This morning I came across an intriguing quotation in the final chapter of Christopher Hitchens' "God is Not Great." I've always thought how terrific it'd be to know the truth about life, the universe, God or unGod—in short, everything.
But Gotthold Lessing, an 18th century German writer and philosopher, says that even if you could possess truth, you'd be better off perpetually seeking it.
The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to the Truth. It is not possession of the Truth, but rather the pursuit of Truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectibility is to be found. Possession makes one passive, indolent and proud.
If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left only the steady and diligent drive for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and to offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand.
Interesting. Surprising. And the more I pondered Lessing's preference, convincing.
I might well do the same. Though I'd prefer to negotiate out the "always and forever err" clause. I'd rather leave it as "not knowing whether I err in the process."
For if I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was on the wrong truth track, wouldn't this just be the flip side of possessing the truth? I'd be a certain non-possessor, which likely would make me equally passive and indolent (though not proud).
Religion is all about certainty. Science, uncertainty. You can never be sure that you've attained the ultimate answer, because there's always the possibility of more truth being revealed around the next inquisitive corner.
Lessing points us toward a quest that never stops questing. The search is what's being sought. So long as the seeking for truth continues, the seeker has found.
Could it be any other way, really? Even if God raised you or me to the highest heaven and poured into our consciousness complete knowledge of the cosmos, how could we be sure that what we experienced was the capital "T" Truth?
We could be part of The Matrix, taking as real what is an elaborate illusion. But again, how would we ever know for sure? How many reflections are possible in Alice's looking glass? What guarantee is there that this one, rather than that one, is to be trusted?
So while my first reading of Lessing produced a "no way, Jose!" in me, some further pondering of left hand vs. right hand made me feel much more comfortable with following in his thought-experiment footsteps. (Yet, again, with the proviso of not knowing for sure that I was erring).
I also felt better about my mother. She was an intense non-religious seeker of truth. A voracious reader and debater, she spent her life looking for answers to life's most important questions. And didn't find them.
She put so much intellectual and emotional energy into the search, since her death I've had frequent one-sided conversations with whoever I imagine is in charge of doling out Truth to the deserving.
"What the #&!*% went on with my mother??!!," I'll complain to the unseen, unheard, (and probably unreal) reason for my indignation. "She deserved more truth than she got. If she's enjoying an afterlife, you'd damn well better be treating her better than you did during her earthly existence."
Well, Lessing's quotation brought some peace. My mother got great satisfaction from her seeking.
Even if she had come to have an aha! moment before she died that made her believe she'd found the truth, this wouldn't have meant as much to her as the hugely more numerous what's it all about? moments.
She was born a seeker. She died a seeker. I'm pretty sure that we all do.
But not completely sure.