What is truth? asked Plato, Pontius Pilate, and more recently, Johnny Cash. When I was young I decided to study philosophy and look for it. I’m still looking, and what’s more, I’m still trying to figure out what any of us mean when we ask the question.
The other day I ran across some quotations about truth I’d collected more than a 100 posts ago. I thought any one of them might make a post, but I’m not sure how close they get us to understanding the notion of truth. Anyway, here are a few succinct sayings from various bards. See, dear reader, if any of them help you define truth, or at least catch a glimpse of it.
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple,” said Oscar Wilde. More recently, William Safire said the same thing in the American Grammarian and Writer: “Never assume the obvious is true.”
That’s a beginning. Truth, apparently, is more often than not complicated and subtle. That explains, in this golden age of the sound bite, why politicians lie so much. They’re all looking for that quick turn of phrase that will catapult them into power. They’re certainly not interested in truth.
But even before the digital age, before television, at the beginning of the 20th century, Lenin could say, “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” Winston Churchill elaborated on this point a few years later. “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
Apt descriptions of our political life. One of the first things to know about truth, is that it’s easily confused with lies.
Among the best known of the quotations about truth is John 8:32 – “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” A wonderful promise, but not one that’s easily grasped.
One of the best known of the truth-sayers is another John, this time, Keats: “Beauty is truth and truth, beauty, That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” He may not have known, but after the 20th century we can be certain that beauty and truth are often at odds. The lynch pin for me brooks no argument: Some of the most beautiful music in the world was played by string quartets in concentration camps.
Besides, as Emerson put it, “Truth is beautiful, without doubt, but so are lies.”
Years before Emerson made that brutal assessment, the boy George Washington is said to have chopped down his father’s cherry tree and confessed it. “I cannot tell a lie,” he said. “I did it.”
So far, we know that truth is abstruse, frequently verbose, and nearly always hard to nail down. It may be pretty, but it certainly doesn’t have to be; at the least, beauty doesn’t seem to be a necessary attribute. Still, truth must have been valued in the young American democracy and since we continue to honor the boy George and his solemn confession, in contemporary America it must remain a respected and popular value.
I don’t know about you, but I need more help.
Mark Twain, one of our most prescient pundits, was cynical about the subject: “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction,” he said. “Fiction has to make sense.” Or again -“Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.”
What does that make of our politics? When they start making too much sense, there must be an element of fiction in them? When they’re absurd, they just might be true?
The more I listen to the wise words of people who should know, the greater my confusion. Take statements like this one from the 19th century English poet, Matthew Arnold: “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”
Of course. Why didn’t I think of that?
What’s a citizen to do but google it? So I did, and immediately found 2,127 Definitions of Truth on a single website. And that’s only the beginning.
All I can suggest is that we take Clarence Darrow’s advice: “Chase after truth like hell and you’ll free yourself, even though you never touch its coat-tails.”
There are some things that just can’t be nailed down.