In the year 1778, three years before his death, the philosopher and writer Gotthold Lessing was arguing in a series of articles with the chief pastor of Hamburg, Germany, over the pastor’s narrow-minded orthodoxy. At one point, Lessing articulated the following spiritual position:
“If God were to hold out all Truth in his right hand, and in his left just the active search for it, I should humbly take the left hand.”
Shocking though this sentiment appeared at the time, even in the midst of the Enlightenment, Lessing’s sentiment reveals important positions both psychological and philosophical. I would argue that the statement also reflects the fundamental axiom of this university: the active search for the truth of reality from the position of self-reflective inquiry.
This position holds that the truth of reality is ultimately unknowable in this life, which makes any dogmatic position flawed, or at best, fragmentary by definition. The late philosopher Eric Voegelin once warned those who search for the truth of reality to be wary of what he called a “premature satisfaction,” the tendency of some seekers to settle along the way for some seemingly definitive truth.
And why is a premature satisfaction to be avoided? It is because what truly distinguishes a human being from other species is our capacity for personal inquiry into the nature of reality. Other creatures display intelligence and learning but not the capacity for reflecting on what is learned or experienced. This means that if we settle for that premature satisfaction, we lose the capacity for reflective inquiry and are, in fact, no longer fully human.
Lessing lived by his left-handed choice in his own writing. As a playwright his version of Faust described one who justifies before God a human being devoid of evil, one who pursues truth for himself. His interpretation served as an inspiration for Goethe’s own version of Faust, a work which was instrumental in the development of Idealism.
As a teacher I look in student writing for any sign of the active and humble search for the truth. It is a sure sign of a human being, one who is unlikely to settle for a premature satisfaction or what can also be termed a falling away from what makes us truly human in the first place.
Richard Geldard Ph.D.
PhD, Dramatic Literature and Classics, Stanford University. UPR Dean of Undergraduate Studies, Full time Professor at UPR, Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, Yeshiva University Doctoral Faculty, Pacifica Graduate Institute Author of ten books on Early Greek philosophy and the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson [www.rgbooks.com]