Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, volume 2 includes the following letter to Darwin from Charles Kingsley, written shortly after the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859:

[With regard to the attitude of the more liberal representatives of the Church, the following letter (already referred to) from Charles Kingsley is of interest:]

C. KINGSLEY TO CHARLES DARWIN. Eversley Rectory, Winchfield, November 18th, 1859.

Dear Sir,

I have to thank you for the unexpected honour of your book. That the Naturalist whom, of all naturalists living, I most wish to know and to learn from, should have sent a scientist like me his book, encourages me at least to observe more carefully, and perhaps more slowly.

I am so poorly (in brain), that I fear I cannot read your book just now as I ought. All I have seen of it AWES me; both with the heap of facts and the prestige of your name, and also with the clear intuition, that if you be right, I must give up much that I have believed and written.

In that I care little. Let God be true, and every man a liar! Let us know what IS, and, as old Socrates has it, epesthai to logo—follow up the villainous shifty fox of an argument, into whatsoever unexpected bogs and brakes he may lead us, if we do but run into him at last.

Firstly, I can't find the subject of "know what IS", and secondly, I found that "epesthai" may mean "follow", and "logo" may mean "word, thought or reason", but he said "follow up a fox"! I can't get the whole meaning of that?

1 Answer 1


In “Let us know what is”, the verb “is” is being used in the sense “exists, occurs, happens” (OED). In the previous paragraph, Kingsley wrote, “if you be right, I must give up much that I have believed”. That is, he saw immediately that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection contradicts some of the doctrines of the Church of England (in which he, Kingsley, was a priest), such as the literal account of the Creation in the book of Genesis. So in “Let us know what is”, Kingsley is saying that if there is a conflict between truth and doctrine, then he would rather believe what is true.

Then the phrase “epesthai to logo” is Project Gutenberg’s transliteration of the classical Greek “ἕπεσθαι τῷ λόγῳ” meaning “follow the argument”. The original publication had the Greek text:

Charles Kingsley (18 November 1859). Letter to Charles Darwin. In Francis Darwin, ed. (1887). The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, volume II, p. 81. New York: D. Appleton.

ἕπεσθαι” is the present middle infinitive of “ἕπομαι” meaning “follow, obey, attend, pursue” and “λόγῳ” is the dative singular of “λόγος” meaning “word, argument, reasoning”. So by “epesthai to logo”, Kingsley means “follow the argument [wherever it leads]”: that is, if Darwin’s argument for evolution is sound, then Kingsley will have to follow it and believe in the conclusions.

Kingsley then gives us a metaphor in which following an argument is compared to hunting a fox. Fox-hunting was a popular sport for the English aristocracy in the mid-nineteenth century, and Darwin and Kingsley were familiar with it. (In his autobiography, published in Life and Letters, volume 1, Darwin wrote that as a young man he had a “passion for shooting and for hunting”.) A hunted fox makes every effort to escape the hunters and preserve its life, by hiding in bogs and brakes (thickets), and to catch it the hunters must follow where it leads, like a scientist following a line of reasoning.

I have not been able to trace the quotation from Socrates. This is the closest match I was able to find:

Σωκράτης: ὡς ἐγὼ οὐ νῦν πρῶτον ἀλλὰ καὶ ἀεὶ τοιοῦτος οἷος τῶν ἐμῶν μηδενὶ ἄλλῳ πείθεσθαι ἢ τῷ λόγῳ ὃς ἄν μοι λογιζομένῳ βέλτιστος φαίνηται.

Socrates: I am not only now but always a man who follows nothing but the reasoning which on consideration seems to me best.

Plato (4th century BCE). Crito 46b. Translated by Harold North Fowler (1966).

The verb translated as “follows” in this passage is “πείθεσθαι” meaning “believe, trust”. Possibly Kingsley had recalled this passage from memory and accidentally substituted a word with similar sound and meaning.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.