on what truth is

On the eve of his execution Jesus is questioned by Pilate about his identity (John 18:33-38). Jesus tells Pilate that he is in fact a King, just as Pilate had been trying to get Jesus to admit all along, but adds “the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of the truth listens to me.”

To which Pilate (you can almost see the sneer on his face) replies “What is truth?”

What is truth? The classicist in me goes first and foremost to the ancient writers:

Truth is in some ways the opposite of flattery, says Herodotus (1.30), while truthful speech is the mark of an excellent man (7.234). It is also something that the Persians, he claims, value above all things, along with horsemanship and archery (1.136).

For Thucydides, finding out the truth involves comparing multiple stories, and not accepting the first version one hears (1.20).

Xenophon has Socrates imply (Economist 11.29) that truth is very much distinct from falsehood, that it would be very difficult to manipulate what is untrue into what is true.

Polybius claims that truth is what makes history worthwhile. Without an honest appraisal of what people have done, history would be but a fancy story (1.14).

Truth, Livy claims, is really only an issue when it comes to relatively recent matters. Stories from long ago, or which are fantastical in nature, are not worth the trouble of affirmation or refutation (5.21).

For John, author of the eponymous gospel, the truthfulness of his account is something he invokes at specific points: at the stabbing of Jesus’ side which brought on a flow of blood and water (19:35), and regarding a divisive rumour that John was immortal (21:24).

For Marcus Aurelius, seeking philosophical truth is something that will never hurt the seeker, as opposed to error and ignorance, which are hurtful (Meditations 6.20). Truth itself is also an all-pervading idea that connects all things, just as there is one god, one substance, one law, and one common reason in all intelligent animals (7.6).

Truth, says Herodian, is not something respected by writers who are only in it for the fame (1.1).

Truth can be perverted by lies but also by silence, says Ammianus Marcellinus (31.16.9)

Procopius claims that only truth is appropriate to history, while cleverness and inventiveness are not (Wars 1.1).

All well and good so far – truth is by and large something that exists, often something good, definitely something worth pursuing, something worth protecting, but also something that requires effort to find or write down.

That is what the ancients thought about the truth. How about our society? What is truth?

It seems that truth as a concept really only exists in the realm of the sciences (and even then the scientific method seeks probability not Truth). Historical truth is rarely agreed on, and with so many differing opinions, either co-existing or evolving over time, some argue that we will never know the truth of what we haven’t been able to see.

Religious and philosophical truths are treated the same – multicultural societies often accept all claims to truth (ie. the right way to live/believe) as valid. And why shouldn’t they? It is the simplest way to preserve order in society. But the result of all philosophical and religious truths being equally true is that none is true.

So relativism is probably the one truth that most modern day people follow when it comes to values and ideas as opposed to things we can see and touch. What’s true for you is not necessarily what’s true for me. But as long as it feels true and seems to work for you, that’s ok for you and that’s true for you, just don’t bother me with it. (though increasingly I’d say Christianity is no longer afforded even this luxury of relativism these days. It is simply ruled out as untrue and unacceptable in many cases)

What’s the best quote I could find to express this? I’m no expert on philosophy or secular humanist thought, so what I found comes from a videogame.

“It is our ability to choose – whatever you think is true – that makes us humans. There is no book or teacher to give you the answers, to show you the way. Choose your own way!”, says Ezio in Assassin’s Creed II.

Truth is what we make of it. Our ability to determine and define what truth, not our ability to find it or preserve it, is what makes us human. Truth may not even be worth the trouble; if there is no outside source to direct us, what then is truth? Whatever we want it to be. So why bother?

So it seems in many ways our society’s view of the truth hasn’t changed much since (some would argue has gone full circle back to) the views of Pilate.

Funnily enough there is a quote attributed to Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations that goes something like this: “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not a truth.” Exactly what you’d expect a wise philosopher-emperor to say. And it probably speaks especially to our postmodern generation, raised on values of relativism and probability-over-absolutes.

But you know what? I can’t locate that phrase. Google it and you will find a hundred pages quoting it, but I can’t for the life of me find a citation. I’ve trawled through the Meditations enough times than I’d care for and I can’t find it. Yet here it is, floating around the internet and taken as truth. It may well be an misattributed quote; and on the contrary, Marcus Aurelius’ writings are full of praise for the truth, claiming that it is worth pursuing, that it is good, etc. Neither do any of the narrative histories indicate that he ever said such words.

So maybe that’s our modern take on truth in action? It sounds like something a wise philosopher-emperor would say, enough people agree – therefore it is true. If truth is indeed what we make of it, what enough people can agree on, nothing more and nothing less, then that is what it may remain: something that sounds wise to enough people, but in fact has little basis to stand on, or may not even exist at all!

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