When I was 18 I was fascinated with American Pragmatism and its theory of truth. I devoured the works of William James and Charles Peirce, the founders of that epistemological school (most of them, anyway; when it comes to scholarship, I’m a hopeless dilettante). They are two of the most amiable minds I have ever encountered. They argued that we come to believe that propositions are true, not so much because they really are, as because they are expedient for us to believe. So, what we call truth is what it is expedient for us to believe – whether or not what we believe really is true.
This notion raised a firestorm when it was proposed in the late 19th century. James and Peirce both expressed themselves strongly, so it was not perhaps unnatural that they were widely understood to mean that truth is nothing but what it is expedient for us to believe. They did not; they meant only that we are so made as to feel that a proposition is true, or likely to be true, or “close enough for government work,” when it works out well in practice – in mundane life, or in scientific experiment, or when tested by logic, or when fitted to our other well-tested beliefs. So, Pragmatism is not so much an epistemological theory, properly speaking, as it is psychological. This has not stopped later generations of Pragmatists from insisting that there is no final Truth, no terminus ad quem of intellectual inquiry, but rather only one waypoint after another in an endless process of searching that is designed only to get us through life, from one approximation of a good understanding to the next.
I was thinking about all this one day as I hiked along the slick muddy bed of Kwagunt Creek, which flows down a canyon to meet the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, where I was then sojourning as a whitewater boatman. Pragmatism’s insights into our intellectual operations – or mine, anyway – seemed undeniably accurate. How then could I ever know that I had understood a real truth? I mean, there would be nothing to prevent me from such a veridical discovery, but absent any objective criterion of truth – such as, you know, whether or not a notion was true *in fact* – nothing to show me that I had ever achieved it, either.
It was then that I slipped in the mud, very nearly falling on a small boulder and hurting myself quite badly. I thought first, chuckling, about Dr. Johnson’s retort to Bishop Berkeley’s Idealism, which was to kick a stone and demand whether the pain that resulted were merely ideal. I thought then about pain, and what it tells us about our relation to the world. It occurred to me suddenly that pain would be totally useless, indeed worse than useless, unless it conveyed veracious information. There would be no reason for an animal to be equipped with pain, and good reason for it to be insensible thereto, unless the pain conveyed knowledge. Indeed, if an animal’s perceptions of any sort were not at least mostly veridical, its survival prospects would be terrible. So, there can be no way that animals – including man – that have survived millions of years of testing by nature can be poorly set up to apprehend those aspects of the environment that are really important to their lives, to their prosperity, survival, and reproduction. On the contrary.
I realized then that a proposition could not be expedient or useful for us to believe unless it were in some sense, or from some point of view, truly expedient – i.e., a truly reliable guide to action, given the real situation we faced. If the expedience were not really in operation, it would not be expedience at all, but noise that would lead us to disaster and death. If expedience were in fact false as a guide to action, then we could never arrive at the feeling that any proposition whatsoever was true. Our feelings of truth, then, must be more or less reliable guides to truth. We must be fitted by nature to apprehend the truth. If we were not, we never would have made it this far.
It was simple to generalize to our feelings of moral and aesthetic truth, to religious and philosophical truth. It was simple also to generalize to the notion that convention, tradition, custom all represented hard won and true understandings of good policy: of, that is to say, the principles that it is good and useful to believe, so that they order one’s behavior properly and prudently.
These notions were reinforced a few years later when I read physicist John Barrow’s book The Artful Universe. Barrow argues that we are fitted to the appreciation of values really present in nature, and each other, in just the same way and for the same reason that we are fitted to the appreciation of light. The physical structures of the eye and visual cortex are analogous to our organs of moral and aesthetic appreciation, in that their objects are really out there, and are really important and useful for us to understand; and these organs all tell us true things about the world. Thus the moral and aesthetic character of human experience accurately reflects the moral and aesthetic character of the world.
From these considerations it is a short step to the conclusion that the feeling of sehnsucht refers to something real. Sehnsucht is a feeling of profound and acute nostalgia and longing for a home of rest, and for a state of utter perfusion in experience of the feeling of inexhaustible plenitude of significance, importance, fullness, rightness, goodness, beauty and completion, which we feel must there obtain. Sehnsucht was a major factor in the inner life of CS Lewis from earliest childhood. His restless impulse toward the home of rest informed much of his work. It was that intense longing to which his friend JRR Tolkien appealed in the conversation they shared during a hike, wherein the atheist Lewis first opened his mind, seriously and honestly, to Tolkien’s evangelical question – “Jack, what if it’s just true?” – and so became a Christian.
Lewis later insisted that there can be no felt need or aptitude common to the human being that does not correspond, in Barrow’s sense, to values actually present in the objects of our experience. Considered in its most general aspect, the idea is that Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason applies, not just to truths, but to facts: if a thing X exists at all, it must exist for reasons arising from its ontological milieu that, when fully specified (assuming that such a completely exhaustive description were completable), would turn out to specify just X, exactly and completely – and would, indeed, demand its existence. Thus the river demands its bed, and vice versa. If you see a river bed, there must be an actual river somehow involved in its formation, and if you see a river, you see where its bed lies. Kwagunt Creek would not be where and what it is without Kwagunt Canyon; and vice versa.
Likewise, if you see an eye and a visual cortex in an organism, there must be actual light somehow involved in its formation. And, again, likewise: if you see a pervasive longing for a lost homeland in a species, there must be some such actual homeland somehow involved in its formation. Our feeling of sehnsucht is analogous to what a canyon feels, when no water has flowed through it in millions of years.
Not that canyons feel anything. I would not suggest that they do. But, on the other hand, I have seen too many of them, in too many of their moods, to suggest that they do not.
This correspondence of our aptitudes and felt needs to our world is more than mere mechanical fit of organism to environment, as key to lock. It is, rather, the fit of aboutness, or intension, in which the key fits the lock because it is about the lock, because it is intended ab initio for the lock; and vice versa. If we feel sehnsucht, there must therefore be something out there, something real, that we feel sehnsucht about; and, indeed, that we feel sehnsucht means that we ourselves are about its mysterious object, and are intended for its realization in actuality.
Concluding from the reality of sehnsucht to the reality of its object is of course but a step from a like conclusion from the reality of the universal human experience of the numinous to the reality of its object, so ably and precisely documented by Rudolph Otto in his epochal work, The Idea of the Holy. When we venture into certain places, at certain times, and do or say or think certain things, we can feel the loom of something tremendous, mysterious, dreadful, and joyous. We apprehend at such times the presence of the object of our sehnsucht, and indeed the source of all the goodly things for which we long, and restlessly search, strangers in a strange land. It is then, and only then, that our restless hearts are full, and still, even as they tremble with fear and exaltation.
What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.
– Pascal, Pensées (10.148)
They got the boat out, and the Rat took the sculls, paddling with caution. Out in midstream, there was a clear, narrow track that faintly reflected the sky; but wherever shadows fell on the water from bank, bush, or tree, they were as solid to all appearance as the banks themselves, and the Mole had to steer with judgment accordingly. Dark and deserted as it was, the night was full of small noises, song and chatter and rustling, telling of the busy little population who were up and about, plying their trades and vocations through the night till sunshine should fall on them at last and send them off to their well-earned repose. The water’s own noises, too, were more apparent than by day, its gurglings and ‘cloops’ more unexpected and near at hand; and constantly they started at what seemed a sudden clear call from an actual articulate voice.
The line of the horizon was clear and hard against the sky, and in one particular quarter it showed black against a silvery climbing phosphorescence that grew and grew. At last, over the rim of the waiting earth the moon lifted with slow majesty till it swung clear of the horizon and rode off, free of moorings; and once more they began to see surfaces— meadows wide-spread, and quiet gardens, and the river itself from bank to bank, all softly disclosed, all washed clean of mystery and terror, all radiant again as by day, but with a difference that was tremendous. Their old haunts greeted them again in other raiment, as if they had slipped away and put on this pure new apparel and come quietly back, smiling as they shyly waited to see if they would be recognised again under it.
Fastening their boat to a willow, the friends landed in this silent, silver kingdom, and patiently explored the hedges, the hollow trees, the runnels and their little culverts, the ditches and dry water-ways. Embarking again and crossing over, they worked their way up the stream in this manner, while the moon, serene and detached in a cloudless sky, did what she could, though so far off, to help them in their quest; till her hour came and she sank earthwards reluctantly, and left them, and mystery once more held field and river.
Then a change began slowly to declare itself. The horizon became clearer, field and tree came more into sight, and somehow with a different look; the mystery began to drop away from them. A bird piped suddenly, and was still; and a light breeze sprang up and set the reeds and bulrushes rustling. Rat, who was in the stern of the boat, while Mole sculled, sat up suddenly and listened with a passionate intentness. Mole, who with gentle strokes was just keeping the boat moving while he scanned the banks with care, looked at him with curiosity.
‘It’s gone!’ sighed the Rat, sinking back in his seat again. ‘So beautiful and strange and new. Since it was to end so soon, I almost wish I had never heard it. For it has roused a longing in me that is pain, and nothing seems worth while but just to hear that sound once more and go on listening to it for ever. No! There it is again!’ he cried, alert once more. Entranced, he was silent for a long space, spellbound.
‘Now it passes on and I begin to lose it,’ he said presently. ‘O Mole! the beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us.’
The Mole, greatly wondering, obeyed. ‘I hear nothing myself,’ he said, ‘but the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers.’
The Rat never answered, if indeed he heard. Rapt, transported, trembling, he was possessed in all his senses by this new divine thing that caught up his helpless soul and swung and dandled it, a powerless but happy infant in a strong sustaining grasp.
In silence Mole rowed steadily, and soon they came to a point where the river divided, a long backwater branching off to one side. With a slight movement of his head Rat, who had long dropped the rudder-lines, directed the rower to take the backwater. The creeping tide of light gained and gained, and now they could see the colour of the flowers that gemmed the water’s edge.
‘Clearer and nearer still,’ cried the Rat joyously. ‘Now you must surely hear it! Ah— at last— I see you do!’
Breathless and transfixed the Mole stopped rowing as the liquid run of that glad piping broke on him like a wave, caught him up, and possessed him utterly. He saw the tears on his comrade’s cheeks, and bowed his head and understood. For a space they hung there, brushed by the purple loose-strife that fringed the bank; then the clear imperious summons that marched hand-in-hand with the intoxicating melody imposed its will on Mole, and mechanically he bent to his oars again. And the light grew steadily stronger, but no birds sang as they were wont to do at the approach of dawn; and but for the heavenly music all was marvellously still.
On either side of them, as they glided onwards, the rich meadow-grass seemed that morning of a freshness and a greenness unsurpassable. Never had they noticed the roses so vivid, the willow-herb so riotous, the meadow-sweet so odorous and pervading. Then the murmur of the approaching weir began to hold the air, and they felt a consciousness that they were nearing the end, whatever it might be, that surely awaited their expedition.
A wide half-circle of foam and glinting lights and shining shoulders of green water, the great weir closed the backwater from bank to bank, troubled all the quiet surface with twirling eddies and floating foam-streaks, and deadened all other sounds with its solemn and soothing rumble. In midmost of the stream, embraced in the weir’s shimmering arm-spread, a small island lay anchored, fringed close with willow and silver birch and alder. Reserved, shy, but full of significance, it hid whatever it might hold behind a veil, keeping it till the hour should come, and, with the hour, those who were called and chosen.
Slowly, but with no doubt or hesitation whatever, and in something of a solemn expectancy, the two animals passed through the broken tumultuous water and moored their boat at the flowery margin of the island. In silence they landed, and pushed through the blossom and scented herbage and undergrowth that led up to the level ground, till they stood on a little lawn of a marvellous green, set round with Nature’s own orchard-trees— crab-apple, wild cherry, and sloe.
‘This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,’ whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. ‘Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!’
Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror— indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy— but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend, and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.
Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humourously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.
‘Rat!’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. ‘Are you afraid?’
‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet— and yet— O, Mole, I am afraid!’
Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.
– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, Chapter 7
Consider now how the shepherds felt, and the Magi, and the wise old ox and the foolish ass.
What if it were all true?