On the Search for Truth:
This examination of the concept “the search for truth” grew arduously from the following topic proposal:
Some critical theorists have posited that one may “induce” truth by considering a text (or set of facts) from a multiplicity of viewpoints. Our judicial system arguably presumes this as well. The Ring and the Book certainly presents us with a range of viewpoints on Guido’s crime. What do you think this work teaches us about the search for truth? Is [the search for truth] a matter of reconciling or blending disparate narratives? Is it simply choosing one narrative over the others? Is it something else?
In parsing the topic proposal, several elements present themselves for elucidation before, yet all the while, honing in on its kernel regarding “the search for truth.” Three preliminary elements come to mind. First, this exposition requires a look at the meaning in both law and literature of “inducing truth.” Next, “Guido’s crime” deserves attention from historical, legal, and narrative perspectives. Simultaneous with examining Guido’s crime from these perspectives, the final preliminary element, lessons learned from The Ring and the Book, merits discussion.
Since so many different lessons present themselves as curious possibilities for analysis, owing largely to the dualistic reading of The Ring and the Book both as law and literature, this paper will focus on what the work teaches about the institution of marriage with respect to natural law. Then, as lessons from Browning on the evolution of marital relations and responsibilities emerge, hopefully a specific, concluding look at a current trend in the institution of marriage, arrived at through reason and insight, will also emerge to help illustrate the more general path to the search for truth, a path that combines consideration of facts or narratives with an almost indefinable intuition.
Given essentially the twofold task of the judicial system – that of reaching decisions and that of meting out punishments – the search for legal truth becomes somewhat more complex. Indeed, one illustrative instance of such complexity reflects the sometime judicial practice of serving up truth (little “t”) while acknowledging a more profound Truth (capital “T” Eternal truth). Such cases, probably rare, consist of reaching a finding for the plaintiff on a little “t” manmade truth (law) but meting out a negligible punishment for the defendant because some insight or gut feeling sees an overriding, perhaps even contrary, larger Truth. Two scholars referenced later in this analysis, Simon Petch and Lyman Windolph, discuss further these differences between little truth and big Truth or what they call “positive law” and “natural law.” However, before looking more closely at these differences and the twofold task of the judicial system in The Ring and the Book, a working definition of “inducing truth” must be forged.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “induce” as “to lead (a person), by persuasion or some influence or motive that acts upon the will, to some action, condition, belief, etc.” Further, it says that to induce is “to infer by reasoning from particular facts to general principles.” In the same manner as an inductive argument in math or science, then, to “induce” truth in law or literature implies reasoning from particular facts or various narratives to general principles or laws that represent truth. Contrast this with “deduce,” which means “to derive or draw as a conclusion from something already known or assumed.” Both types of arguments reason logically to their conclusion; however, the former type reasons from particular facts to truth or law while the latter type reasons from truth or law to a particular conclusion. The difference becomes important as the twofold task of the judicial system gets examined and as the discussion looks at the search for truth in a particular case and the search for capital “T” Truth in the more general or absolute sense.
Inducing truth in law seems fairly straightforward, at least as a methodology. Given various facts as put forth by eyewitnesses, expert witnesses, and opposing attorneys, inducing truth becomes a matter of choosing what – or whom – to believe. In one situation, one particular testimony may prove overridingly believable. In another situation, the truth may derive from an amalgamation of all “facts” presented, or it may emerge from a gut feeling rather than any specific testimony. Other cases may combine a little of all the above.
Inducing truth in literature works similarly. However, instead of hearing different witnesses and their versions of the facts, the reader usually meets the main character either through the author’s omniscient narration or the main character’s first person narration. Although other forms of narration exist, generally the reader must evaluate the believability of whoever tells the story and compare it with secondary characters (perhaps including a foil), type of dialogue, and other traits of characters involved. Injecting into the story his or her prior or evolving knowledge of its historical, societal, and other aspects – including, most likely, a personal gut feeling – the reader then arrives at an overall conclusion, inducing truth once again from all the “facts.”
One interesting and fundamental difference between inducing truth in law and inducing truth in literature rests on the ability of readers to revisit literature several times over the period of their lives, changing or modifying induced truth with each visit. In the judicial system, however many times induced truth may change through the appeals process, it eventually reaches a “final” induced truth. An orderly society then uses that final induced truth as precedent for future legal opinions. The judicial system may or may not give substantial weight to precedents, based on factors too numerous to exhaustingly examine. However, the importance of precedent at least depends on credibility ascribed to the opinion by other legal scholars and authority, on the most current body of scientific knowledge, on the most current societal norms, and apparently on judicial perspective. Notably, although induced truth, even final induced truth, in the judicial system still allows for evolutionary change, the judicial system cannot rectify capital punishment, especially once executed, if new facts or new induced truths come to light.
Browning’s masterpiece, The Ring and the Book, evokes contemplation both on induced truth and on capital punishment. Using Browning primarily, this examination focuses on the former but touches at times on the latter. Although viewed as literature in its primary form, Browning’s recounting of a 1698 triple murder case showcases law by presenting the reader with essentially ten viewpoints or sets of facts on Guido’s crime. That Guido and four henchmen killed Guido’s young wife Pompilia and her parents Violante and Pietro is not in question. The trial focuses on marriage as an institution and to what ends a husband may go with an adulterous wife – although historically, at least at the time of Guido’s beheading, the further question of Pompilia’s alleged adultery remained unsettled. Browning verifies the focus on the institution of marriage when he translates the title page of The Ring’s source, The Old Yellow Book:
Wherein it is disputed if, and when,
Husbands may kill adulterous wives, yet ‘scape
The customary forfeit. (I, 129-31)
“Guido’s crime,” then, to be fair, only exists as a crime in The Ring and the Book because the Roman courts so adjudicated it 170 years prior. The reader, if an actual juror “inducing truth” from Browning’s poem, must consider all the viewpoints in order to decide the criminality of Guido’s “action.” The twofold nature of justice in such a reading, then, would include reaching a decision about Guido’s action followed by meting out appropriate punishment.
That such a question about crime and punishment exists given Guido’s admission of killing Pompilia and her parents – an admission he would readily have made even without the barbaric torture he endured – seems quite foreign to a reader in today’s society. However, in his introduction, Browning expresses the doubt that existed in seventeenth-century Italian society characterized by the then-current institution of marriage and the husband’s authoritarian role:
A fury-fit of outraged innocence,
A passion of betrayed simplicity:
Punish Count Guido? For what crime, what hint
O’ the colour of a crime, inform us first!
Reward him rather! Recognize, we say,
In the deed done, a righteous judgment dealt!
All conscience and all courage, – there’s our Count
Charactered in a word; and, what’s more strange,
He had companionship in privilege,
Found four courageous conscientious friends:
Absolve, applaud all five, as props of law,
Sustainers of society! (I, 182-93)
Later, in the testimony of both Guido and his defense counsel, Browning narrates facts conducive to this view of the status of married women in seventeenth-century Italy. Given that view, the difficulty of inducing truth comes to light – especially the difficulty of inducing Truth with a capital “T.” (This paper does not go on to consider the additional homicides of Pompilia’s mother and father.)
As no juror or judge can bring to a hearing a perfectly objective mind (implying a machinelike judicial system), and as no reader can begin a work without at least some basic preconceived set of morals (even “Baby’s First Book” does not impress upon a clean slate), Browning’s The Ring and the Book – or any work for that matter – does not teach in a vacuum. Deriving lessons from Browning about the search for truth must presuppose that each reader brings to the text his or her personal notions of right and wrong, good and evil, and a sense of justice predicated on acceptance, rejection, or adaptation of familial, societal, cultural, historical, religious, and any other influential norms.
The impossibility of approaching a text or set of facts with perfect objectivity does not imply abandoning the effort, however. The goal of attaining and maintaining perfect objectivity serves a necessary purpose. For the good of society, judicial systems perceived as equitable and valid depend on some semblance of objectivity; that is, judges and juries should reach consistent, dependable, and in the sense of science and reason, reproducible decisions. The National Assembly of France, in 1789, declared as one of seventeen sacred rights of citizens the following:
The law is an expression of the will of the community. All citizens have a right to concur, either personally or by their representatives, in its formation. It should be the same to all, whether it protects or punishes; and all being equal in its sight, are equally eligible to all honours, places, and employments, according to their different abilities, without any other distinction than that created by their virtues and talents. (6)
Even though all citizens may not concur, all possess the right to concur. To maintain order and the rule of law in a democratic society, a majority of citizens must concur that the judicial system is fair and equitable in reaching decisions and meting out punishments.
The specific difficulty of listening to Guido’s testimony with empathy arises from his comical, inept, and generally repugnant presentation. In reading Guido’s first testimony, Buckler states that to be objective and give the testimony relevance the reader must normalize Guido. Buckler recommends three techniques. First, consciously set aside all reports, rumors, and testimony and just see Guido for himself. Second, identify with the incidents and motivations Guido relates and do not look at them with preconceived notions of the events; try to understand and empathize with Guido. Third, allow for individual differences in manner and speech, allowances the reader would expect were he or she on trial. When all testimony eventually gets considered, the reader’s induced truth may not drastically change, but Guido will have been given an objective hearing (103-05). The recommendations sound like good court instructions to members of a jury.
With an objective approach to Guido, then, one can draw out of his testimony a certain reliance on the age-old concept of honor and a perceived dependence of the judicial system on religious precedence and natural law. A few examples illustrate his position.
Now for truth!
I’ the name of the indivisible Trinity! (V, 120-21)
Will the Court of its charity teach poor me
Anxious to learn, of any way i’ the world,
Allowed by custom and convenience, save
This same which, taught from my youth up, I trod?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
If what I gave in barter, style and state
And all that hangs to Franceschinihood,
Were worthless, – why, society goes to ground,
Its rules are idiot’s-rambling. Houour of birth, –
If that thing has no value, cannot buy
Something with value of another sort,
You’ve no reward nor punishment to give
I’ the giving or the taking honour; straight
Your social fabric, pinnacle to base,
Comes down a-clatter like a house of cards.
Get honour, and keep honour free from flaw,
Aim at still higher honour…
Admit that honour is a privilege. (V, 430-60)
Father and mother shall the woman leave,
Cleave to the husband, be it for weal or woe:
There is the law: what sets this law aside
In my particular case? (V, 581-84)
So did I find my wife.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“Why, that then was the time,” you interpose,
“Or then or never, while the fact was fresh,
To take the natural vengeance: there and thus
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
’T was requisite to slay the couple, Count!” (V, 1063-73)
Let me begin to live again, I did
God’s bidding and man’s duty, so, breathe free;
Look you to the rest! I heard Himself prescribe,
That great Physician, and dared lance the core
Of the bad ulcer. (V, 1702-06)
I claim law –
Cry, by the higher law whereof your law
O’ the land is humbly representative. (V, 1761-63)
Well, let me have the benefit, just so far,
O’ the fact announced, – my wife then is my wife,
I have allowance for a husband’s right. (V, 1816-18)
Use of religious verbiage and appeals to natural law and to societal norms like honor and custom permeate Guido’s defense. Note particularly his call to the Trinity, his misquoting of scripture, his appeal to the “great Physician,” and his claim for a “higher law.” Along with his frequent references to honor and custom, without which “society goes to ground,” and his plea for the validity and legality of “natural vengeance,” some citizens – especially in seventeenth-century Italy – would find his defense plausible, as do Half-Rome and Tertium Quid in earlier chapters.
Windolph goes further to emphasize the close relationship between religion and natural law in his analysis on Browning and law in literature. Claiming that Browning’s principal concern lies with but two kinds of law – positive law and natural law – Windolph defines them thus:
Positive law is that sort of law with which the science of jurisprudence is concerned – the sort of law that is laid down and established by the votes of legislative bodies, by the decrees of dictators, and by the decisions of courts. However we may define it, it has a human origin that can be identified. It is the law that is, and the positivists insist that in order to think clearly and usefully on legal and political subjects we must distinguish it sharply from the law that ought to be . . . (70-71)
[For natural law,] I will give you three definitions. (1) Natural law is so much of the law of God as is revealed to men by conscience and reason. (2) It consists of those “principles of conduct [which] are common to and admitted by all men who try to behave reasonably.” (3) It is “the expression of right reason, inhering in nature and man, and having ethically a binding force as a rule of civil conduct.” You will notice that all three definitions contain some form of the word “reason.” You will also notice that natural law, unlike positive law, is not conceived as having a human origin. It has human interpreters, of course, but it comes from some other source. (72)
Although sometimes misinterpreted as a “doctrine peculiar to the Catholic Church,” Windolph touts natural law’s acceptance and traditional usage by various non-Catholic legal philosophers, Lao-tse, the Stoics, Cicero, English common law, Aristotle, and Justinian (72-3). In fact, Guido when speaking of “the higher law,” concludes “Justinian’s Pandects only make precise / What simply sparkled in men’s eyes before” (1781-82).
Natural law tradition plays a role not only in Guido’s testimony but also in defense counsel’s appeal to the law of honor and in the Pope’s ultimate decision on appeal, though the Pope turns around natural law to proclaim the innocence of Pompilia. Passages from defense counsel include the following:
Therefore we shall demonstrate first of all
That Honour is a gift of God to man
Precious beyond compare: which natural sense
Of human rectitude and purity, –
Which white, man’s soul is born with, . . . (VIII, 458-62)
Nor can revenge of injury done here
To the honour proved the life and soul of us,
Be too excessive, too extravagant:
Such wrong seeks and must have complete revenge.
Show we this, first, on the mere natural ground. (VIII, 476-80)
“Bird mates with bird, beast genders with his like,
And brooks no interference.” Bird and beast?
The very insects … if they wive or no,
How dare I say when Aristotle doubts?
But the presumption is they likewise wive,
At least the nobler sorts; for take the bee
As instance, – copying King Solomon, –
Why that displeasure of the bee to aught
Which savours of incontinency, makes
The unchaste a very horror to the hive?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“Such is their hatred of immodest act.
They fall upon the offender, sting to death.” (VIII, 486-501)
If a poor animal feel honour smart,
Taught by blind instinct nature plants in him,
Shall man, – confessed creation’s master-stroke,
Nay, intellectual glory, nay, a god,
Nay, of the nature of my Judges here, –
Shall man prove the insensible, the block,
The blot o’ the earth he crawls on to disgrace? (VIII, 532-38)
From beast to man next mount we – ay, but, mind,
Still mere man, not yet Christian, – that, in time! (VIII, 550-51)
In the passages above, Archangelis, Guido’s defense counsel, seemingly validates the law of honor by citing animal behavior. However, Simon Petch regards the argument of Archangelis as problematic because he misses the implications of what he says at various points, essentially contradicting himself:
The animal life is both that which rises to the defense of honor, and that which falls below the defense of honor: honor is both grounded in, and has to transcend, the “animal life.” Given this uncertain hierarchy of flesh and blood, it is unsurprising that “nature” is a significantly unstable term in the lawyer’s discourse. (107)
In his analysis Petch concludes as bumbling and inept the narrative of Archangelis.
Petch also points out that the Pope similarly uses natural law tradition in the form of animal behavior to defend Pompilia. The same natural law, then, in the mouth of the Pope saves Pompilia and condemns Guido:
Thou at first prompting of what I call God,
And fools call Nature, didst hear, comprehend,
Accept the obligation laid on thee,
Mother elect, to save the unborn child,
As brute and bird do, reptile and the fly,
Ay and, I nothing doubt, even tree, shrub, plant
And flower o’ the field, all in a common pact
To worthily defend the trust of trusts,
Life from the Ever Living. (X, 1072-81)
Pompilia thus fulfills natural law, the law of God, with her actions to protect her child. Petch goes so far as to credit the Pope with equating “God” and “Nature,” bringing “Pompilia close to that participation of rational creatures in the Eternal law” (108).
Petch approaches the topic of inducing truth through lessons from The Ring by asking the more specific question suggested by a London Quarterly Review writer in 1873, “Do right and wrong in law arise from the nature of things, or are they created by human institutions?” Petch suggests that Browning leaves the question unanswered but that “variant meanings for ‘the nature of things’ are variously supplied by human institutions” (109).
To see how Browning focuses on the changing institution of marriage, generally accepted law at the time of Pompilia and Guido needs examined. In Gest’s edition of The Old Yellow Book, he states that at the time “The foundation of the law and its supreme authority was, of course, the Corpus Juris of Justinian” (51) where “[a]ny applicable text was decisive, and if no text could be found exactly in point, inferences more or less direct and not infrequently very strained, were drawn from others” (51). Other texts frequently cited included texts from the Bible, “and arguments were adorned with illustrations drawn from the writings of the ancient philosophers and poets, such as Aristotle, Plato, Ovid, Martial, and Horace” (62).
In citing certain texts of the Corpus Juris, Gest notes in Appendix 2 the following statute from Ulpian:
If however the husband kills his wife when detected in adultery, because excuse is made for him, we should say that not only the husband’s slaves, but the wife’s also, should be freed [from the law], if they do not resist their master, who was fulfilling his just resentment. (648)
By filtering out the references to slaves, the reader sees that this statute reflects the Justinian code of “just resentment” to which Guido appeals in his defense, noting in his own words that Pompilia’s adultery made excuse for him. Guido further expounds on the notion of wives, like slaves, as property:
The obligation I incurred was just
To practice mastery, prove my mastership: –
Pompilia’s duty was – submit herself,
Afford me pleasure, perhaps cure my bile.
Am I to teach my lords what marriage means,
What God ordains thereby and man fulfils
Who, docile to the dictate, treads the house? (V, 716-22)
The differences of opinion – and the “winning” opinion – regarding roles and relationships in the institution of marriage in the various testimonies from The Ring and the Book signal a move “from ecclesiastical to secular jurisdiction” and an institution of marriage “increasingly subject to the law of contract,” says Petch (110). He also surmises that, post-Browning, Darwin’s new view about “nature” created additional problems with natural law tradition and its authority for providing moral and ethical meanings (110).
Drawing on these historical lessons from Browning, one can fast-forward to today and easily make the case that the institution of marriage continues to evolve. Changing interracial relationships in the 1960s forced legal changes to the institution of marriage (Course Text, McLaughlin v Florida, 1964). Much more recently, gay relationships made headlines and continue to rewrite legal opinion regarding civil marriage. Remarkably, natural law still figures into the argument. Discoveries in biological research note that, contrary to ancient, medieval, and even recent positions, diversity indeed exists among the animal kingdom (Kessel; McCarthy), obviating old perceptions and previous uses of natural law. Paralleling these new, more informed views of natural law is the recent opinion by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts invoking positive law:
We are mindful that our decision marks a change in the history of our marriage law. . . .
Barred access to the protections, benefits, and obligations of civil marriage, a person who enters into an intimate, exclusive union with another of the same sex is arbitrarily deprived of membership in one of our community’s most rewarding and cherished institutions. That exclusion is incompatible with the constitutional principles of respect for individual autonomy and equality under law. . . .
The larger question is whether, as the department claims, government action that bars same-sex couples from civil marriage constitutes a legitimate exercise of the State’s authority to regulate conduct, or whether, as the plaintiffs claim, this categorical marriage exclusion violates the Massachusetts Constitution. . . .
Simply put, the government creates civil marriage. . . .No religious ceremony has ever been required to validate a Massachusetts marriage. . . .
In this case, as in Perez and Loving, a statute deprives individuals of access to an institution of fundamental legal, personal, and social significance – the institution of marriage – because of a single trait: skin color in Perez and Loving, sexual orientation here. As it did in Perez and Loving, history must yield to a more fully developed understanding of the invidious quality of the discrimination. . . .
As a public institution and a right of fundamental importance, civil marriage is an evolving paradigm. The common law was exceptionally harsh toward women who became wives: a woman’s legal identity all but evaporated into that of her husband. Thus, one early Nineteenth Century jurist could observe matter of factly that, prior to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts, “the condition of a slave resembled the connection of a wife with her husband, and of infant children with their father. He is obliged to maintain them, and they cannot be separated from him.” . . .
We declare that barring an individual from the protections, benefits, and obligations of civil marriage solely because that person would marry a person of the same sex violates the Massachusetts Constitution. We vacate the summary judgment for the department. We remand this case to the Superior Court for entry of judgment consistent with this opinion. Entry of judgment shall be stayed for 180 days to permit the Legislature to take such action as it may deem appropriate in light of this opinion. (Goodridge v. Department of Public Health)
As best this researcher can conclude, no opinion (majority, concurring, or dissenting) in the Goodridge case mentions natural law in support of either the plaintiffs or the defendant. Perhaps such an omission indicates the unease or confusion evoked by the concept of natural law in current society. Perhaps its omission verifies Petch’s claim of “nature” as an unstable term. Positive law, on the other hand, continues to change the institution of marriage.
Given all the elemental definitions, historical, legal, and narrative perspectives, and the lessons learned – here focused primarily on the institution of marriage – from The Ring and the Book, what did it essentially teach about the search for truth? In a quite personal way, it reinforced the notion that Truth with a capital “T” indeed exists but such Truth remains elusive, if not completely unknown. However, through positive law the judicial system takes steps – sometimes baby steps, sometimes backward steps, but optimistically and for the most part forward steps – toward reconciling legislated law and judicial opinion to the perfect form of Truth, toward incorporating the law that is into the law that ought to be. German dramatist, philosopher, and critic Gotthold Lessing once said,
If God were to stand before me, holding in his closed right hand the absolute truth, and in his left hand the unceasing search for truth but with the proviso of being doomed to stray from it for ever and ever, — if, thus standing before me he asked me to choose, I would humbly say: Father, the absolute truth is for you alone, give me what your left hand holds. (Goethe, 447-48)
Lessing, Goethe’s contemporary, certainly embraced the same concept of lifelong striving that Goethe’s Faust finally comes to embrace. Individuals may glimpse or briefly intuit Truth with a capital “T,” much like the primary wisdom Emerson denotes as “Intuition” with a capital “I” (141). This analysis submits that the general path in the search for truth probably combines intuition with a careful examination and reading of the narratives or facts.
Eventually society will get Truth, or at least truth, right; positive law will keep moving toward true natural law (eternal law, Truth with a capital “T”), but not yet knowing what true natural law is, society can only hope to keep getting closer. As Justinian wrote, “The maxims of law are these: to live honesty, to hurt no one, to give every one his due” (Thatcher 100). Those maxims may reflect the best mortal human beings can do. They certainly incorporate the twofold task of judicial systems – to reach decisions and to mete out punishment. Fortunately, for the good order of society, only God (or Nature) operates in eternity to give each and every one his or her perfect due. We thankfully continue to strive.
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