writings, trans. H. B. Nisbet, Cambridge, p. 98.

This is doubtless one of Lessing’s most famous quotes. Earlier in the passage he says that greatness of character is measured by the effort put forth in the search for truth, not in one’s claim to possessing it. “Possession,” he says, “makes us inactive, lazy, and proud.” It is important to note that Lessing is not referring to logical truths (e.g. p or not-p), about which there can be no doubt. His fusillade is against orthodoxy–religious dogma in particular–with its attendant self-certainty concerning absolute truth. Against assertiveness and conviction in matters of human or divine knowledge, he counsels modesty and circumspection.

His argument, however, is not only about religion. It extends to all orthodoxies, including those of the very Enlightenment (his own age), with its own immodesty regarding the power of human reason. Claims regarding universal truths, about morality, for example, or the completeness of a philosophical system, ought to be resisted with an ever-present questioning. Absolute truth is not accessible to errant human beings–indeed one ought to choose that it be so, especially in the face of the double temptation to think and act as though we could become masters of the truth.

To our modern ears, the argument is unimpeachable. Lessing warns against the human impulse to craft absolutes, be they in matters of religion or of reason, because error-prone that we are, such absolutes will fail. It behooves us, however, to be clear-eyed about what follows from this path of thought. If there can be no solid justification for absolute truth–as was religion in the Middle Ages, or reason in the Enlightenment–then every turn on the road to our cultivated skepticism leaves us largely with two choices: either embark on a disciplined pragmatism, where we test every hypothesis and act on the best yet necessarily uncertain course before us, or give up entirely, exhausted from the effort, and let nihilism cast a pall over all thought, action and feeling.