Jacques Maritain Center : The First Principles of Knowledge

Chapter VII.
Belief on Human Testimony.


  1. Belief on testimony is a special subject, calling for special treatment.
  2. Naturalness of such belief, both from the knowledge and the veracity of the speaker and from the expectations of the hearer.
  3. Testimony is one undoubted source of certitude, and a very abundant one.
  4. Single and cumulative witness.
  5. Points on which we must be guarded. (a) We must distinguish the completely from the partially feasible in history, and remember that much history does not rise above probability. (b) A wrong point of view may disturb a whole body of facts. (c) Fallacy of excessive reliance on internal evidence, especially where the reader tries to impose his own circumstances on a writer in quite other circumstances. (d) Fallacy of the argument from silence.
  6. Providence in history.

1. WHILE it is clear that the veracity of the senses, as has been shown before, forms part of the problem of our belief in the testimony of other men, it is equally clear that it is not the whole problem. There is something special about our trust in the word of another, which calls for a separate treatment. Hence it is unsatisfactory to find the elder Mill arguing thus:{1} "Belief in events or real existences has two foundations; first, our experience, and second, the testimony of others. When we begin, however, to look at the second of these foundations more closely, it soon appears that it is not in reality distinct from the first. For what is testimony? It is in itself an event. When, there. fore, we believe anything in consequence of testmony, weonly believe one event in consequence of another. But this is the general account of our belief in events." Yes; and still things which agreein Being events may differ in being events of a specifically different order; and such is the case in the present instance. Manifestly belief in testimony has its peculiar nature, not a little important to a Christian, whose religion is historic and rests on historic foundations.

2. Belief in testimony is natural, and natural on its two sides. First, man being intelligent, is apt to discover truth, and, apart from extrinsic reasons, is inclined to declare the truth as he knows it. Even the downright liar, according to James Mill's estimate, for one lie that he utters tells a thousand truths. Secondly, on the side of the recipient, he has been accustomed from childhood to depend on the information of his elders, and from his knowledge of himself judges what he is to expect from others. Mr. Bain, therefore, seems to be throwing a needless mystery over the case, when he talks of "a primitive credulity in the mind," from which he derives "belief in testimony," and which he: describes as "a primitive disposition to receive all testimony," till sad experience of deception gradually modifies the too ready instinct. Of course, children are simple and credulous, but the appeal to "a primitive instinct" is hardly necessary to account for the fact.{2}

3. That testimony, oral and written, is a source, and an abundant source of certitude, cannot, in concrete cases, be plausibly gainsaid. The whole plausibility lies in keeping to the abstract, and is. well illustrated by Mr. Balfour's ingenious arguments against the theoretic trustworthiness of any old manuscripts.{3} The author's subtleties are telling enough, when the concrete circumstances are not at hand whereby to put a rude stop to their light and airy play; but take them out of the air, weight them with the load of terrestrial facts, and straightway their frolics are over. It is simply demonstrable by way of testimony, that Alexander of Macedon and Julius Caesar were successful leaders of armies, and produced notable effects in the world's history; also that Demosthenes and Cicero were powerful in speech; and that there was a writer of comedies called Aristophanes, specimens of whose work we yet have. In the history of our own country there have certainly been a Roman, and an Anglo-Saxon, and a Norman conquest. For in regard to these events we may be sure of the knowledge and of the veracity of the witnesses, just the two requisites for trustworthy testimony. And if we test the sceptical generalities which are urged against the possibility of any historic certainty, by instances like the above, the adversary will produce little impression, when he argues, in the abstract, that the occurrence of a fact is only one out of several equally possible causes for its assertion; that a tradition grows weaker with every transmission through a new channel; that the original force of an authority becomes disamong its countless recorders, and that each witness being fallible, so are any number of witnesses. Without further argument, therefore, we may take the proposition as established, that certitude in reliance on testimony may often be had. When had, it is what we have called "moral certitude," in the sense that it reposes on a know ledge of the actions of moral agents, or men, in speaking the truth. It is real certitude, though not metaphysical; and so Mr. Mahaffy, in the Introduction to his Prolegomena to Ancient History, is granting all we contend for, when he declares that historic belief may be beyond all doubt, but can never reach mathematical demonstration. If it is beyond all doubt, it is quite certain, and that is all for which we stipulate.

4. Unquestionably a number of independent witnesses are often required to establish an event; and the special force of the argument then lies, not only in the fact that it is unlikely so many together should be guilty of a lie, but also in the impossibility that they should have succeeded in lying consistently. When a number of witnesses are agreed to perjure themselves in a court of law, about the only safe way to secure uniformity in the narration of a fictitious event of some complexity, is to eract the scene before the eyes and ears of all. Very impossible is it that without any previous arrangements writers should independently tell one intricate story; and sometimes it can be proved, not only that there was no prior conspiracy, but also that such conspiracy would have been ineffectual, because of other modes of information outside the circle of the presumable conspirators. Busy with these considerations about the value of a multiplicity of vouchers, sometimes people are led into the assertion that never can a single witness be a sufficient authority for a certain assent. Without entering into detail, we may protest that this declaration, in its universality, is a calumny against human nature.

5. So much in general about belief on testimony; in particular some cautions are needed for the guidance of our judgment -- cautions which may be illustrated, but not exhausted, in the following observations:

(a) We must distinguish the quite feasible in history, from the partially feasible. If the historian binds himself to put down nothing but what he can fairly conclude to be beyond all controversy, he will be very meagre and dry. He will be cut off from most of what is called the philosophy of history, and reduced almost to the position of a chronicler. Such safe but jejune writing is liked neither by authors nor by readers; and hence it becomes necessary for both sides to recognize that large portions of history, as now composed, do not rise above probability. Consequently counter probabilities must be treated with the respect due to them, not as though one party were entitled to the monopoly of conjectural interpretation. Even the most probable account need not be the truest. It is to be feared that not sufficient allowance is made for the essentially problematic character of much historical writing. Hence, just as when we were considering physical certitude, we distinguished the safer from the more venturesome attempts, so in considering moral certitude we must make a like distinction. And in the category of the venturesome we should place most books which treat of comparative mythology, comparative religion, the origin of social institutions, and such matters, in which documents are scarce or obscure, or written in a language ill understood, while inferences are often marked more by ingenuity than conclusiveness. Sobriety of judgment in these subjects characterizes rather the dispassionate reader of rival systems than enthusiastic partisans.

(b) Another thing to note is how wonderfully a man with a point of view, especially if he is selective in his incidents, or even inventive, can make facts conform to that point of view, without at all proving that he is right. A glaring instance is Draper's Conflict of Science and Religion, a book which it is well to quote as an example, because it has had a wide circulation, and has done much harm to the cause of truth. Draper may have been quite honest, as honest as he declares himself to have been; but at any rate he has a wonderful power of making his point of view tell upon facts, instead of vice versa. Let me illustrate this power by a single but fairly chosen instance, which, in this country, will be more easily appreciated than other ecclesiastical events which have been not less misrepresented. Fancy a man, who in the light of modern research, could categorically assert without the shadow of a qualification that, "a conviction that public celibacy is private wickedness mainly determined the laity, as well as the government in England, to suppress the monasteries." This example will do to illustrate the force of "point of view," and its influence on Mr. Draper's credibility.

(c) A third danger is excessive reliance on what are called "internal evidences," a danger all the greater when a critic insists on carrying his own times and circumstances into distant and differently situated ages. The full bearings of this remark can be appreciated only by the actual examination of cases in point; but at least its general drift may be made intelligible. Where we are abstract, metaphysical, or literal, other people have been concrete, pictorial, or metaphorical. The unity, the sequence, ,and the completeness which we, as a matter of course, try to give to a historical narrative, they never dreamt of giving; but they were fragmentary, logically and chronologically " non-sequacious," and without pretence to adequacy. To mention only one instance out of several, the reticences of the Old Testament are many and manifest, especially on points of mere secular detail. How garrulous old Herodotus would have been, if he had known as much about Egypt, Nineveh, Babylon, and Persia as the sacred writers must have known; yet their remarks upon mere manners and characteristics are but incidental. There is no sketching for the sake of sketching. To suppose, then, that sacred history is something other than what it is, is to misinterpret it by judging it on a false standard. But upon so burning a question we had better stop short with what is obviously only an example by the way, rather than run the risk of damaging an important cause, by appearing to state its whole defence where no such statement is attempted.

In profane history, however, we may pursue the line of illustration already entered upon. A great error is committed by supposing old authors to have written with that completeness which is expected in our days of abundant books, of world-wide intercommunion, of accumulated results gathered fronexploration in all fields, of easy means of reference to what are pre-eminently works for reference, and of recognized canons for literary production. Josephus{4} was speaking to our point when he made the apologetic remark, that it was no new thing for one people not to be acquainted with the history of another, "a fact true also of Europe, in which about a city so old and warlike as Rome, mention is not made either by Herodotus, or Thucydides, or any of their contemporaries; only late in the course of events Greece became acquainted with Rome." He adds that Greek writers knew little of Gatil and Spain. "How, then," he continues, "is it proper matter of wonder that our people also were unknown to many, and that a nation so separate, so remote from the sea, living after its own peculiar customs, should have given no occasion for writers to make mention of its doings?" At least there is a substantial force in this argument; and though it was the fate of the Jews to come into very rude contact with the great empires of antiquity, Egyptian, Assyrian, Persian, Greek, and Roman, yet Tacitus is a glaring example how little an intelligent historian may have known about Israel. And even with regard to their own history, the incompleteness of ancient writers is further instanced by that want of emphasis or proportion of which Cardinal Newman speaks: "Those who are acquainted with the Greek historians know well that they, and particularly the greatest and severest of them, relate events so simply, calmly, unostentatiously, that an ordinary reader does not recognize what events are great, and what events are little; and on turning to some modern history in which they are commented on, will find to his surprise that a battle or treaty, which was despatched in half a line by the Greek author, is perhaps a turning point in the whole history, and was certainly known by him to be so."

The result of this otherness of conditions in old times was, that occasionally we find just saved from oblivion an event which we should preserve in a thousand ways. In these matters instances are everything, and the following instance, as recorded by Sir C. Lyell, in his Principles of Geology, is much to our purpose. "The younger Pliny, although giving a circumstantial detail of so many physical facts, and describing the eruption, the earthquake, and the shower of ashes which fell at Stabiae, makes no allusion to the sudden overwhelming of two large and populous cities, Herculaneum and Pompeii. In explanation of this omission, it has been suggested that his chief object was simply to give Tacitus a full account of his uncle's death. It is worthy of remark, however, that had the buried cities never been discovered, the accounts transmitted to us of their tragical end might well have been discredited by the majority, so vague and general are the narratives, or so long subsequent to the event." What Pliny had strangely omitted nearly failed of being supplied by others, in which case his omission might easily have been taken as proof of the negative. Now, let us compare this case with an equally strange omission in more recent times, and about a more recent calamity -- an omission, however, amply made up for by other sources, because the event occurred in modern times. Spinoza's friend, Oldenburg, was in London during the great plague; but, says Dr. Martineau, in his Study of Spinoza, "when we remember what was passing in the streets of London and on the Northern Sea during the September and autumn of 1665, it is strange to see how slight a vestige it has left on the correspondence of its witnesses or participators. In the plague-stricken city where Oldenburg wrote, ten thousand victims perished in a week; but apparently the visitation would have elicited no remark, had it not, by the interruption of business, delayed the arrival of a book, and suspended the regular meetings of the Royal Society!" Had such occasion not caused the mention, and had Oldenburg remained quite silent about the calamity, we have it, nevertheless, preserved for us in numberless other records. But in ancient times the perpetuation of such a fact might depend on a single writer, whose works were to be extant in distant time, and he might either fail to say anything, or say it so offhandedly, that the event would be either not known, or wholly under-estimated. We are warned, therefore, not to rely overmuch on the argumentum ex silentio, which some critics urge to an extravagant degree, in the case of writers who never dreamt of being exhaustive.

While we are on the subject of the differences between ancient and modern historians, the confession may freely be made, that the way in which, innocently or fraudulently, forgeries used to be committed, is very surprising to us in these modern days, and the fact much perplexes that historic truth which we wish to defend as attainable. Still an age which could so accept forgeries was also an age clumsy in the formation of them. Döllinger instances a stupid attempt to pass off some volumes at Rome as of Numa's authorship; they were supposed to have been discovered in an old stone coffin, and were written in Greek and Latin. But as paper and Greek prose were evidently articles not so readily to be had in Numa's days, the imposture was betrayed. Similarly modern criticism has been able to detect certain forgeries, though sometimes it has been too keen after a case for exposure. Neither is it first of all within modern times that any critical power has shown itself among scholars. The ancients were not all of them and altogether fools on the point, as many recorded criticisms of theirs remain to prove. In spite of many. regrettable forgeries, therefore, we have a distinguishable history.

6. It is fashionable, in what claim to be enlightened circles, to ridicule Bossuet's historical compendium; but whether he has succeeded or not in tracing the providential course throughout the ages, we must bear in mind that there is a Providence in history, and even in making ascertainable to us certain vital portions of history. It would have been against the Providence of God to have allowed the two connected dispensations, Jewish and Christian, such a verisimilitude of historic support, had they been really mythical creations; or to have left them so dimly recorded that we could not substantially trace out the record. For, as one of the Fathers remarks, we might protest, "Lord, if we are deceived, Thou hast deceived us;" or on the other hand we might say, "Lord, Thou has left us without sufficient light."


(1) As an instance of the endeavour to be overclever in historic science, we may take the case of Buckle, who so gloried in his imaginary triumph as a philosophic historian. Borrowing some ideas from others, for his conception was not new, he proved to his own satisfaction, that militarism must die out with the advance of popular power; that wars were made by a small class, who looked to their own emolument or honour, but would not be made by the masses, whose interests were for peace. In Europe he fancied that, the popular will being dominant, we had ended the age of wars. The outbreak of the Crimean war displeased him, but did not upset his conviction. He pointed to the fact, that the quarrel originated between Russia and Turkey, two of the least advanced nations which had a footing in Europe. Littré, labouring under a like pleasant delusion, was more effectually roused from his dream; for he lived to see, what Buckle never saw, a succession of European wars, including the Franco-German, in which last grim struggle he had the poignant sense of being on the beaten side. In 1850 he had written: "Peace has been foreseen by sociology these last twenty-five years. Now-a-days sociology foresees peace for all the time to come of our present transitional state, at the close of which a republican confederation will have united the West, and have put a stop to armed contests."{a}

In 1878 his comment on the above was: "Would that I could blot out those unhappy pages! Scarcely had I prophesied, in my childish enthusiasm, that there would be no more military defeats in Europe, but political defeats would take their place, than there happened the military defeat of Russia in the Crimea, of Austria in Italy, of France at Sedan and at Metz, and, quite recently, that of Turkey in the Balkans."{b} Thus poor Littré and Buckle were sadly out in their calculations; yet, reading their arguments, we find them quite up to the average plausibility, such as is to be found in recent theories of history and criticism. The course seems triumphant till it be rudely interfered with. M. Pasteur further tells us of the disappointed Littré:{c} "The work published by him in 1879 teems with the blunders into which Positivism betrayed him."{b}

(2) In his work on the Transmission of Ancient Books, Mr. Taylor thus speaks of the nature of old historic records: "Many instances may be adduced of the most extraordinary silence of historians, relative to facts with which they must have been acquainted, and which seemed to lie directly in the course of their narrative, Important facts are mentioned by no ancient writer, though they are unquestionably established by the evidence of existing inscriptions, coins, statues, or buildings."

{1} Analysis, Vol. I. c. xi. p. 382.

{2} Deductive Logic, Introduction, n. 17, p. 12; Inductive Logic, Bk. VII, c. iii.

{3} Defence of Philosophic Doubt, c. iv. pp. 53, seq.

{4} Contra Apione, Lib. 1, n. 12.

{a} "La paix est prévue depuis vingt ans par la sociologie. Aujourd'hui la sociologie prévoit la paix pour tout l'avenir de notre transition, au but de laquelle une confédération républicaine aura uni l'Occident et mis un terme aux conflits armés."

{b} Ces malheureux pages! je voudrais pouvoir les effacer. A peine avais-je prononcé, dans mon puéril enthousiasme, qu'en Europe il n'y aurait plus de défaits militaires, que celles-ci désormais seraient remplacées par des défaits politiques, que vinrent la défaite militaire de la Russie en Crimée, celle d'Autriche en Italie, celle de la France à Sedan et à Metz, et tout recemment celle de la Turquie dans les Balkans."

{c} "L'ouvrage qu'il a publié en 1879 est remplie des méprises que la doctrine positivists lui a fait commettre en politique et en sociologie."

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