The Eternal Search for Truth
JULY 01, 1963 by HENRY MARGENAU
Dr. Margenau is Eugene Higgins Professor of Physics and Natural Philosophy at
One of the oldest legends of our culture dates back to the era before the Libyan dynasties of
It is said that this temple contained a mysterious picture, covered with a veil and inscribed by the tantalizing words: "The Truth." Mortal man was forbidden to lift the veil, and the priests of Osiris enforced this statute with severest rigor.
A youth, dedicated to the discovery of truth, perhaps a person we would now call a scientist, once entered the temple and saw the covered image. He asked his guide whether he knew what was hidden under the veil, but he received a horrified denial and an official account of the ancient law. Thoughtfully, the youth left the temple that day but an irresistible thirst for knowledge of truth forced him to return at night with intent at sacrilege. In the ghostly light of the moon he entered the hall of Osiris and lifted the veil from the image. What he saw, nobody knows, but the legend insists that he was found near death, lying at the foot of the picture, by the attendants of the temple the next morning. Revived, he would not speak of his experience except to regret it. His life, thereafter, was spiritless, his actions were undistinguished, and he sank into an early grave.
There the legend stands at the very beginning of our history, noncommittal like the Sphinx, foreboding human agony over truth, symbolizing one of the great and noble passions of men. The legend has not lacked interpretations, but I’d like to offer my own version of what the youth read when he lifted the veil. The message as I imagine it, runs like this:
Only a fool looks for truth in a finite formula; only a knave would want to acquire it without toil and heartache. Final truth is tantamount to stagnant knowledge; there is no substitute for self-correcting, progressing, self-improving understanding. Dismiss your quest for truth in final formulation and embrace the greatest human virtue called Eternal Search for Truth.
There are no short cuts to Truth, this being the first lesson we have to learn.
Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?
JOHN MILTON, Areopagitica