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Publications of the Church Historical Society, No. 78.

The Use and Abuse of Isolated Facts in Controversy
by T.A. Lacey

London: SPCK, 1902.


THESE considerations were proposed to a conference of Lecturers, held on Tuesday, December 3, 1901, under the presidency of the Bishop of Salisbury. They are reproduced from rough notes exactly as spoken, with the addition of one paragraph the purport of which was cut short by the Chairman's bell.

I HAVE a narrow subject; I deal with only a small part of our general subject for today's conference. We are met for the purpose of testing and improving our methods in controversy; I am to confine myself to the examination of one instrument of controversy. Our methods are the methods of history, and I am concerned with the use that is to be made of an historical fact regarded in itself and isolated.

I begin by recalling the distinction between the annalist and the historian. For the annalist, each ascertained fact is interesting for its own sake; it is to be verified and recorded; the date must be fixed as accurately as possible, and it is thus marshalled in line with other facts; that is all. For the historian, a fact has no interest whatever except in relation to other facts; it forms part of a tangled skein of cause and effect which he seeks to unravel. He must not merely place it in order of time and place; he must bring it into perspective, see it in its true atmosphere, blend it with other facts in truthful composition.

I would further distinguish between the study of history and the use of history, and more particularly, as concerning ourselves, its use in controversy. The study of history calls for the utmost possible detachment of mind. There must be no object whatever but the attainment of knowledge--the knowledge of the truth. The admixture of any other motive will induce an obliquity of vision that makes it impossible to see things in their true perspective. To go to history in search of arguments for a preconceived opinion is to make the study of history impossible. The use of history is another matter. It is the employment of knowledge obtained. This we may rightly use in defence of our convictions. Those convictions themselves are derived in some part from historical knowledge: they must be of a poor sort if they are not. They may be modified by historical study: we must be either singularly intelligent or singularly obstinate if they are not. But apart from this formative power of history there is a controversial use of historical knowledge in defence of the opinions that we hold.

On the high ground of theory no one ought to make such use of history until his knowledge is complete. He must study first, without prejudice, or he will study in vain. He may then use the results of study. But on the lower ground of practice we can make no such convenient division of labour. We have to carry on our studies while entangled in controversy; we have to use our knowledge as we acquire it, however imperfect the. acquisition. Questions in debate can seldom be hung up indefinitely on appeal to a scholarship entirely informed. Hence come grave dangers. Those who are much in controversy ought to know them well, and to walk warily. Two dangers in particular I note--self-deception and loss of candour. Self-deception; for studying in the midst of controversy you are insensibly drawn, however good your intentions, to that aspect of events which will best suit your purpose in argument: loss of candour; for arguing on imperfect knowledge you are easily persuaded to suppress what is awkward, you reflect that a little more knowledge might remove the difficulty. The remedy is honest knowledge; the honesty that will keep back nothing which is known, and will put forward nothing which is not known with certainty.

This brings me to the heart of my subject, the use and abuse of isolated facts. A fact, as isolated, is imperfectly known. It is known in the sense of the annalist; it is not known in the sense of the historian. Have you any right to use it in argument? If you know it yourself only as isolated, can you adduce it without peril of deceiving both yourself and others? If you know it yourself in all its bearings, can you, without lack of candour, adduce it in its isolation, suppressing the circumstances which determine its value in history?

I speak of use and abuse; and I answer these questions by saying that in one way. and one only, may an isolated fact be used in controversy. It may be used as instantia crucis. We must bear in mind the dialectical principle that a universal proposition can be overthrown by a single contradictory instance. Let me give an example from my own experience. Five years ago a writer in the Tablet, who ought to have known better, was maintaining that the Letters Patent commonly known as the Royal Mandate for the consecration of a bishop were a novel invention "of the time of Henry VIII. He rashly ventured on a general negative. "In pre-reformation times," he wrote, "no English King would, or-could, have commanded the Primate to confirm or consecrate a bishop-elect, and such an attitude on the part of the lay power would have been foreign to the whole spirit of mediaeval economy." [Tablet, Sept. 12, 1896, vol. lxxxviii, p. 402, "Mr. Lacey's latest theory," and correspondence on pp. 498, 534, 581, 621, 660, 701, 740.] Reply was easy. I had only to refer to a page of Rymer, and show that in the year 1416 Henry V, with the consent of Parliament, directed Chichele to confirm Wakering, elect of Norwich, employing in the letters issued the crucial word mandamus. [Rymer, ix. 338 (ed. 1704-35); Close Rolls, h. 5; m. 23. I ought not to refer to this correspondence without confessing that in the course of it I myself sinned against the canons laid down above, making a statement on information insufficiently verified, and so getting a severe fall.] The single fact, isolated from all circumstance, was sufficient to overthrow the universal negative.

I adduce another example. It was long customary, on our side, to assert that no bishop of the first five centuries or more could possibly have used, in addressing the Roman See, such language as comes naturally from the lips of a modern ultramontane. But some years ago, Dom Amelli, the prior of Montecassino, published the text of the appeals made to St. Leo the Great by Flavian of Constantinople and Eusebius of Dorylaeum, after their condemnation by the Council at Ephesus in 449. Here these Eastern bishops are found addressing their brother of Rome in terms which may satisfy any but the most exacting of papists. The bare fact, isolated from all circumstance, makes it impossible to repeat that confident assertion which once did duty in controversy. The assertion was not ill-founded; it was based on the whole evidence available; but the single contradictory instance brought to light effectually destroys it. [Amelli, S. Leone Magno e l'Oriente, Montecassino, 1894. The letters exist only in a Latin rendering, which, as we know from other examples, is not always to be relied on for perfect accuracy; but, until amended, this text must stand.]

Such is the proper use of an isolated fact. I pass to the abuse; and here I might find much to say, but I will content myself with making two points.

I take first the abuse of an isolated fact in building upon it a positive argument. That Royal Mandate of 1416,--could I build anything upon it? The appeal of Flavian,--can anything be made of it against us? If I tried to make out from the one instance that a royal mandate to confirm and consecrate was strictly in accordance with "the whole spirit of mediaeval economy," I should lay myself open to severe condemnation. If a controversialist on the papal side were to construct out of Flavian's appeal a system of fifth-century Canon Law, he would make himself absurd. It would in either case be an obviously false induction. Such an argument is perhaps hardly possible. But another kind of fallacy, near akin to this, is far from uncommon. It is a fallacy of rhetoric; and much of our controversy is governed by the principles rather of rhetoric than of dialectic. Now rhetoric, with all respect to De Quincey, I still take to be characterized by the use of enthymemes; and the enthynieme is a syllogistic argument, the major premiss of which is silently withheld. In controversy we are continually hearing an isolated fact produced, and a conclusion triumphantly drawn. That is legitimate reasoning only on the assumption of a certain major premiss, a general principle under which the instance falls. Otherwise the instance proves nothing beyond itself. The appeal of Flavian and Eusebius, taken by itself, proves nothing except that two bishops of the fifth century appealed from an Eastern Council to the Roman See. It is a very different matter if you assume for your major premiss the principle that what any two bishops of the fifth century did was in full accordance with the divine order of the Church. Then, indeed, you can draw a very effective conclusion. But no one would state such a principle. Yet principles no less absurd are constantly relied on, when silently kept out of sight in rhetorical argument.

It is lawful to argue from a suppressed premiss, and so apparently from a single instance, but only under strict conditions. The suppressed premiss must be a statement which you yourself entirely believe to be true, otherwise your argument is not honest. But what if your opponent does not accept it for truth? Then your argument is either futile or dishonest. It is futile if your opponent sees and tacitly rejects your silent premiss. I have heard an honest blundering disputant pound away by the hour with his instances, not realizing that his opponent questioned not them, but the major premiss that lay behind. It is dishonest, if by keeping back your premiss you confuse your opponent, or induce him tacitly to substitute a premiss which he accepts though you do not.

Is it then never lawful to argue from an opponent's hypothesis, from a principle that he accepts though you do not? I would submit that in honest controversy this may not be done, save in one way only. You may argue from an opponent's hypothesis by way of reductio ad absurdum, to show him the falsity of what he assumes: you may not do it for the purpose of forcing him to a new conclusion.

I have made much of this rhetorical abuse: I note another which is rather historical. An isolated fact is abused if set in a false colour or false bearings. That is in fact to present it, falsely, as not isolated. If, for example, I were to quote the Royal Mandate of 1416 as if it were an instance of the ordinary procedure of the fifteenth century, I should be using it falsely. I nearly fell into this abuse on one occasion without intending it. In conversation with a distinguished French canonist, M. Fournier of Grenoble, I was pressing a question about the course that would be taken if a long vacancy of the Roman See prevented the appointment of bishops in France or Italy as now effected. I mentioned this English precedent, and he was much interested; but I soon found that I had misled him into thinking that it was a normal case. As a matter of fact it was extremely abnormal. There were three rival claimants of the Papacy. England recognized no one of the three, nor was there any prospect of a settlement. Dioceses were vacant, and could not be filled, according to the law then prevailing, until there was an acknowledged Pope. In these circumstances the King and Parliament took the matter into their own hands, and commanded the Archbishop of Canterbury to proceed. When M. Fournier heard the explanation he drily remarked that my precedent only showed what was obvious, that some way could be found out of any difficulty.

The appeal of Flavian, again, is set in a false colour if it be adduced as a normal proceeding, or if it be assumed, without proof, that no such appeal could have been made in that age to any but the Roman See. There is always a possibility that, if the parties had been differently sorted, the See of Antioch or of Alexandria might have been approached in the same fashion. There are certainly to be taken into account the extraordinary circumstances of the case, the despair of the appellants, the triumphant violence of the Egyptians. Nothing can rightly be made of the fact until it is seen in its true relations.

I have lately had occasion to note an abuse of this kind. One of our people had been confronted with a passage from Duchesne's Origines:--"Au déclin du sixième siècle . . . les décrétales des papes avaient force de loi comme les conciles; on les insérait au même titre dans les collections canoniques." [Origines du Culte Chrétien, p. 43, 1st ed.] If you wish to see what may be the effect of judiciously removing an extract from its context, I recommend you to read the whole passage. A fact, well weighed by a master of history, is taken out of its bearings. The fact is accurately stated, even in the mutilated quotation: it is stated apparently in the most colourless way. So stated it is quite insignificant: it is a fact for the annalist; it can support no inference. But the absence of colour, is only apparent. The fact, stated in isolation, is made to suggest that in the sixth century the claim of the pope to act as supreme law-giver for the whole Catholic Church was fully acknowledged. Read the whole passage in Duchesne; see what are the true colour and bearings of what he states, and you will see what I mean by the abuse of an isolated fact.

We should be strong in controversy. We should be definite in statement, incisive in argument. There is no charity in a yielding or doubting mode of contention. For controversy is defence of the truth, assault on falsehood. To each fallible man it is the defence of that which he believes to be true; and we have no right to enter on controversy except as we are moved by entire conviction. Where such conviction fails there can still be friendly discussion, that sort of debate about an open question which is one method of research; but we are considering now the defence of known truth against falsehood, not the search of the unknown. This, and this alone, is controversy. It may therefore be sharp, eager, determined. It ought to be all this if we care greatly for the truth; and it is not the less charitable, if only our moving desire be rather to convince men of the truth than to convict them of falsehood. But the more eager, the more determined our controversy, the greater is the need of self-control. Strong conviction has two dangers. It tempts to the use of arguments that are unfair but effective; for even falsehood seems to lose its falsity when employed in. the cause of truth. It encourages the honest use of unsound reasoning; for when the conclusion is certain, the road that seems to lead thither is not critically scanned. In either case a weakened hold on truthfulness will open the way, if perhaps through temporary advantage, yet no less certainly to controversial disaster.

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