[first blogged on Halloween 2003] In honor of the upcoming season, let me write a bit about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great short story, “Young Goodman Brown.” Many of us were forced to read it in high school, but maybe you didn’t. Reject that foul Stephen King novel! Banish that evil Anne Rice tome! Tolle lege* this short tale of a young man’s dreadful walk with the devil.
I think the reason “Young Goodman Brown” sticks in my mind as a great tale, other than my fascination with early America and affection for Hawthorne, is its clear description of how to set yourself up for believing a lie. Brown does three things in the first couple pages to seal his doom. He leaves his home at sunset to meet the devil in the forest. Apparently, he is searching for the truth. He wants to hear what the devil has to say for himself. And like an idiot, he starts his trip just before dusk. Darkness conceals many things, so if he really wanted to the truth, he would look for it in daylight when things can be seen for what they are. But at dusk, he walks deep into the forest–putting himself in a place where shadows conceal. How much can you see when you’re in a dense forest at night? Still, Brown thinks he can meet the father of lies in a place like this and reason with him. That’s his biggest mistake, and possibly the one which makes his doom inevitable. He thinks he can talk to the devil and parse his words for bits of truth. Of course, Old Scratch reels him in easily.
When Brown first objects to walking deeper into the trees, Old Scratch encourages him to present his arguments while they walk because he can always turn back. Too far, Brown says while walking. He must not be seen walking with the devil. Naturally, replies the devil, that’s why my dealings with your father and grandfather were kept secret. What! Can it be true? exclaims young Brown. Of course not, you idiot! You’re talking with the devil! He doesn’t tell the truth except to make a lie more plausible, because a slight miscalculation is an easier lie to shallow than a total fabrication. Brown doesn’t get it, unfortunately, so into the darkness he goes.
What about us? Do these steps apply to our quest for truth, even if we don’t have the devil penciled in for 10 p.m. Friday? Yes, they do.
1. Darkness conceals truth. Light describes wisdom and knowledge. Read the first few chapters of Proverbs for descriptions of wisdom and her methods. In order to shed light on the deep questions you’re asking, give yourself time and quiet reflection. Noise and busyness can act as clouds over the sun. Try to avoid them, but don’t think getting alone with your thoughts will draw all truth to you. You can come up with only so many answers when you’re the one confused.
2. Trees obstruct the light and hide the real world. In the forest, Brown found that the night only got darker. The same can happen to us in a forest of opinions. We can find wisdom in many counselors, but not all opinions are worth hearing. C.S. Lewis encouraged readers to postpone reading another contemporary book until they had read an old one, meaning a book written before last century. If we consume many modern books, we can become conditioned by a limited perspective particular to our day. By reading old books, we are better equipped to see beyond a limited modern perspective.
3. The devil does not have a worthy point of view. It’s common to try to hear both sides of an issue in order to form an unbiased opinion; but I’d like to suggest that some perspectives, some sides of particular issues, are completely wrong. Not everyone’s perspective is worth hearing. Some are logically inconsistent. Some are merely argumentative, taking up a position solely to conflict with another position. The better ones are internally sound, though they may be based on lies or ignorance. Some are completely right. It’s no shame to be partisan when your side is right.
I hope haven’t bored you back to your Doctorow novel. Have a good weekend, and try to avoid the cheap candy. Life is too short to eat waxy chocolate and those nasty orange rounds.
* “Take up and read”