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Sci Tech    H4'ed 4/25/16

Quotations and Truth

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Message Manfred Weidhorn

Quotations and Truth

Tradition is accessed through language--at first, orally from one generation to the next, eventually through texts written for all of posterity. Thus the Oral Law becomes the volumes of the Talmud, of the Catholic Magisterium, of the Islamic Hadith or Sunnah. This written tradition, moreover, cannot be absorbed at once in its entirety. Small doses are necessary; hence, a portion of Scripture is recited on the day of rest (Friday, Saturday, or Sunday). The bridge connecting most persons with the written tradition is therefore the quotation; that is, a small passage of the text that addresses a particular issue.

a shelf of antiquarian quotation books
a shelf of antiquarian quotation books
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The quotation takes on larger importance when the task is to provide an answer to a burning issue. The definitive role of a quotation in establishing the "truth" is what differentiates a "traditional" or theocentric society from a "modern" or secular society . Thus in a traditional setting, a Rabbi or a Catholic Theologian or Muslim Ayatollah says that, on the basis of some textual evidence, A=B; another one says no, on the basis of different textual evidence, or of the same text read differently by the light of another text, actually A=C. After the merits of both positions are canvassed, the matter is settled by the citation of authoritative commentators (e. g., Maimonides, Aquinas), or, when necessary, the Biblical text itself. That ends the discussion, with the quotation from what tradition considers sacred writing being the ultimate proof.

In a secular, rationalist, modern setting, the resolution of a problem is achieved through reasoning, which usually includes observation of natural phenomena, as well as experience or experimentation, which involves distorting natural phenomena. As Bacon pithily put it in an age of judicial torture, an experiment is torturing nature to force her to confess the truth. Any quotation is consequently merely an accessory or an adornment, reinforcing what has already been established by other means. Text alone--like the tradition in which it originated--no longer has the authority to dictate any answer to a problem. There are, in fact, no sacred texts.

Put differently, the quotation from a holy text puts one in contact with divine precepts and offers the goal of all inquiry--the "truth." The quotation in a secular setting, on the other hand, puts one in contact with the wisdom of the human species, which is not at all necessarily the "truth." In the first instance, tradition being binding, quotation is absolutely necessary; in the second case, tradition being dubious, quotation is optional. The quotation does not prove

anything definitively--proof having been provided by either reason and/or experience--but it does provide the sense that one is working within an intellectual community, that the offered answer accords with the answer others have independently arrived at, whether through experience, intuition, or imagination. The modern use of a quotation merely means that the rational answer is not out of touch with common sense and that the person presenting that modern answer is fulfilling the human need--man being a herd animal--to be in accord with other thinking individuals. Instead of the comfort of being on God's side, we moderns, in proving a thesis and then quoting some thinker, have the comfort of being on the side of (presumably) thoughtful fellow human beings. Instead of God, we have our secular community. Instead of divine marching orders, we have human norms.

To give a summary of this matter is to say that, in a traditional approach, the sacredness of a text gives magical powers to words and thus to quotations. But in the desacralized modern view, text is supplemented by experience (experiments and surveys, which eventually become that modern quasi-holy writ--statistics), and words are replaced by numbers. As the power of tradition and of intellectual authority is diminished in modern society, the role of text and quotation is consequently marginalized.

So it is that Socrates (in this regard anticipating "modernity"), pushing a line of reasoning, says, "It comes in fact to what Euripides said"; "And shall we believe Hesiod when he says"?" "Certainly we shall"--i.e., poetry echoes and corroborates reasoning but does not prove. And Galileo, who inaugurated modern science, explicitly said that poetry--and even Scripture as traditionally taught --- has no role to play in scientific discourse. The old physics relied heavily on Aristotelian texts; the new physics says, "nullius in verba [on the basis of no one's say so]." Hence quotation goes the way of authority, and hence Scripture or Aristotle, which used to settle disputes, must be reinterpreted to accord with experimental evidence, must play second fiddle to sense experience and mathematics. The change in atmosphere, beginning with Luther, can be seen in a devout worthy like Milton. The most recent scholarly biographer of Milton, Barbara Lewaski, remarks: "He uses much of his preface to construct an elaborate narrative about writing his divorce tracts first and then discovering various confirming authorities: 'I owe no light or leading receav'd from any man in the discovery of this truth'" (other than the Bible, of course). One of his tracts "concludes with a historical survey that reviews the status of divorce in law and theory from early Christian times to the present," which he offers "only to satisfy 'the weaker sort' who rely on authority."

This is not a matter of religious or moral or scientific issues exclusively. We see the two approaches clashing in the legal system. Conservatives ask what was the intention of the Founders in writing the Constitution (specifically nowadays the Second and Fourteenth Amendments); hence their ready use of quotations from the writers of the Constitution as dispositive. Liberals, on the other hand, say that the Constitution must take account of changing circumstances, and the intention and wording of the Founders must therefore be interpreted broadly; hence authoritative-sounding quotations from long ago take a back seat to the findings of recent experience (e.g., statistics). Both sides are, of course, right, and that is why we have democratic politics and why we have the perpetual pendulum swing between--the rotation in power of-- the two sides. Conservatives, in short, treat the Constitution as their religious counterparts treat the Bible--inerrant, unchanging, literally, while Liberals treat it as Reform Jews and liberal Protestants treat the Bible: loosely.

The resulting modern aporia is nicely dramatized by a passage from Jewish lore about the great disputes between the rabbis of the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai. Wearying of the inability to settle the matter, the rabbis decided at last on a defining course of action: to leave the matter for God to settle. The response that came from on high was that--both Houses were right. Here was a traditional quotation with sacred origins but without practical use.

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For 51 years Professor of English at Yeshiva University. Author of 13 books and over a hundred essays.
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