The Immorality of Indifference

Why the pursuit of truth is crucial to building strong communities.

I am only a few pages into James Henley Thornwell’s seminal Discourses on Truth, yet already my mind has been stimulated and my conscience sorely pricked.

If you aren’t familiar with Thornwell, you probably should be. A leading figure of the Southern Presbyterian tradition, Thornwell was one of the greatest minds and writers of the nineteenth century. Rightly later-criticized for his support of institutionalized slavery in the American South, his writings are often overlooked by moderns and post-moderns and he is, sadly, discounted as irrelevant—or at the very least, he is intentionally disregarded.

Whether or not one agrees with his theological convictions, his ideas merit thoughtful consideration. Thornwell has earned a place in the Western intellectual hall of fame as a contributor to American political and theological thought, both within and without of Calvinist and Presbyterian circles.

A pastor, public theologian, and one of the intellectual lights of the nineteenth century, Thornwell served as a professor at South Carolina College (later renamed the University of South Carolina) for a number of years, later serving as that institution’s President and Chaplain. After some years, he was called across town to serve as professor of theology at the Theological Seminary in Columbia, SC and also to serve as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Columbia.

These Discourses on Truth were originally given as public lectures at South Carolina College during Thornwell’s tenure as Chaplain. In them, he discusses the morality of the intellect—the reality that every act of knowing is a moral act, for which we are morally accountable. Substantive and elegantly argued, Thornwell’s theory is that in every engagement of the mind, we must not only seek, but love, the truth (both natural and metaphysical). As T. David Gordon writes in a brief review of this work, “The mind is not created to defend the opinions we do hold, but to discover the opinions we ought to hold. Thornwell not only relocates thought in the ethical arena (where it belongs), he implicitly sets us on the path of a solution to modernity’s approach to epistemology, by suggesting that an opinion may be ethically justifiable (“morally certain” was the term of his day) even if it turns out to be wrong.”

Thornwell’s assessment is both penetrating and devastating. It is penetrating and soul-searching in that he very ably makes the case for the ethical demand on the mind to pursue and love truth, and thus, the ethical duty to investigate and obey accurate truth-claims.

The assessment is devastating, in that one very quickly comes to realize their own disdain and calloused nonchalance toward the ethical demands of truth. Ultimately, one discovers afresh their own intellectual rebellion against the God of all truth, who Himself is Truth.

Here is but a sampling of his remarkable treatment on the subject:

We live in an age of sophists. A man may believe anything or nothing ; and yet if his actions are consistent with the standard of public decency, his principles are not to be condemned, and he is not to be charged with wickedness on account of them. In the formation of his opinions, he is exempt from the moral law; conscience takes cognizance of nothing but the life. As if there could be any real virtue, where practice is not the result of principle; as if the opinion were not the soul, life and being of all that is praiseworthy or excellent in the conduct.

There can be no morality without intelligence; and if there exists in the bosom of the Almighty an eternal standard of truth, from which the law of righteousness proceeds, in conformity with which the arrangements of Providence are conducted, the relations of things adjusted, and by which alone the harmony of the world can be effectually promoted, the first step towards communion with the Father of lights is to recognize that standard, and to have its rays reflected upon our own countenances.

Thornwell argues that as human beings created in the imago Dei, it is a humane pursuit of the highest order for us to be lovers, pursuers, and disciples of truth (whether natural, biblical, aesthetic, metaphysical, etc.). With such a basis, we can very quickly progress from mental assertion to life-obligation when we consider the God of Truth and Beauty, who created mankind after His image in Truth and Beauty, and put them in a world resplendent and indicative of His Truth and Beauty.

Since we here at Humane Pursuits are dedicated “…to live lives and build communities in modern America that reflect the pursuits that make life worth living…humane pursuits,” it is fitting for us to pause and mull over how we ought to be lovers of truth and that, as we do, may realize how we are enriched and made all the more humane because of truth—for it is a God-ordained, integral, and component part that is foundational to our very humanity.

You can read Thornwell’s Discourses on Truth for yourself, entirely for free, at https://archive.org/stream/discoursesontrut00thorrich#page/n5/mode/2up.

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