What a subject, you may say. Yes indeed.
The best minds on earth from Socrates to Solzhenitsyn have applied themselves to the question of truth. The Oxford Dictionary defines truth as « the quality or state of being true.» Not very helpful one may think, but can one blame them? Not all the philosophy and all the art of this world, are able to represent the truth adequately. Everything in heaven and on earth point towards determining what truth is. And when everything has been said, it still leaves us with infinity. Hegel said, “truth is All” . Defining the truth is simply an impossible task. But if we are to use the word at all and whatever we discuss it is difficult to avoid it, we had better have some idea of what we are talking about .
Christ, when He appeared before Pontius Pilate was asked what was the meaning of truth. He did not answer. Why? It cannot be that He did not know. It cannot be that He sensed a trap, as is sometimes suggested, because at that moment He knew that He was already trapped. It could be that Pilate did not give Him the opportunity to answer. If he was given the opportunity He could have answered: I am the way and the truth, as he had done on another occasion, but he knew that the Roman functionary, steeped as he was in Greek rationalism, was not equipped to understand this. He could have answered that the totality of His teaching and the example of His life constituted the Truth, but would there have been any point? Pilate was not familiar with the totality of His life and teaching.
So, there was no answer. And then, on the other hand, there was, and Pontius Pilate provided it himself. After he had finished the questioning he went outside and said to the mob gathered there: “I find no guilt in him”. This was the truth. He was innocent. In the circumstances no other definition of the truth was required. And yet, in the interest of political expediency, he delivered Him to be flogged and crucified, cheaply washing his hands of all guilt. If Christ was to say in his deepest suffering: “Forgive them, for they know not what they are doing”, who are we to judge, we, the hollow men, the straw men.
There is more than one way of looking at the truth. One way is to see it as Truth (T), that is to say, the truth in an absolute , universal sense, the abstract concept of truth. Socrates was of the opinion that “the only absolute truth is that there is no absolute truth”. But Socrates was a philosopher in the Greek tradition of rational scepticism, which did not function in a framework of absolutes, but rather more in terms of questioning accepted truths, doctrines and beliefs.
And then there is truth (t). While truth(t) as a concept is divisible, Truth (T) is not. One can speak of truth or truths. The judge who swears in a witness to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is not interested in Truth (T). He is merely interested in the truth as it relates to the facts of the particular case before him. It is not possible to speak in this way of The Truth, let alone “the whole truth”.
We, as human beings are capable of uttering and understanding truths and untruths as well. Are we however capable of uttering absolute Truth (T)? Perhaps, although it is not certain that when we do so, we fully understand what we are saying. “God is love” would be an absolute truth. We can use the expression, even believe it, but can we really grasp its true meaning?
Truth (t) is determined by circumstance. In the course of the past century, thinking people have become less prepared to accept, as truth, the notions adhered to by their church or their community or their society as had been the case over centuries. Truth for them became more personal and individual and less dependent on the more absolutist claims of religion and church. Does this mean that truth has become totally subjective and that one can fabricate truths as seems fit and advantageous from case to case? Surely not.
It is furthermore an important feature of modern society that “truth” is being determined to a large extent by mass indoctrination through the media. However in this case we are not dealing with the efforts of fully functioning minds seeking to determine what is right and good and true, but with the conditioned responses of man as a phenomenon of mass, reacting not from a basis of knowledge or reflection, but purely as an automaton. (See Pavlov’s dog dribbling when he’s expected to).
There is a school of thought which would have it that the notion of truth is determined purely by one’s education or point of view or one’s social class. In the case above, the social class to which Pontius Pilate belonged and the education he had received may have determined his decision, but ultimately he bears a personal responsibility for the dishonest and cowardly way he dealt with the truth. So, perhaps we can say that our understanding of life is composed of many different truths, but the truths to which we adhere, should all answer to the greater principle of The Truth. Subjective truths which are mere rationalizations for doing as one pleases, or what is expedient can hardly be seen as truthful at all.
Friedrich Nietzsche refuted the existence of any objective reality. (God is dead”). Hence all truths are relative. But if like Friedrich Nietzsche and his post-modern disciples, we refute the notion of absolute reality we run the risk of being driven to distraction by paradoxes of our own making as was the case with Nietzsche in fact. Because, if there is no objective reality, no absolute truth against which to measure the truth of our propositions, we end up with the problem of explaining what then is the validity of our own assertions. If God is dead and there is no objective truth and all thought is socially and culturally determined fiction, then our own assertions would be worthless also. Thus when Nietzsche states “there is no truth”, or “there are no facts”, that would include his own statements. A Nietzsche critic (Scruto: An intelligent person’s guide) wrote: “Don’t come down this path for this way madness lies.” Nietzsche chose to travel that road and madness was precisely the result.
If a simple and straightforward definition of truth is beyond our reach we can understand that a lie cannot be the truth and that already helps. There can be as many untruths as there can be truths. There can be half truths, distortions, evasions. There can be the situation of knowing the truth but failing to act accordingly (Pilate). At the same time we sense that the concept of truth is associated with what is positive, noble, inspiring.
The frightening thing is that when people are at their worst, they may think they are doing the right thing. The (Holy) Inquisitors, probably thought so too when they were torturing people to confess just about everything they wanted, (such as, for example, owning, reading, translating or printing a Bible), so that they could burn them alive. (The live burnings, incidentally, were called Auto da Fe, which is Spanish for Act of Faith!). Did Mr Blair and Mr Bush, when they were “informing” the world about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq also believe they were doing the right thing or did they simply lie to us for purposes of sordid self-interest? You remember? “…tugging painfully uphill their two ridiculous shadows of unequal length without disturbing a single blade of grass”.
Joseph Conrad (him again!) in Heart of Darkness: “There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies – which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world – what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting in something rotten would do.”
And what better testimony than Aleksandr Solszhenytsin, who spent his life in the shadow of lies and cheating and persecution, that is to say the part of his life he did not spend in jail: “The first step of a courageous man is not to take part in the lie. One word of truth outweighs the world”.
There will be those who would counter: How do you know that your particular truth is more true than the truths of others? And they would be right in asking that. The only possible answer would be that if my adversary presents a case that is convincing and makes sense, I would have to give him credit even if continued to disagree. And if I disagreed, I would have to make sense also. To make sense in a way is to be truthful. What we encounter so often in our world is that the ones on the side of the popular and therefore official doctrines and dogmas do not even credit their opponents with the minimum of respect and courtesy of trying to make sense. Much of what passes for argument or fact or sense merely goes towards expressing prejudice and bias and hatred and is therefore antagonistic to the truth.
Modern man has not been through the pangs and pains of dismantling the foundations of truth and meaning for nothing. Truth is therefore the last thing most people of influence in politics and the media want to hear. They react to it with insult or invective or by simply ignoring it. Many are those who will only admit “truths” that are prefabricated by the mass media. In some western countries there are laws against commenting on certain aspects of history and even current politics. Where is democracy? Where is freedom of expression? Socrates’ motto that “ a life unexamined is not a life worth living”, clearly implies that a truth unexamined is not a truth worth believing either.
Truth (T) can be a universal and unalterable reality or it can be a highly personal conclusion forged in the crucible of self-search and suffering. Truth (T) and truth (t) probably come close together in a statement like the one by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, made towards the middle of the Nineteenth century:
“I must find a truth which is true for me…I must find that idea for which I can live or die… something which reaches to the deepest roots of my existence and wherein I am connected into the divine and held fast to it, even if the whole world falls apart.”
Perhaps we are not all capable and willing to make this sort of commitment, but we must surely all agree, the sentiments are noble and profound.