The Search for Truth Is More Precious Than Its Possession

Albert Einstein? Gotthold Ephraim Lessing? Alexander Grant? J. A. Turner? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The pursuit of truth is fascinating and energizing while the actual attainment of truth may feel anticlimactic. Here are four instances from a family of sayings:

(1) The search for truth is more precious than its possession
(2) The search for truth is more precious than truth itself
(3) The pursuit of truth is more valuable than the attainment of truth
(4) The pursuit of an object is more pleasurable than its possession

This saying has been attributed to the famous physicist Albert Einstein and the prominent German philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1778 Gotthold Ephraim Lessing published “Eine Duplik” which contained a passage discussing the struggle to attain the truth. Below is a translation of Lessing’s remarks from German into English published in 1866 by E. P. Evans. QI believes that the family of sayings under examination were derived from Lessing’s viewpoint. Boldface added to excerpt by QI: 1

The worth of man lies not in the truth which he possesses, or believes that he possesses, but in the honest endeavor which he puts forth to secure that truth; for not by the possession of, but by the search after, truth, are his powers enlarged, wherein, alone, consists his ever-increasing perfection. Possession fosters content, indolence, and pride.

If God should hold enclosed in His right hand all truth, and in His left hand only the ever-active impulse after truth, although with the condition that I must always and forever err, I would, with humility, turn to His left hand, and say, ‘Father, give me this; pure truth is for Thee alone.’

In 1940 Albert Einstein published “Considerations Concerning the Fundaments of Theoretical Physics” in the journal “Science”. Einstein employed the first instance from the family above, and he credited Lessing. Einstein did not use quotation marks, and QI believes the physicist presented an encapsulation of Lessing’s perspective and not a direct quotation: 2

Some physicists, among them myself, can not believe that we must abandon, actually and forever, the idea of direct representation of physical reality in space and time; or that we must accept the view that events in nature are analogous to a game of chance. It is open to every man to choose the direction of his striving; and also every man may draw comfort from Lessing’s fine saying, that the search for truth is more precious than its possession.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Search for Truth Is More Precious Than Its Possession

Notes:

  1. 1866, The Life and Works of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing From the German of Adolf Stahr by E. P. Evans Ph.D. (Professor of Modern Languages and Literature in the University of Michigan), Volume 2, Book 12, Chapter 5: The Controversy with Götze, Quote Page 257, William V. Spencer, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1940 May 24, Science, Volume 91, Number 2369, Considerations Concerning the Fundaments of Theoretical Physics by Dr. Albert Einstein (Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey), Start Page 487, Quote Page 492, Column 2, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington D.C. (JSTOR) link