Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book onfronts the definition of truth. Browning plays with the legitimacy of story telling, pairing fiction and fact and bringing to question what is real and what is imagined. Immediately proceeding this passage he questions the trustworthiness of “live” and “dead” truths - distinguishing between facts coming from the living and also the dead but also bringing to more general consideration the way truth is defined. Browning suggests that there is possibly a separation between “good” and “truth,” although general conception is that truth is inherently good.

Well now there’s nothing in nor out o’ the world —
Good except truth: yet this, the something else,
What’s this then, which proves good yet seems untrue?
This that I mixed truth, motions of mine
That quickened, made the inertness malleolable
O’ the gold was not mine — what’s your name for this?
Are means to the end, themselves in part the end?
Is fiction which makes fact alive, fact too?"

“Good” and “truth,” as discussed here in possible contrast. “Good” does not necessarily go in hand with “truth,” or does it? Browning draws an interesting distinction between “fiction” and “fact.” The idea of “fiction” being an aid to “fact,” then brings to question this definition of “truth’s” value. If something fictitious can better a story, then perhaps it can be “good” and thus the definition of “good” is not just equivalent to something being “true.” Browning’s discussion here is reminiscent of M’Clintock and Strong’s discussion of Thomas Arnold in “Modes of Interpreting the Book of Revelation.” In that text, the fundamental question of whether the Bible can be interpreted as fictitious or factual was brought to light. Browning plays with the same issues here, although apart from scriptural context. The fundamental nature of this question of fiction or fact, truth or lie, seems rooted somehow in Biblical interpretation. So debated is the mode of interpreting the Bible — as fiction or fact — that it seems fitting to link this question to Browning’s more generalized musing on truth. Arnold argues, perhaps, that thinking of the Bible as not necessarily all factual does not diminish it’s greater meaning. In that same vein then, truth maybe doesn’t have to be linked to “good.” Something fictitious might be able to be “good” without being “true,” and the “truth” might not always be “good.”

Questions

1. In my last question set I believe I asked if there was something sacrilege in considering the Bible as fiction, in that respect does the “truth” of these varying perspectives on the murder align with whether it is “good” or bad?

2. The definition of “good” here interests me, what is the definition, could it be religiously-linked (good in the eyes of God etc.)?

3. I am intrigued also by the question “are means to the end, themselves in part the end?” by that is Browning asking if action is part of the end result, process part of product, or if the two are separate — do the ends merit the means?

4. How would Dr. Arnold, based on his thoughts referenced in “Modes of Interpretation . . . ” answer the question “is fiction which makes fact alive, fact too?”


Victorian Overview E. B. Browning Leading Questions

Last modified 25 February 2011