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Twofold Truth

John Owen, Evenings with the Skeptics: Free Discussion on Free thinkers, Vol. II: Christian Skepticism (Longmans, Green & Co: 1881), pp.3-52.

This is a long but exceptionally eloquent and learned dialogue between a group of thoughtful friends in the late 19th century. Dr. Trevor poses the question “whether what is demonstrably true in one subject or from one point of view can be false in another or from a different standpoint?” Their dialogue bookends Trevor’s formal paper, where he argues that whatever may be the case in reality, at least within our own deliberations, “we cannot without the most gratuitous mental suicide allow the subjective co-existence of antagonistic convictions both claiming to be true at the same time”. Trevor begins by noting the severe limits of our knowledge. “The thinker rightly regards himself and his knowledge as a small islet in the immeasurable ocean of the unknown.” He unsparingly traces a history of the ecclesiastic autocracy of theological dogma until reason got its foot in the door and began an insurrection, asserting itself against the “Roman” church as the singular arbiter of truth. Nonetheless, he argues, the phenomenon of competing considerations is not just a byproduct of religious authority, but rather an inescapable aspect of being human, coming at us from many angles: “the Known and the Unknown, individual man and collective humanity, Intellect and Emotion”. Trevor therefore commends the thinker who has “double vision”, the ability to see and integrate various sources of evidence, who is always reticent and reflective, even in conviction. Though it requires treading through some rather dense prose, the discussion of these “Christian skeptics” is a feast of language and thought. At times it captures the spirit of better than I ever could have in my own words. ~ Nate

Trevor. Our subject to-night is a cabalistic one — we have to investigate the mysterious properties of the number two.

Miss Leycester. I never knew that two had any mysterious properties: I thought these were confined to the sacred numerals three and seven.

Trevor. For that matter every number has its own secret and profound mysteries. Consider a moment, and you will see the reason of it. Number itself in its final analysis is just as inscrutable as space and time, of both of which, in fact, it is the outward calculable expression. Pythagoras, you know, resolved the universe into numbers. Without going quite so far, you must acknowledge that the world around us has a strange affinity for numbers; for what is there existing or conceivable which cannot be brought under the noble science of computation? Are there not so many planets with so many satellites? so many kings of England and popes of Rome? Has not a quadruped the exact number of four legs, neither more nor less, strange as it may seem? And with regard to man, what would he be without number? Arithmetic is the very test of civilization. Savage races have no numbers, or at least only very few, and the increase in their numerical capacities gives the measure of their general intellectual progress. Imagine existence devoid of arithmetic! It would be only a kind of annihilation. What has a more potent influence over every unit of collective humanity than ‘number one’? What care is lavished on it! What expense laid out on it! What virtue ascribed to it! How much is it exalted and extolled, so that every other existing thing, nay, every other human unit, is made subservient and secondary to its projects, its interests, and its wishes! As to number two, the subject of our discussion this evening, you will readily understand its importance to man. Is not man a biped? Has he not two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two hands, right and left sides, besides other dual attributes too numerous to mention? If you would learn the wonderful qualities of number two, you must look into my friend Sextos Empeirikos,1 to whom the binary number, with its inherent properties, its infinite possibilities of subdivision; and the mutual opposition of the units of which it is composed, offers unlimited scope for Skepticism. Indeed, the uncertainty pertaining to number two weighed heavily upon the great mind of Sokrates himself, so much so that he infers from the antagonism of its component units the non-existence as demonstrable fact of all number2 — one unit annihilating the other, after the manner of the famous Kilkenny cats. In the ‘Occult Philosophy’ of Cornelius Agrippa3 also, as in most works of the same kind, you have a whole chapter on the properties of the dual number. E.g.: it is the first plural composed not of numbers but of units; it is the number of equality, of justice, of the balance, of charity, of love, of marriage. Per contra, it is the principle of division, discord, disintegration, and confusion, and so on for nearly two pages of dualisms, some of them obvious enough, while others are well worthy of a place in a philosophy that claims to be occult. Our concernment with it to-night is not as the type of union but of disunion, for we have to consider the possibility of the existence of double or twofold truth. We have to ask, in other words, whether what is demonstrably true in one subject or from one point of view can be false in another or from a different standpoint. Can, e.g. the truth which is true in philosophy be false in theology, or vice versa?

Mrs. Harrington. For myself, I should say, ‘Certainly not;’ but why should we have to decide such a profound question?

Trevor. For this reason. ‘ Twofold truth’ is that particular phase of Skepticism which is called forth as at least a possible contingency by the fact of an external authoritative Revelation : and as we are about to consider the operation of Free-thought in relation to Christianity, it is important we should determine how far it is right or possible for Christian philosophers, if so minded, to divide their allegiance between, e.g. the claims of reason and the dictates of faith. Just to give you an instance of the practical operation of twofold truth, we shall among our Skeptics come across an Italian Free-thinker, Pomponazzi, who declared that he believed the doctrine of immortality as a Christian, but as a philosopher he did not believe it.

Miss Leycester.That is what they call in Germany ‘double book-keeping,’ or ‘book-keeping by double entry,’4 not very happily though, where one entry is the precise opposite to the other, the figures, e.g. in the right-hand column being all erased in the left.

Arundel. The ‘double entry’ that should truly represent the duplicity of twofold truth would be the false balance sheets of some rotten concern, or the ‘cooked’ accounts of a defalcating secretary.

Trevor. I don’t agree with you, Arundel. In the cases you mention there is a distinctly dishonest intention. I think we shall find, after an investigation of twofold truth, that whatever difficulties, intellectual and moral, it may imply to others, it has been maintained conscientiously by thinkers of no small power. Dimly traceable in Greek thought whenever the conclusions of the philosopher collided with dominant popular convictions especially of a religious kind, it is very distinctly marked in the more profound of the Christian Fathers and Schoolmen. The principle was involved in every impartial attempt to reconcile the wisdom of Christianity with that of Pagandom. It came to maturity in France and Italy during the Renaissance movements in those countries in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. But as a general rule it is a principle that has acquired prominency in every age of religious controversy, and may therefore be said to be incident as of right to every authoritative creed that has ever been controverted.

Arundel. With the exception, I suppose, of Protestantism. A creed that lays such stress on human reason ought not to want a point of convergence and of unity for varying truth, or rather for varying aspects of the same truth.

Trevor. But you forget the other element of Protestantism, the position which Scripture held in its original conception. The dualism originally existing between human reason and ecclesiasticism only took a new form. It became Reason v. Scripture. Luther himself was a decided upholder of ‘ twofold truth,’ maintaining that what was true in theology was not always true in philosophy,5 though his object was not to assert the coequal authority of the two principles as much as to subordinate reason to faith by the process of ‘Divide et impera.’

Harrington. Well, you need not go back so far as Luther to find Protestant defenders of ‘twofold truth.’ On the Continent you have Lessing and Kant as propounders of the doctrine, while in England, passing over other instances, ‘twofold truth’ was preached only a few years ago from the pulpit of our greatest university by a Bampton Lecturer. Astounding as it may seem, the preacher deliberately maintained that faith and reason were two different territories, each with its own boundary, laws, and government, and were of necessity engaged in internecine strife — a pretty prospect for poor speculating humanity!

Miss Leycester. Yes, but you forget, Charles, that ‘double truth,’ in relation to Christianity, is not a principle of hostility, but of conciliation. It is put forward as a kind of intellectual ‘peace at any price.’ Reason has her claims conceded, so also has Revelation, each is awarded its own particular territory, each is forbidden to cross or appropriate that of the other — no doubt an impossible condition when the territory to which both lay claim is to a great extent the same… It has always seemed to me that the distinction sometimes made between the oneness of the Greek and the essential duality of Christian philosophy might be represented by the difference between a circle and an ellipse. The first has a single focus, viz. reason. The second has double foci, i.e. Reason and Revelation. The further apart the foci, the more oblong and irregular the ellipse. The closer they approximate, the nearer does the figure attain the perfection of a circle.

Arundel. The main objection to your illustration is that it merges Revelation in Reason, and so far tends to make it unnecessary. A better illustration to my mind would be this: reason and faith starting from divergent directions are originally like two circles on the same plane, which only touch each other at one point of the two circumferences, but gradually, by mutually yielding each to the other, they are so brought together as to represent two distinct half- circles possessing a common centre, as Dr. Donne says6:

For reason, put to her best extension,
Almost meets faith and makes both centres one.

Harrington. I do not think your illustration as good as Florence’s. It assumes that the respective limits of faith and reason are capable of distinct visible demarcation, which I humbly submit they are not. Reason has her functions in matters of faith, and Faith her office in matters of reason. Indeed, it is only because their limits are thus largely conterminous that you are at liberty to postulate the oneness of truth. Once grant that their powers and objects are distinct and separable, and you introduce a dichotomy into human faculties which would soon make twofoldness and antagonism prime characteristics of truth.

Mrs. Harrington. But does not the man of science escape the dilemma involved in ‘double truth’? He has only to determine the facts and processes of nature a experiment reveals them to him, and he is not obliged to reconcile his discoveries with foregone conclusions or hypotheses of any kind.

Trevor. Not so, Mrs. Harrington. Science just as much as theology or philosophy is largely made up of hypotheses, any one of which may at any moment turn out questionable, if not demonstrably false, and so involve the inquirer in self-antagonism or ‘ twofold truth.’ Besides which, men of science are not free from the emotional, sympathetic, and ideal wants of humanity. They are also placed in the midst of an objective environment of which they must needs take some account, especially in its religious aspect. For these reasons twofold truth is just as common among men of science as among philosophers and theologians. A striking instance of this you have in Michael Faraday, who persistently refused even to attempt the unification of his religious and scientific standpoints. Let me read you his remarkable words on this subject: ‘I do not think it at all necessary to tie the study of the natural sciences and religion together; and in my intercourse with my fellow-creatures that which is religious and that which is philosophical have ever been two distinct things.’7 From a similar conviction of the incompatibility of the philosophical and popular religious standpoints Buffon defended esoteric and exoteric teaching — another form in this instance of twofold truth; while David Hume, ranking him among men of science, though he denied that the historical veracity of miracles could be demonstrated, thought that they might be believed as articles of faith.

Arundel. Do I understand you to say that esoteric and exoteric teaching involve an admission of double truth? If so, I think you are mistaken. ‘Twofold truth’ presupposes a condition of irreconcilable hostility. The contradictories are opposed in kind, whereas the differences between exo- and esoteric teaching are differences in degree. You would not say that the professor of high mathematics who also taught the elementary rules of arithmetic was a maintainer of ‘twofold truths,’ even though it might be true that the principles to which he appealed were divergent in the two cases.

Trevor. No, I should not, if the difference were of degree and not of kind. But it appears to me that the distinction is generally of the latter description. Esoteric teaching is put forward as not only higher than, but irreconcilable with, exoteric. It was so in the case of Pomponazzi and other defenders of twofold truth. It was so in the case of Buffon. It is so in the case of scientists among ourselves, who discern no middle point between science and religion, and yet hold both to one and to the other. It is so also in the casuistical ratiocination of the Jesuits. Indeed, I should not hesitate to state it as a general rule, that wherever the distinction between esoteric and exoteric doctrine is strongly emphasized, a leaning to ‘twofold truth ‘ may be fairly suspected.

Miss Leycester. Among learned professions I suppose lawyers and judges have the strongest leaning to ‘ twofold truths.’ Their calling is so entirely taken up with examining the opposing claims of rival parties that their minds must acquire a tendency to chronic equilibrium, i.e. holding every issue in suspense until they hear the opposite sides fully argued. In view of the curious decisions one sometimes hears, one wonders whether judges themselves re-try in the secret tribunal of their own minds the causes on which they have pronounced their decisions.

Harrington. I suspect judges have little time and less inclination for such extra-judicial and nugatory employment. Prima facie, no doubt, the judicial faculty has in it much that is suspicious and Skeptical, though the incertitude that comes from the perpetual balancing of conflicting evidence is corrected in a great measure by the necessity of a definite decision on its merits. Still I agree with Florence. I think lawyers and judges are as a class more Skeptical than others. Such, at least, is my own experience. At the same time, I never knew a case of professional indecision quite so helpless as the instance quoted by Hazlitt8 from Abraham Tucker. The latter writer used to relate of a friend of his, an old special pleader, that once coming out of his chambers in the Temple to take a walk with him he hesitated at the bottom of the stairs which way to go, proposed different directions — to Charing Cross, to St. Paul’s — found some objection to them all, and at last turned back for want of a casting motive to incline the scale. Tucker gives this as an example of that temper of mind which, having been long used to weigh the reasons for things with scrupulous exactness, could not come to any conclusion at all on the spur of the moment. On the other hand, we must recollect that the incertitude of lawyers and judges is generally confined to the exercise of their profession, and that in matters outside of it they are often as confiding and dogmatic as the rest of the world. Lord Eldon’s perpetual ‘I doubt’ grew to be a standing joke; but his lordship’s constitutional wariness in professional matters did not prevent his being an extreme bigot and dogmatic in politics and religion.

Miss Leycester. We touched slightly a point in our Sokrates discussion which appears more appropriate to our present subject of ‘ twofold truth,’ i.e. the relation of irony to intellectual dualism or Skepticism. Irony seems the fit and proper method of expressing cautiously and reservedly dual-truth. Itself a method of speech, of which the overt signification is not only separable from but opposed to its real intentional meaning, it is eminently adapted to suggest twofold truth, while it has a further cause of duality as representing the antagonism so often existing between the independent thinker and his surroundings, social, philosophical, and religious. That, I suppose, is the reason why irony has been so generally employed by Neologian teachers from Sokrates downwards. Indeed, I have sometimes thought it a characteristic of all teachers of new and unpopular truth.

Trevor. The question of the relation of literary style and method to intellectual idiosyncrasy and position is an interesting one, which has, so far as I know, never been discussed ; but I quite agree with you that irony is frequently a characteristic of new thought. Assailing old beliefs, the new teacher seems compelled to employ defensive armour while making his attack. … By the way, here are some admirable remarks of Bishop Thirlwall on the relation of irony to the employment of judicial functions or discrimination between rival truths: ‘There is always a slight cast of irony in the grave, calm, respectful attention impartially bestowed by an intelligent judge on two contending parties who are pleading their causes before him with all the earnestness of deep conviction and excited feeling. What makes the contrast interesting is that the right and the truth lie on neither side exclusively; that there is no fraudulent purpose, no gross imbecility of intellect on either, but both have plausible claims and specious reasons to allege, though each is too much blinded by prejudice or passion to do justice to the views of its adversary. For here the irony lies not in the demeanour of the judge, but is deeply seated in the case itself, which seems to favour each of the litigants, but really eludes them both. And this, too, it is that lends the highest degree of interest to the conflicts of religious and political parties.’9 Thus, according to this profound thinker—himself one of the greatest masters of irony of our time—the ironical mode of presentation belongs essentially to twofold truth.

Harrington. I should put the fact somewhat differently. Twofold truth is only an extreme, and to my mind not very inviting, form of the general method of thought which we call Skeptical. Now I quite think that there is a general affinity between the Skeptical method and the ironical expression of thought. I don’t attempt to account for it psychologically, but an induction of Skeptics and their literary weapons tends to show a predilection to irony. Thus Sokrates was a Skeptic, at war with the convictions of his country, and one of the most noteworthy features of his intellect is his large employment of irony. Pomponazzi is a decided upholder of twofold truth, and his irony was of a peculiarly bitter and trenchant description. Erasmus was, as regards Romanism, a religious Skeptic, and his delicate and subtle irony is one of the most marked features of his style. So also, coming home to our own country, Hallam, George Cornewall Lewis, and Thirlwall were historical Skeptics, and they largely employed irony. Swift, Sterne, and Thackeray were social Skeptics, and irony is conspicuous in their writings.

Arundel. Well, I can suggest, as against Miss Leycester’s notion, one case of a religious teacher — indeed the greatest — in whose sayings no irony is perceivable — I mean Jesus Christ.

Harrington. Do not be too sure of that, Arundel. I have always thought that there is a considerable amount of irony in the teaching of Christ. In the indirect method of the parables you have a kind of irony; while the defence of that mode of popular instruction, ‘ That seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand,’ is emphatically ironical. So also, I take it, is the injunction to festive preparations for fastings, ‘ Anoint thine head and wash thy face.’ His invective against the Pharisees is also occasionally marked by both irony and sarcasm. I forbear to notice other instances from a fear of trespassing on sacred ground.

Miss Leycester. You have not noticed the example which Robertson of Brighton was accustomed to adduce — I mean the passage, ‘Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition’10 — where you have the ironic dualism distinctly marked, viz.: 1. Jewish infidelity considered as a reproach; 2. The same thing regarded as an object of mock congratulation on account of its complete success.

Harrington. Very true, that striking instance escaped me; … but, as a general rule, I agree with Arundel so far that I think irony somewhat rare in Semiticism. It is a plant of robust habit, such as will only thrive in certain strong soils. The Semitic intellect was neither sufficiently vigourous, independent, and recalcitrant, nor comprehensive and many-sided enough to allow of much development in that direction.

Trevor. Well, our present object is not so much the verbal modes in which ‘ twofold truth’ is accustomed to find expression, as the phenomenon itself. I think we shall find on fair examination that the antinomy which takes so extreme a form as the deliberate combination in a single intellect of contrary truths is really traceable to causes lying far down in the constitution of the human mind and its relation to nature and humanity. That at least is the moral of my paper on ‘Twofold Truth,’ which I will now proceed to read.

Although thinkers in the present day are taught to regard their minds as the products of that omnipotent evolution that has educed the whole of natural phenomena, metaphysical as well as physical, from primæval chaos, there seems still loft, perhaps as a ‘survival,’ an ineradicable instinct to assign it, so far back as we can trace it, an independence and autonomy of its own. Probably there never existed a race so rude as not to possess some power of discriminating between the subjective thought and objective being, between the ‘ego’ and the ‘non-ego.’ Thus in man’s most rudimentary relation to the outer world there is postulated a dualism. No sooner does he begin to think than he recognises himself as an entity disparate from and even partially opposed to the environment in which he lives. At first this perception of duality is not a strong feeling; but as man advances in civilization, as he becomes able to discriminate clearly his position with regard to nature and humanity, the feeling increases. He begins to find that just as he himself forms an infinitesimally small part of the universe, so his personal knowledge is utterly incommensurate with the sum-total of existence, which nevertheless it would fain fathom. Thence results a feeling of incongruity between man as the knower and the universe as the thing known, which reaches its extreme stage when the philosopher refuses to make himself and his limited experience the sole measure of existence. This is the stage really reached in the maxim of Protagoras, ‘Man is the measure of all things,’ for the import of that dictum was not that man should make his individual experience the law of the universe, but that we should recognise the personal limitation and relativity of all his knowledge. Here then the dualism becomes well marked. The thinker rightly regards himself and his knowledge as a small islet in the immeasurable ocean of the unknown. Moreover, this conviction of disparity tends to advance with the progress of knowledge. Every extension of the bounds of the universe, whether in space or time, enlarges the limits of human Nescience, and the philosopher is fain to confess, “What I know is a small part of what might be known,” indeed the aggregate sum of actual human knowledge is an inappreciably small fraction of conceivable knowledge, to say nothing of omniscience. Perhaps he advances a step further and says, “My infinitesimally small knowledge, nay, that which I share with all other human knowers, can form no just or adequate standard of universal knowledge. Truths that I regard as absolute may not really be so. Those certainties of which I cannot even conceive the non-existence or incertitude may be to others no certainties at all. In other worlds, perchance scattered through space, matter may exist without any law of gravity, and our vaunted principles of arithmetic and geometry may be so modified that 2 + 2 might possibly make five, and two straight lines might haply inclose a space.”

Here, then, we have in man’s elementary position in nature, regarding him as a rational being, a clear locus standi for some such principle as twofold truth. Gradually man acquires the conviction that the known can never be an adequate measure of the unknown. Indeed the assertion of an inevitable antinomy between man and the universe is no more than the involuntary homage we are compelled to render to the infinite possibilities by which we are surrounded, and so far ‘twofold truth’ might conceivably claim to be the erection of an altar to the unknown god.

Nor is this relation of man to the unknown materially modified by the fact that he has no means of determining the degree or kind of antagonism that may exist between himself and the universe outside of his cognition. “We have no difficulty in conceiving, indeed our usual mode of generalisation tends in this direction, that all other thinking beings in the universe may be constituted as we ourselves are; nor is it hard to imagine that distant portions of the universe may be formed after that model and with those laws “with which our terrestrial habitat has made us acquainted. For aught we know, the antinomy that justifies twofold truth may not exist, or it may exist only partially, not sufficiently to warrant a complete dichotomy of the human reason. Still this consideration only serves to remove the difficulty a stage further off. Truth, to be complete and infallible, must be demonstrably true for all space, all time, and all legitimate thinking. Once admit that this cannot be proved, once suggest if only as a possibility that the truth lying outside of our experience is not of the same kind as that within, that existence elsewhere may be governed by laws and conditions of which we know nothing, and immediately there is introduced a basis for double truth. Henceforth it is open to the Skeptic to deny the existence of truth as a demonstrable universality. Compelled to accept the doctrine of the relativity of human knowledge, he is cut off by his very acceptance from all connection with the absolute.


But there is another dichotomy incidental to man as a thinking being. Sooner or later he begins to discern that his own knowledge—the result of personal research and experience—has only a partial affinity with the general sum of knowledge professedly possessed by his fellow-men. Perhaps also he is led to doubt whether the faculties and methods by which he acquires knowledge operates in his own case and in the case of others in a precisely similar manner. He conceives himself to know and is dimly cognisant of the methods whereby he has attained knowledge, but how far either the method or result is shared in all its entirety by his fellow-men he cannot know. No doubt the discrimination here mentioned is a product of some advance in metaphysical inquiry. Among uncultured races there is no aptitude for the individualism which it implies. But it is inevitable to all higher thought, and wherever it takes place the result is a differentiation of the individual from the sum of humanity outside him, which implies, or may be held to imply, twofold truth. All higher philosophy teaches the thinker to admit the essential individuality of his thought. It forces from him the admission: ‘The truth I conceive myself to know may not be in its precise form, nature, quality, and quantity, the truth that other men call by the same word, or embody in similar definitions. The means and processes that have enabled me to acquire it may not operate in the same manner and degree in the case of others.’ This inevitable isolation of every thinker and every thought-process therefore carries with it an admission of double-truth, if not as an actuality, yet at least as a probability of a very high degree; and dough’s aspiration for himself’ —

“O let me love my love unto myself alone,
And know my knowledge to tie world unknown.”11

— really expresses the destiny of every self-reliant and profound thinker. To him the outside world — man with his vaunted knowledge —is but the counterfeit presentment of an existence which he does not and cannot share, or at most the externality is like the images in Plato’s cave simile, consisting of dim shadows of objects existing in an unknown elsewhere, and which he can never expect to apprehend as substantial here-present realities.


But besides these conditions of dualism inevitable to man as a reasoning and progressive being, there are in most conditions of social life certain limits and restrictions which tend to demarcate the individual thinker from the environment in which he dwells.

Even in rudimentary stages of civilization man comes into contact with a body more or less compact of traditions, usages, beliefs, and opinions of various kinds. Endowed with a reasoning power capable of apprehending and testing truth, he finds that together with his inborn capacity for employing it he has ample material ready prepared for such employment. Between the ‘ego’ and the social ‘non-ego’ there hence arises a divergency that may possibly attain the dimensions of twofold truth. Religious or other beliefs may, for example, be presented to the thinker as a body of infallible and divinely prescribed truth which he must accept without hesitation or criticism. Perhaps, notwithstanding all the divine and human sanctions attesting such traditional beliefs, his own reason freely applied is able to detect a weakness or incongruity in what he is asked to accept. This of itself suggests a dualism. The thinker in self-defence is compelled to assume a critical, if not negative, attitude to the general stock of beliefs which constitute his mental environment. I need hardly add that this is the starting point of all Skepticism, which begins if it does not end in antagonism and twofoldedness. No doubt the phenomenon here mentioned is common to all creeds resting on external and supernatural authority. So great is the native vigour, the spontaneity of the human reason, that a conflict with mere superimposed tenets and convictions may be regarded as a normal condition of its growth. Even in Greek philosophy, with all its speculative freedom, there are occasional signs of this dualism. Its mythological systems, its mysteries, philosophical schools, political parties, exercised a restraint greater or less upon its independent thought. The death of Sokrates is a salient and indisputable proof that Hellenic speculation was not absolutely free. Still it attained as great a degree of freedom as seems compatible with the ordinary prejudices and institutions of mankind. Its research extended itself into every department of human thought, and in each such direction it carried its maxim of theoretical liberty. Beyond Sokrates, Pyrrhfin, and Sextos, it was impossible to go. Freedom might be said to have transcended in those thinkers all reasonable limits, and to have attained a licence of self-contradiction which even became suicidal — so far as pure speculation with its intense vitality and endless capacity for transformations can be said to be capable of utter self-extinction. But in no creed has the dualism between its own authority and the mental freedom of its disciples assumed so vehement a form as in Christianity. This is to be accounted for not by anything in the teaching of its founder hostile to intellectual liberty, for it would bee difficult to conceive any religion freer in its most authoritative prescriptions and involved tendencies than that of Christ. But it is due almost entirely to the form and nature of its ecclesiastical development. The very idea of Revelation — especially in the trenchant and exclusive form in which it was eventually asserted by the Church — postulated a condition of the recipient human reason which must sooner or later have entailed revolt.It was presented as the sole absolute authoritative and definitive enunciation of the Divine Will. It was expounded as leaving no room for hesitation or criticism: indeed the faintest attempts to reconcile its claims with Nature or Reason were reprobated as gross instances of impiety and ingratitude. Its dogmas were propounded not only as infallible truths, but as covering the whole area of knowledge and speculation permissible to humanity. No doubt this autocratic conception of the claims and powers of Revelation was a doctrine of somewhat slow growth. It cannot be said to be distinctly marked in the history of Christianity until after the Council of Nice. But even in the more moderate stages of its evolution prior to that event, the antagonism between Faith and Reason may be detected. A cursory glance at the steps by which the antinomy grew until it attained the dimensions of double-truth will not be an unfitting episode in our history of Free-thought.

The commencement of any great religious movement is so far like initiatory stages in the development of the human mind that there is no scope for dissidence or doubt. Whatever be the varied aspects under which it is presented to its adherents, they all have points of convergence and unity either in the creed or in the person of its founder. In the glow of religious enthusiasm, the passionate fervour of men animated by powerful feeling and united by common sympathies and opinions, there is little room for hesitation and criticism, still less for actual divergency. Different interests and standpoints coalesce for the time being like the interfusion of various chemical substances in a furnace; and it is only when this amalgamating point of temperature becomes lowered — when the first warm enthusiasm has subsided — when what was largely emotional manifests a tendency to become critical — that signs of disparity and segregation proclaim themselves.

We do not therefore find for some time after the birth and first propagation of Christianity any pronounced trace within the Church itself of a Skeptical dualism. No doubt there were conflicting standpoints to be reconciled. The position, e.g. of Christianity to Judaism was a question which might be determined by the hypothesis of dual and antagonistic revelations. In some cases it is evident this result was actually proclaimed as a solution of the incompatibility. At the same time this difficulty was only local, the relation of one Palestinian religion or stage of religious thought to another. But a far profounder dichotomy was that disclosed when Christianity began to take deliberate cognizance of its position as regards Pagandom. This dualism, or at least this standpoint containing the elements of dualism, came to maturity in the school of Alexandria. Here we find Christianity in direct contact with Hellenic thought, no doubt of a somewhat debased character, but still possessing the attributes of intellectual freedom and genuine love of enlightenment that distinguished its earlier stages, regarded from the standpoint of ecclesiasticism, the contact was strongly suggestive of antagonism. Broad thinkers like Clement and Origen were bound to take a liberal and comprehensive view of the mutual relation of Gentilism and Christianity, and actual dualism might accordingly be avoided by theories of prior revelations or the help of a mystical allegorism. But to fair and critical thinkers not largely endowed with imagination, the coequal veracity of Gentile thought and Christian revelation could only be reconciled by a dualism that accepted both without even trying to find a point of junction between them.

But the influence of Alexandrian Hellenism tended to create a permanent basis for ‘Twofold Truth’ in the Christian Church for another reason. Among all its legacies to after-ages Greek philosophy bequeathed none more important than its dialectical research, whether in the Skeptical form of the Dialogues of Plato or in the more positive one of the formal logic of Aristotle.

In the works of Porphyry and the other commentators on Aristotle lay the seed of that dialectic that was destined to bloom so many centuries afterwards in Scholasticism,12 and that gave birth to more than one form of intellectual antagonism. Though patronized by some of the Fathers, and afterwards introduced into Christian schools, the study of dialectic was always regarded with a suspicious eye by the leading dogmatists of the Church. Irrespectively of its pagan origin and associations, its implicit tendencies in the direction of intellectual freedom and independence were too strongly marked to allow its favourable reception at the hands of a dominant sacerdotalism. Such men as Jerome were just as keen-sighted in foreseeing the havoc which mental science must cause to ecclesiastical dogmas as the Athenians were when in the interests of their mythological beliefs they opposed the logical exercitations of the Sophists and Sokrates.13 It was a sufficing condemnation of dialectic that its principles and scope lay outside the domain of theology, and if the latter were held to be ‘super logicam’ — superior to logic — the inevitable result would be Twofold Truth.

Nor do the influences already mentioned exhaust the aspects of dualism presented to us in the early history of Christianity. The Gnostics, e.g. opposed their intuitional supernatural enlightenment to the teaching of the Church, and the so-called half-Gnostics took in the issue the position of ‘double truth.’ Gnosticism with its many ramifications is indeed only one form out of many in which Oriental dualism is traceable in sects, existing either within or on the confines of the Church. A kind of Twofold Truth is also discernible in the rival authorities deferred to by Augustine and other Fathers, under the titles the Light of Nature and that of Grace. The predilection of the Bishop of Hippo for such dualisms both in philosophy and theology is a distinctly marked feature of his thought, which he did not throw off with his renunciation of Manichseanism. Similar affinities also distinguish a few of the Greek Fathers. Nor have we any reason to feel surprise at these occasional manifestations of antagonism among the ablest teachers of the Christian Church. The very progress of Ecclesiasticism in relation to human thought was surcharged with antinomical conditions. Thus, when the formation of the canon raised the text of Scripture into a final and authoritative standard of faith, the possibility of Twofold Truth was implicitly affirmed. In many cases the theory of an infallible book, claiming to be the sole word of God, had the effect of ruling profane literature out of court. This was indeed the ordinary result of that prepossession in the Latin Church. But there were instances of men adopting the conclusion of double-truth whenever the divergency between Scripture and Reason assumed an irreconcilable form. Another duality akin to this, but of somewhat later origin, was that of Scripture and Nature regarded as the twofold revelation of the Divine Mind. This also had its defenders among the more profound and farsighted theologians of the Church, e.g. Albert the Great. We shall have to discuss the most remarkable of them in point of development when we arrive at Raymund of Sabieude. It need scarcely be added that what holds good of Scripture, considered as a basis for dogma, holds good of every successive accretion to the systematic beliefs of the Church. They were so many objective poles of supposed truth placed in juxtaposition with the subjective pole of the human reason, sometimes even assuming a relation of repellency with it; and yet, like the opposition of positive and negative poles in an electric battery, not unfrequently generating light by their contact.

I do not, however, wish to insist too strongly on these elements of dichotomy in the gradual growth of ecclesiastical Christianity, preparatives though they were to the full avowal of Twofold Truth. We must bear in mind, as partly explaining the absence of vehement antagonism between Faith and Reason in the early history of the Church, that its dogmatic system was as yet in a vague and unformed condition, and did not at first present that harsh and repellent aspect to all alien modes of thought which it subsequently did. Besides which, it is true of intellectual as of every species of insurrection, that it implies a certain growth of self-assertion and reactionary power. The Reason must attain to a consciousness of its strength and of its claims before it can be expected to assert either the one or the other. During the ages usually styled dark, what with ecclesiastical oppression, the prevalence of ignorance and superstition, and the political disorganization that reigned throughout Europe, there was little chance for any open and pronounced dissidence from the dogmatic teaching of the Church. Scotus Erigena might claim to be the dividing point between the substantial unison of the past eight centuries of Church history and the distinct dissonance of Faith and Reason which began with Scholasticism. His avowal that true philosophy was really identical with religion may be taken as the final form of that truce between authoritative dogma and mental freedom that had so long existed before the breaking out of the formidable struggle between the belligerents which has continued to the present day.

Twofold Truth may be said to have come to maturity in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. By this time the human reason was beginning to recover from the repression to which it had been so long subjected by the Church. Stimulated by various quickening agencies, which we shall have to notice more fully when we discuss the Italian Renaissance, and of which I will only mention one in this place — the Arab philosophy — it acquired no small share of that independence and self-reliance that belong to it of right. One of the first objects which the awakened Reason had to consider was its relation to dogma regarded as definitive and infallible truth. As we have seen, the authority of the Church had long proscribed all kinds of inquiry, which tended in their methods to mental freedom and in their results to conclusions outside her ordinary limits. All human knowledge was absorbed by Theology.14 This ‘mistress science’ had, perhaps by way of evincing her superiority, devoured all the rest. When Christian philosophy, therefore, came into being with the advent of Scholasticism, it was at first only regarded as a novel mode of theological inquiry.15 The truths so long maintained by the Church and set forth in her creeds were merely reiterated and confirmed by the special faculty of the Reason. The goal was the same; it was only the starting-points and directions that differed, and even these were to a great extent coincident. Reason was thus in the position of a minor state, having within it the elements of freedom and autonomy, but kept in subjection by a powerful and unscrupulous neighbour. Naturally, the first aim of philosophy, or its instrument the Reason, was to effect something like a new modus vivendi with its oppressor. There was no attempt as yet to proclaim the independence of philosophy. The ‘handmaid of theology’ was still compelled to keep to her subordinate place, however much she might endeavour to enlarge its duties or widen her own experience. Like the squire of a knight of chivalry, it was enough that she should be allowed to fight the battles of theology, to wield her self-forged weapons in her defence. For the moment Theology failed to perceive that the skill and prowess philosophy was thus able to attain might hereafter be applied to her own purposes, to secure, e.g. her own independence and the undisturbed exercise of her autocratic functions. Happily for human progress, this was precisely what took place. Reason, growing in strength and resolution as well as in the power of handling her native weapons, was not averse to employing both it and them in struggles outside the limits of theological dogma. This employment was justified in the eyes of the greatest mediæval thinkers by the inherently different methods which pertained to reason and faith. One was the region of belief and feeling, the other that of intellection and conviction. Gradually this original disparity took a more definite and pronounced form. Different methods might justifiably lay claim to diverse and even opposite results. If Faith ended in religious dogma, why might not Reason find her own outcome in philosophical convictions? In this case Reason might fairly assert within her province her own rightful autonomy, and proclaim her independence of the supremacy of Faith. Nor would it be necessary to go beyond this. Reason, both from fear and policy, had no desire to injure or supplant Faith. She did not even pretend to be the equal of Faith in every respect. All she pleaded for was a recognition of independence, deliverance from the heavy fetters and manacles that had so long bound her; freedom to pursue her own methods and avouch her conclusions without the perpetual supervision and the arrogant dictation of her acknowledged superior. At this precise stage Twofold Truth made its appearance. Reason and Faith were declared to imply two different territories, ruled by different laws and actuated largely by rival interests. This position seems to have been taken nearly contemporaneously both in France and Italy, especially in the universities of Padua and Paris. In the year 1240, e.g. we have a condemnation by William, Bishop of Paris, of certain ‘Detestable errors against the Catholic faith,’16 among which we find the opinion that ‘many truths are from eternity which are not God Himself,’ against which the bishop affirms the counter-proposition, that ‘only one truth is from eternity, which is God Himself, and that no truth exists from eternity which is not that truth.’ But a more elaborate proof of the extent and ramifications of Twofold Truth in the University of Paris is supplied by the denunciation in 1276 by Stephen, Bishop of Paris, of certain errors attributed to the Averroists, and professed by certain members of the university.17 Among these errors were certain assertions founded on the writings of the heathen which were held to be ‘true in philosophy, but not according to the Catholic faith, as if,’ adds the bishop, ‘there were two antagonistic truths, and as if in opposition to the truth of Holy Scripture there could be truth in the writings of these accursed Gentiles, of whom it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,” &c.’ — words which express clearly the general principle as well as the probable issue of double-truth. I will add a few more of these incriminated propositions, in order to show the method and real purport of this and similar conceptions in the thirteenth century. The bishop condemns the tenets—

  • “That the natural philosopher as such ought to deny the creation18 of the world, because his opinion is based upon natural causes and reasons. The Christian, on the other hand, may deny the eternity of the world because his opinion is founded on supernatural causes.”
  • “That creation is impossible, although the contrary may be held as a matter of faith (secundum fidem).”
  • “That no question is reasonably disputable which a philosopher’ ought not to dispute and determine : because reasons are received from things. To philosophy, however, pertains the consideration of all things according to their various parts.”
  • “That the wise of the world are the only philosophers.”
  • “That there is no state more excellent than the cultivation of philosophy.”
  • “That a man should possess a certain conclusion, it is necessary that it should be based upon principles known independently (per te). It is an error when a general proposition is made as to one certitude of apprehension and another of adhesion.”
  • “That a future resurrection should not be believed nor granted by a philosopher because it is impossible to ascertain its truth by reason—an error, because even the philosopher ought to surrender his intellect as a captive to the obedience of the faith of Christ.”
  • “That the individual soul is unchangeable according to philosophy, but changeable according to faith.”
  • “That man should not be satisfied with authority if he can attain any other kind of certitude.”

It is clear that a scheme of thought of which such maxims reveal the general method and purport is one characterized by no ordinary freedom and audacity. The Reason that could have educed those conclusions and set them forward in a determined self-asserting manner was never, we might suppose, in great danger of being extinguished by the authoritative dogmas of Faith. We begin to perceive, too, what a powerful lever was afforded by the dualism of Faith and Reason for emancipating the human intellect from the thralldom of Ecclesiasticism; for, leaving out of consideration the legitimacy of the instrument, we cannot deny its unrivaled potency. Never was there a more conspicuous instance of the effectiveness of the ‘Divide et impera’ method. The dogmas of the Church, with their manifold accretions of ignorance and superstition, were found to have lost at least half of their authority and thereby half of the terrorism they had long exercised over humanity. We cannot, I think, feel surprised that the Church from her standpoint of exclusiveness and infallibility should have hurled her anathemas against the authors and propagators of these opinions. Keenness of insight far less prompt than that which has always characterized Romanism might have easily discerned the issue involved in Twofold Truth. It clearly undermined her own position as the divine and sole accredited source of all truth. The verities she chose to stamp with her own brand were to have no longer the exclusive monopoly hitherto assigned them. Philosophy as a rival trader and bidder for the patronage of humanity set up a store of her own, with her own special commodities, authenticated by her own mark, and trader-like did not scruple to boast the superiority of her goods in certain respects to those retailed by the Church. Whatever other effects might attend this rivalry, at least there was opposition — rudimentary free-trade in human dogmas and opinions. A new condition of human liberty was established, which if not destined to bear much fruit for the present was full of promise for the distant future. The Church could only fall back on her ancient claim of oneness and individuality. To her boasted unity of form she was astute enough to add the philosophic conception of the essential oneness of all truth, and laid claim to both alike. Truth was not biform as those dualists asserted — a kind of centaur, half divine, half human. On the contrary, truth was ex vi termini, whole, complete, and indiscerptible, fully embodied and revealed in her own doctrine, form, and polity. It was to no purpose that divines like Abelard and Aquinas, and philosophers like Giordano Bruno, pleaded for the separate existence of secular truth, and expatiated on the natural diversity in object and method between Religion and Philosophy. Both the reasoning and the conclusion were alike disclaimed. As the virtues of the heathen were to earlier ecclesiastics only ‘splendid vices,’ so the mediaeval Church was eager to pronounce all truths not originated by herself, and which had never received her sanction, mere plausible forms of falsehood. Nor is this prejudice confined to any one part of the history of Romanism. Up to the present day she has reserved her most implacable hostility, her choicest vocabulary of vituperation, for the daring propounders of truth, of whatever kind, outside the limits of her own dogma.19 What was true of philosophy in the time of the Schoolmen became true of astronomy in the time of Galileo, and of general physical science in all subsequent periods.