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The Triumph of Truth (The Three Parcae Spinning the Fate of Marie de’ Medici), c.1622/25 Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

We are told the devil is the father of lies, and was a liar from the beginning; so that, beyond contradiction, the invention is old: and, which is more, his first Essay of it was purely political…

Jonathan Swift “The Art of Political Lying” The Examiner November 9, 1710

And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,

The instruments of darkness tell us truths,

Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s

In deepest consequence

Macbeth (1.3.113-122)

The current election campaign creeps in its petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of 4th July (see what I did there?).  The electorate finds itself bombarded daily with claim and counterclaim by those hungry for their votes. And alongside this relentless pounding we also have a proliferation of fact checkers attempting to dispel the miasma created by political speak.

This week, my thoughts have turned to the business of ‘the truth’.  What is it?  Where is it? How do we get there? Will there be shops?  We shall see, but the one thing I can tell you is that truth has nothing to do with facts.

Prepare yourself, dear reader, for yet another one of the Director’s charabanc rides.

For the purposes of getting things out of the way, let’s get a couple of things out of the way.  Firstly, I think we should all agree that truth is not a thing.  By which I mean that truth is not something we could pop down to the shops and buy or find lying discarded by the side of the road.  Very often there are pervasive metaphors to do with truth which do involve going on a journey or following a path which leads to the truth as being some kind of ultimate destination, but if you’ve been paying attention, metaphors always break down somewhere. This particular metaphor breaks down because it suggests that truth is somehow outside, separate and unaffected by ourselves.  It isn’t.

Secondly, there’s the idea of truth being what is revealed in some kind of ta-da! moment.  So in this version, it’s not a case of going on a journey to get to it but more an idea of clearing stuff out of the way in order to reveal it.  But truth isn’t that either.

These metaphors do have great efficacies but they do break down nevertheless.  The danger, as ever, ensues when either we mistake the metaphor for the thing itself or when we don’t realise we’re dealing with a metaphor that’s broken down.  Language can be healed, but maybe that’s a matter for another column.

I think truth is much better conceived as a process rather than as a thing. And therefore as an encounter, or a relationship.

In English the word truth is related (see what I did there?) to the word ‘troth’ which is a pledge of allegiance or fidelity to someone or something.  And the root of the word true in English is also the same as the root of the word trust.  This would seem to suggest therefore we’re not dealing with truth as being synonymous with certainty here but more a kind of trusting relationship which evolves.

As a young Director learning Latin in a Catholic school, I recall a lesson in which we were looking at the scene where the Roman Prefect of Judaea, Pontius Pilate is quizzing Jesus.  At a certain point an exasperated Pilate asks Jesus, ‘What is truth?’ or, as the Latin would have it, if I remember correctly, ‘Quid est veritas?’  In the story Jesus doesn’t answer the question.  Had he been a fan of anagrams he might have suggested “est vir qui adest.”  But anyhow I think I can trace my thoughts of truth being a relationship to that particular Latin class.

(On a side note, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov contains a wonderful appearance by a post Jesus, Pontius Pilate.  I’d recommend it. Old Bulgakov certainly knew a thing or two).

Suffice it to say that this idea of what truth is differs greatly from that posited by our old friends from the Enlightenment who believed (warning, generalisation ahead) that rational enquiry leads to objective truth.  And we all know where that gets us.

Whatever truth is, it’s never final. And, dare I say, it always involves a belief of some kind. Because, let’s face it, what we mean by truth is ‘things that we believe to be true’.  Interestingly, belief is also from the root meaning love (the word can be traced to a PIE root leubh meaning “to care, desire, love”). So it’s something that makes an act of trust in something else that is reasonable to trust and that we can place faith in.  We might then say that the test of something being true is it answers better to our experience compared with alternatives.  So it seems to answer to our experience of the world better than other things.  That’s why we trust stuff after all.

Which is not the same at all as believing whatever is convenient.  That’s not a good test of truth because this depends on purposes and context.  As I may have mentioned previously, thinking of humans as machines for example doesn’t particularly work when describing the existence and behaviour of organisms. But it works perfectly well if your purpose is to annihilate people for example, as our recent D Day commemorations reminded us.  It works very well then, but it’s untrue.

Truth also does not give us any certainty, but then nothing gives us certainty.  Anybody who says they have a truth which provides certainty is trying to sell you something.

Ah, but what about science?  Well yes, even dear science.  After all, science is never final. Science can never say this (or indeed that) is the truth. It can however say by careful experimentation and examination of evidence that this (or indeed that) is or is not likely to be the case.  Therefore not ever establishing something as true but rather establishing some things as truer than others: a continual asymptotic journey towards the truth.

In an interview in 1923, Picasso made the following claim: Art is a lie that makes us realise truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.

But it’s not just art, Pablo. It’s everything.  But maybe everything is art. Hmmm.

Until next time, Happy Reading/Being True.

Director’s Tip #7

Old pyjama bottoms

Cut the legs off for a super pair of makeshift ironing-board covers.