Living in Truth: A Yuletide HomilyJef Costello
The key problem of our age is disconnection from truth. This takes several distinct forms. The first, and most obvious, is the prevalence of lies. As everyone knows, modern, western civilization is founded upon lies about human nature, culture, and history. The most significant of these – underlying, in one form of another, most of the rest – is the equality lie; the myth of human equality, which is the chief myth of our age. (“Myth,” as most of my readers know, can have a positive or a negative connotation, as there are salutary myths; here, obviously, I am using the term in its purely negative sense.)
Now, note something in the preceding paragraph: I stated that “everyone knows” that our modern world is founded on lies. Perhaps your eyes glided over those words without even registering them. And now you might respond, “Well, it’s not true that everyone knows this. If they did, we would be in much better shape.” But what I have said is actually quite true: everyone does know about the lies. At some level of their awareness, this is true of all modern men and women. And this brings me to the next form of disconnection from truth: inauthenticity; the prevalence of “doublethink,” of knowing one thing – deep down – but saying another.
Many of us have had the experience of talking with those who are living with lies, and trying to persuade them of the truth. Our efforts are met with different sorts of reaction. The worst and most dismaying is not, as one might imagine, violent disagreement (for such defensiveness often signals underlying, though suppressed, agreement). No, the worst reaction is apathy: the attitude of a person who may actually recognize the truth of what you are saying, and see that the lie is a lie, but who just doesn’t care. I will wager my readers have met this sort of person once in a while. It is extraordinarily disturbing and dispiriting to encounter an individual for whom the truth simply doesn’t matter, and who is content to go along with the lies endorsed by others, for no other reason than to get along.
But there is a still lower circle of hell reserved for those who deny truth altogether, the so-called “relativists.” Apathetic people may still recognize truth for what it is; they just don’t care. But the relativist is the person who denies the difference between truth and lies, or claims that if there is a difference we cannot know it. Sometimes this person is simply a scoundrel. Cornered in an argument (usually the subject is ethics) they will finally counter with “But it’s all relative. There is no such thing as absolute truth.” And by “absolute truth” what they really mean is “objective truth”: the idea, quite simply, that certain things are or are not, irrespective of anyone’s opinions, wishes, hopes, or fears. Contrary to the old adage, it is this position and not patriotism that is the last refuge of scoundrels. But we usually don’t believe that they are being sincere.
A few times in my life, however, I have met individuals who seemed to be sincerely committed to relativism. And often this was for what they saw as ethical reasons: belief in relativism is thought to be “tolerant,” whereas belief in absolute truth is a feature of the “authoritarian personality.” Refuting relativism is child’s play, of course. One need only ask such questions as “Aren’t you saying that you think relativism is true, and not just ‘true for you’? Otherwise, why are you arguing with me?” And as for the issue of tolerance, one need only ask “Aren’t you assuming that tolerance is somehow objectively better than intolerance?”
But I have encountered some very consistent relativists, who in fact will bite the bullet and say “No, I’m really only expressing what I think is true for me. If you believe in absolutism, that’s true for you.” Such people are human in shape only. For the concern with truth – with separating truth from lies, discovering how things really are, and bringing things into the light – is what makes us human. And this not solely an intellectual concern: it is a matter of the heart; a matter of passion. For passionate commitment only displays itself as a consequence of perceiving what one believes to be the truth. The genuine relativist is the perfect child of modernity: mentally crippled, incapable of passion and commitment, thoroughly flat-souled, thoroughly dehumanized. The walking dead. Relativism, quite obviously, is the ultimate form of disconnection from truth.
However, if we examine the writings of philosophers from centuries past, we will find most of them complaining about how the men of their time are “disconnected from truth.” For example, Parmenides (5th century B.C.E.) wrote of the path “on which mortals, knowing nothing, wander, two-headed. For helplessness in their breasts guides their wandering minds and they are carried, deaf and blind alike. Dazed, unthinking hordes, for whom being and not-being are thought the same and yet not the same, and the path of all runs in opposite directions. For never shall it be proved: that the things that are not are.” Actually, Parmenides does not seem to be speaking here of the men of his time, but of how most men have always been, and must always be. And the social lesson of Plato’s allegory of the cave is that most men are fated to be cave-dwellers, and will kill the man who tries to free them, and lead them to truth (as the men of Athens killed Socrates).
Yes, it is true that in all societies, throughout all time, most have been fundamentally unconcerned with truth, and content to parrot the lies that guarantee social acceptance and advancement. This fact ought to give us some solace. Anti-modernists and Traditionalists spend too much time bemoaning the people’s inability (or unwillingness) to see the truth. In doing so, they unwittingly buy into modern, egalitarian ideas about human potentialities. Tradition teaches that the many must be led by the few who can see the truth – and that the many become followers not primarily through rational persuasion, but through their response to the moral character and personality of the best of the few.
Of course, there is an argument to be made that the lies and dishonesty are worse today than they were in the past: both more pernicious and more prevalent. Though probably every intellectual, in every time, has thought this, I have to say that I think it is quite true. Never before in history have men and women lived in such disconnection from nature and basic facts of nature – and in such denial of human differences, and of what can and cannot lead to fulfilling life. Never have so many led such inauthentic lives.
But now we turn to a matter that, for many, may hit too close to home. It is not just our enemies who are guilty of inauthenticity. We flatter ourselves in thinking that our lives are devoid of falsehood, vanity, and disingenuousness. But this is not the case. No one’s life is entirely devoid of these things. I have met many “Radical Traditionalists,” “Right Wingers,” “Neo-Pagans,” and “Anti-Modernists,” who are really doing nothing other than engaging in forms of narcissistic display. They are simply modern people who have chosen one of the more outré of the “lifestyle choices” available to them in today’s great, pluralistic shopping mall of identity. They dress the part and get the right tattoos, but underneath the surface appearance they are as modern as the Clintons. These people usually reveal themselves as poseurs by the panic they exhibit when someone has the bad manners to point out the logical, and obvious, implications of their professed beliefs.
I know other people who are not outright phonies, but who are nonetheless prone, now and then, to posturing, false bravado, preoccupation with “projecting an image,” and other small sins. I try as best I can to police my life for these and other signs of falseness. “Authenticity” is very important to me. I want to live in truth, and to be a genuine person, without fooling either myself or others. The Germans have a nice saying, besser sein als Schein. Better being, than seeming.
However, left alone one night with too much time to myself and nothing else to do, a horrible thought occurred to me. I wondered if my desire for authenticity, for being genuine, might itself be a pose. A way in which I sought to distinguish myself from others – to claim that I am genuine, while others are false. Even the halfway claim of trying to be genuine, of “policing my life” for signs of falseness might just be a form of narcissistic display. Like the Christian whose virtue consists in loudly declaring himself a “sinner.”
I have to admit that I found this thought troubling – until I realized that the very fact that I found it troubling proved, quite conclusively, that my desire for genuineness was indeed genuine. Now I suppose some devilish critic might suggest that perhaps this reaction itself is disingenuous: suppose that my fear that my preoccupation with being genuine might itself be false. I am my own worst critic, however, so I can tell you that this thought did, in fact, occur to me. And, again, I felt apprehension – a fear that perhaps I might be inauthentic all the way down. But I quickly realized, of course, that this is absurd. This very fear, again, shows that my concern with genuineness is quite genuine.
It was then that I realized I had arrived at an insight not unlike Descartes’s cogito. Famously, Descartes observed that I can doubt everything, except my own existence. For if I do not exist, who is doing the doubting? I think (I doubt), therefore I am. (This is the one good argument in Descartes’s entire corpus, by the way.) Similarly, my own desire for genuineness was, in the final analysis, undeniably genuine. There was no doubting it. To be sure, I may sometimes overestimate the degree to which I have achieved genuineness. I may fool myself. But as soon as I discover that I’ve fooled myself, I repent and renounce my falseness. And if this repentance and denunciation don’t smell right to me, I feel the guilt. My desire for genuineness is undeniably genuine.
One way to look at this is that my “self” is really multiple “selves”: multiple layers of relative falseness, and I am engaged in the enterprise of trying to peel them away. Deep down, underlying all of them, is not the “lower self,” in fact, but the “higher self” that does the peeling – whose commitment to genuineness, to living in truth, can’t be doubted. This is my “true self,” and it is characterized by connection to truth. It is what I really am, as opposed to what I merely appear to be; the truth about me is my directedness toward truth. My truth is my being, in other words.
The truth defines my being (it is my being) and it is my highest value. I feel the pull of this value all the time: I must become what I am, I think to myself. What I really am, my true self, again, is truth – but this true self is enveloped by many false selves with which I am often tempted to identify. My “desire for genuineness,” ultimately, is my desire to identify with the true self alone: the self that is true, that lives in truth. Thus, I desire truth in myself – more than anything else. And I desire the truth in the world. I want to find the truth about how things are and live in the light of that and only that. When I find falsehood in myself I am ashamed. When I find falsehood in the world I am indignant.
For without truth there is nothing. Literally.
Truth and being, though they seem distinct, really are the same thing seen in different ways. Consider what it means to say that someone is “a true friend.” If Bob is a true friend it means that he is a real friend; his being is that of a friend. In German, a true friend is described as treu, which means “loyal.” This word is cognate with English “true,” although the word normally translated as “true” (as opposed to “false”) in German is wahr. So we might ask what the relationship is between the “true” and the “loyal.” The answer, quite simply, is that the true is loyal or faithful to what is. Consider also what it means when we say that we “have the truth” about something. It means that we know what it is. The truth of something is its being.
And now we see that “connection” to truth means a lot more than connection to “correctness,” or “being right.” To be connected to truth means to be in accord with what is. This is the difference between us and those members of our tribe who consider us monsters. We live in relation to being; they have chosen non-being. And this is true in multiple senses. They not only fail to perceive reality and fail to put their lives in accordance with it, they have chosen the path of non-being. The path of what Parmenides call “it is not.” Their way leads to the extinction of our culture and our people; and they willingly choose this.
Truly, as Parmenides would put it, our enemies “wander two-headed.” They engage in double-think. They are carried, deaf and blind alike. Dazed, unthinking hordes. For them, being and not-being are thought the same and yet not the same. To cut ourselves off from truth, to live in denial of it, is to live in non-being, in disconnection from what is. And this means disconnection from the good as well. For only the path to being and truth can lead to goodness. Only knowledge of what is (what truly is) can point us toward the ideal; toward what ought to be. The most our enemies can hope for is a beautiful outward form. But inside those who live in denial of truth and being and goodness dwell ugly souls. They are humanoid only, not human.
Yuletide is a time for reflection – for looking back over what has passed away, in this year and in all the years past. And it is a time for looking forward, as this year transitions into the new. This season, let us all re-commit to living in truth. This means finding and affirming the truth in the world, and living genuine, authentic lives. And this twofold commitment has a twofold implication: it means living in relation to what is, and really being something; becoming what we are. The human being is the only animal for whom truth is an issue. The choice to live in truth is the choice to be truly human. And this is our good.
There can be no higher or more important “new year’s resolutions” than what I have set out here: to live in truth, and thus to be what we are; to give birth in ourselves to the good and the beautiful.
Happy New Year!
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All the paragraphs following the caption “The weighing of the heart against truth, Egyptian Book of the Dead” should be aligned on the left, not centered
A fine homily – better than the ‘Don’t worry, Jesus loves you’ I hear, wheezed from the post-conciliar church pulpit…but that is a gripe for another time.
Grand gestures like throwing away the television or boycotting Hollywood films often left me feeling deprived and ran the risk of stRiki-Eiking an inauthentic pose. Rather, authenticity set in simply by crowding out any interest in such trifles with the knowledge obtained through the reading of worthy books and a connection with good company online. I have long despaired of finding illiberal Right Wingers, either pagan or Christian, lingering in my local coffee shop.
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