The Eternal Verities

I found myself contemplating a phrase for the first in many years.

Posted Dec 01, 2014

In the way one’s little Mind takes over from time to time and pushes the lazy old brain to project a word, a phrase, a thought… into consciousness – out of the blue, as is said – so, the other day I found myself contemplating the phrase, ‘The Eternal Verities’…. for the first time in many years.

It was an expression used quite frequently by H.G. Benson, (Classics Master and Headmaster) during my last pre-university school year in England – the year before I found myself in the Royal Air Force in 1940…. just after the start of World War II.

Dear Dr. Benson: he gave us a terrific grounding in Greek and Roman culture. He started with Heraclitus (540 to 480 B.C.) – one of the deepest thinkers of Greek antiquity – who stressed the ‘contentment ‘ that comes when one can ‘order’ one’s life by employing ‘reason’, and striving ultimately to gain ‘wisdom’. ‘Old’ Benson, as we affectionately called him, was always urging us to listen to our ‘inner voices….’ the means, he said, by which ‘reason’ and ‘wisdom’ would lead us to Heraclitus’ form of ‘contentment’.

It was Claude Buffier, the 18th century French philosopher, who named such ‘Heraclitan-like’ aspects of human consciousness as The Eternal Verities – those imaginative and creative thoughts, feelings and ‘understandings’…. which present us with what we would call moral and humane values: insights enabling us to know and ‘feel’ the ‘positivity’ of those attitudes and actions which ring true and good…. and the ‘negativity’ of those which ring false and harmful.

Such ‘insights’ would seem to be contained unconsciously deep within the human psyche – ‘archetypal’ as Carl Jung described them – and can often present themselves to consciousness quite independently of what else is going on at the time.

The Verities. Here are some examples of such abstract ideas and sentiments: Truth; Right and Wrong; Good and Evil; Hope; Love; Compassion; Sympathy; Spirit; Soul; Conscience….. all unpremeditated ‘felt-thoughts’, as acceptable to consciousness as any sensory perception of actual things or events taking place in the outside world. But the question is, have such abstract, ‘inwardly held’, sensibilities always been present in the history of homo sapiens – and will such inner levels of awareness continue to be present …. in the contemporary, and future, members of the species we still call …. ‘sapiens’ ? Up to now, such sensibilities have been around for as long as the written historical records of human life have existed. The Maxims of Ptahotep, for example, written in hieroglyphs on a clay tablet at the beginning of the Third Millennium B.C. in Ancient Egypt, tell of the Pharaoh’s belief that the spirit of compassion and goodness should govern human affairs. And this was written some three-thousand years before the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius described his philosophy of life in Meditations – where he writes: ‘One Universe made up of all things; and one God in it all, and one principle of Being, and one Law, one Reason, shared by all thinking creatures, and one Truth.’

While Confucius, some four hundred years before Marcus Aurelius, declared ‘The aim of the superior man is Truth.’ To be followed by the Greek natural scientist and philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), declaring that…. ‘Wisdom, compassion and courage…. are the three universally recognized moral qualities of men….’ And in his Nicomachean Ethics he writes that ‘…. the states of virtue by which the soul possesses truth are five in number, i.e., art, scientific knowledge, practical wisdom, philosophic wisdom, intuitive reason…’

Such ‘Verities’ have illuminated the hearts and minds of men and women throughout history. I have given a few early examples above. Such inspired ways of ‘knowing’ have persisted…. and have driven our most profound attainments in science, philosophy, literature and the arts (not forgetting music)… throughout the centuries. Are they likely to persist: prove to be ‘Eternal’? Well, in 1944, we have the American writer and philosopher Lewis Mumford saying, in his Condition of Man …. ’A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search for truth and perfection, is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life.’

If, as I believe, Time and Inclination are necessary for such subjective illuminations to take place in the Mind, then I doubt that the future way of life will support their continuance. Nowadays – especially in the case of the younger generations – it seems less and less likely that they will grow up with an open and constantly reflective Mind; and that they will find less and less Time to do so.

“Nowadays’’, said one young man to me in a campus coffee shop, “in our electronic world it doesn’t work that way anymore. We don’t have the time or the need to reflect on life. There’s always something to do, somewhere new to go….

Well, so much for the Eternal Verities.

The words of the German philosopher Nietzsche are very relevant here:

Everywhere the wasteland grows; woe

To him whose wasteland is within.  

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