Americans pretend to be shocked whenever one of their national celebrities gets caught out in a lie. Is it really so surprising that Michael Jordan should attempt to conceal his gambling or that Bill Clinton should hide his cochonnerie? My European friends—some of them highly moral and religious men—never tire of ridiculing us for our Parson Weemsian naiveté. The scandal industry, so lucrative in these United States, is strictly a mom-and-pop business in France and Italy. Spy magazine attracted attention with “Bill Clinton’s First 100 Lies,” but who would dream of wasting paper on Mitterrand’s lies—or his mistresses, for that matter?
If Americans, as a people, take lies seriously, why do we have a national holiday for a plagiarist but not for the father of our country, who was almost as truthful as Parson Weems made him out to be? Why was there so little outcry when Donna Shalala, apparently egged on by Senator Simon, confiscated the data of two NIH researchers who had designed a plagiarism detector? Their crime, it seems, was to have unmasked a pop historian as a career plagiarist.
Our entertainment industry is as honest as a WWF wrestling match in which surgically reconfigured stars like Cher and Michael Jackson are lip-synched, dubbed and redubbed, spliced, patched, and remixed for films, discs, and videos that win prizes for enthralling the little gammas and deltas who give box-office records to Steven Spielberg. If there is a national icon, it is Milli Vanilli.
The most basic lie of all is that ours is a free country, a representative democracy established by the Constitution of 1787. Even the ghost of that system was dissipated by our President-for-Life, Franklin Roosevelt, in whose four terms many of the worst official lies sent their spores into every nook and cranny of our national institutions.
FDR was the master of lies, from the doctored photo-record that made him appear a robust physical specimen, when in fact he was physically, not just morally, a cripple, to his manufactured reputation for brilliance and erudition. “He never told the truth when a lie would serve,” was Douglas MacArthur’s judgment, and that verdict could ht virtually every occupant of the White House since FDR’s timely demise. Bob Dole lost the Republican nomination by telling the truth, and he was widely criticized as a bad sport when he publicly resented the lies George Bush was telling about him. It is easy to predict the outcome of American elections: the better liar nearly always wins.
“And ye shall know the truth,” says Jesus in John’s Gospel, “and the truth shall make you free.” But in a culture so deeply dishonest, we cannot acknowledge the truth even in private company, even in our own hearts, lest we blurt out some truism about the sun rising in the East, or boys being boys (or not, as the ease may too often be). If we cannot be honest with ourselves, we cannot be free, either in the trivial sense of social and political freedom, or in the deeper moral and spiritual sense that Jesus meant: “Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin.” Every new campus speech code, every new piece of hate crimes legislation (with the Reagan-Bush Supreme Court’s seal of approval) is another link in the chain that binds us to the Prince of Lies.
Freedom requires truth, but few of us have the slightest idea what truth is. At the level of popular culture, truth is an advertising slogan or a fashionable cliche. Poverty causes crime, chorus the liberals. No, welfare causes poverty, chirp the conservatives. In our personal lives, to tell the truth is to tell me what I think I already know, to convince me of what I believe. Liberals and conservatives both have their opinion factories—magazines, newspaper columns, talk shows—to flood the market with propaganda and drive out the occasional eccentric truth. Things are even worse at the heights of our culture—this is like saying the mountains of Iowa—where truth is reduced to the Marxist formula of “whatever serves the interest of. . . . ” the blank to be filled in by the relevant racial or sexual minority.
As Francis Bacon realized, St. John’s Gospel is a good place to begin a consideration of truth. Part of John’s historical significance lies in his fusion of Greek and Judaic conceptions of truth. The basic notion in Hebrew is of a reality so solid that it is binding. God is truth itself, and so is his Word. In this sense, Jesus could claim to be the truth and to bear witness to the truth:
To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Everyone that is of the truth heareth my voice. Pilate saith unto him. What is truth? And when he said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all. [John 18:37-38]
Francis Bacon interpreted Pilate’s irony as a question of moral epistemology, something like: What does it mean when someone says he is telling the truth? But for a Roman, truthfulness was a simple virtue; it meant not telling lies, no matter what the temptation. The Romans taught their sons more by precept and example than by theory, and in order to impress the ancient virtues upon the rising generation they told stories of virtuous old Romans. Fabricius, for example, was taken prisoner by the Carthaginians and sent to Rome to negotiate an exchange of prisoners. The Roman disappointed his captors by advising the senate against the exchange, and, faithful to his word, he returned to Carthage where he was tortured to death.
Truthfulness is not a universal virtue, and the Romans—as their culture was transmuted by immigrants from the Middle East—accommodated themselves to different standards. It was customary to blame the Greeks, but the Greeks in question were really cosmopolitan Syrians and Phoenicians. The early Greeks had some regard for honesty. Achilles hated a lie like the gates of hell, but Odysseus, who had something like a genius for deception, may have been closer to the hearts of many Greeks.
The significance of the Greeks’ conception of truth does not lie with the subjective side, that is with honesty, but in the objective plane. When Jesus says he came to bear witness to the truth or that he is the truth, the Greek word aletheia can mean (like the Latin Veritas and the Italian verità) both honesty and reality (that is, truth as opposed to mere appearance). We take it for granted that there is a real and objective world, independent of our own perceptions and governed by its own laws, but the opposite assumption—that all we know, that the universe itself, depends on our own perception—is more intuitively obvious. Of course, even to pose the question as I have done requires an awareness of objectivity that is absent from most cultures and from most human beings in every culture.
Objective reality is a gift of the Greeks. Today, a reader may smile at Parmenides’ declaration that “what is cannot not be,” but in that smile he will miss an intellectual revolution. For it was in the stubborn and hard head of Parmenides that was born the clear conception of reality. Solid, changeless, timeless, his Being has the attributes of a god. This conception was the basis for first Plato’s, then Aristotle’s pursuit of truth as objective reality, and it is the hidden premise of Aristotle’s rule of noncontradiction, the principle that—more than any other—distinguishes the Western mind.
Stated crudely, the rule is that a thing cannot both be and not be something, e.g., hot and not-hot, true and not-true. If two-plus-two is four, then it is not under some circumstances four and under other conditions not-four. It is four, pure and simple. Our scientific notion of truth-as-reality owes everything to Parmenides and Aristotle, and while medicine may be practiced, experiments conducted by men and women who do not accept this principle, the progress of scientific knowledge depends on this and other fundamental Western ideas.
For everyday use, it is enough to consider truth as a binding relationship between outer reality, the inner world of human perception, and honesty in uttering the impression of reality. A complete truth would, on this account, consist of seeing a chair and then saying so. But truth is not usually so simple. There is always the possibility that one can be mistakenly wrong—or even mistakenly right. Besides, much of what we know or think we know is not derived from direct experience. It is, as William James says, taken on credit. To take an example used more than once by James, we have heard of Julius Caesar, know the deeds attributed to him, and may even have his books in our library. But what do we really know that would justify us in saying we know the truth about Julius? In the case of the high-school student who parrots what his teacher tells him, his knowledge of ancient Rome is like his knowledge of science or morals or politics. He may have received what Plato calls “true opinion,” but since he cannot prove it, what he knows is not knowledge and what he says is not fully truth. For Plato (in, for example, the Parmenides), truth can only emerge at the end of a long process of dialectic in which we examine the consequences of a proposition and its contradictory. If a god or gods exist, what then? If not, then what is the result?
How far is this from the pragmatist account of truth, at least in the version of William James? For the pragmatists, truth is “what works,” or what has cash value, or what has practical consequences. “It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere—no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere, and somewhen.”
The difficulty with the pragmatists’ truth lies not in their admirable insistence upon tracing consequences and upon verification processes, but in the assumption that this method is sufficient in itself. James, in his gentlemanly contempt for religion, was willing to allow believers to enjoy the “moral holidays” that derive from religious faith, and he was surprised by the angry rejection that his condescension inspired. But, by the terms of James’s own analysis, a purely pragmatic account of truth leads to frightful consequences. His colleague John Dewey became a political propagandist for democratic socialism and, in his hatred for Stalin, could not or would not acknowledge the obvious truth, that Trotsky was just as criminal. Dewey, acting on the principle that truth is what works, exonerated Trotsky as an obvious political gambit aimed at discrediting Stalin and strengthening what we would now call the neoconservative wing of international socialism.
James and Dewey were able to understand truth only as an experimental process that leads to results in this world. Their way of truth is typical of most scientists and intellectuals who see their job as a matter of analysis and criticism. Theirs is the truth that an individual can find and verify for himself. Like Plato, they are inclined to look down their noses at mere orthodoxy. But what a man can find out in the brief period of his active existence is very little. Most of what we know of good and evil, right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, kindness and cruelty, we learn from the tales and proverbs handed down to us and from the books we use to supplement or supplant traditional wisdom. Aristotle said that he only wanted students with sound characters, because analysis was only good for testing and validating what you already knew. If a man does not have a just character, he will never understand justice, no matter how hard he studies. In fact, he will only discover ingenious ways of defending injustice, vice, and perversity.
The brightest people usually end up saying something like what their peasant grandmothers knew all along, and much of the worst mischief in the world has been caused by the half-educated smart aleck who wanted to distinguish himself from the common folk. These are intellectuals, whose type can be recognized in the sophists of the 5th century B.C., the Christian gnostics, and the philosophes of the 18th century, and it is the perennial task of the wise to combat their ingenious vanities.
Modern intellectuals, convinced that they are on the cutting edge of progress, are incapable of any originality beyond the statement “I don’t see any reason why . . . “—as in I don’t see any reason why a man should have to go to church on Sunday, limit himself to one wife, kill harmless animals, study dead languages, or wear a necktie to work. As critics, intellectuals can be useful to the world, and the smart-aleck phase is only a stage in the development of many human beings, but to remain an intellectual is like being 15 years old for the rest of your life.
Philosophic sages and the greatest scientists begin by asking many of the same kind of questions put by intellectuals, but they are not content with the obvious answers. The intellectual reads a bit of potted anthropology—Margaret Mead, for example—and concludes that the customs of our own society have no foundation. A real student of human culture draws the opposite conclusion: if the Samoans or the Hopi have strange folkways that are vital to their cultures and to their survival as human beings, then why is it not equally important for Anglo-Americans to preserve our own exotic customs?
A large part of our own folk culture is bound up with the West’s conception of truth as an honest and reasoned account of the objective world. It is not that civilized Oriental nations and even primitive peoples never conceived of objective reality, never reasoned their way to correct conclusions. Primitive man is a very practical being, a professional naturalist who usually knows as much about important species as the trained biologists who come to catalogue his world. But, for him, objective reality is shot through with mysterious subjectivities. Dreams, shadows, impressions left on a bed, even fingernail clippings are fraught with peril, because an enemy might use them for magical purposes.
One of the criticisms made against Lucien Levy-Bruhl and his book La mentalité primitive was that he drew so many examples from the advanced civilizations of the East. In a way, however, Levy-Bruhl was right. The philosophers of India and China revel in paradox and exult in the confusion of subject and object. The world is illusion; the passive and accepting baby is the human ideal; right and wrong are mere conventions, which the enlightened man transcends. I anticipate the objection that modern science has gone beyond all this objectivity. Einstein and Heisenberg have shown us the relativity of the universe and the impossibility of separating the observer from the observed. Modern science, on this account, is returning to the wisdom of the East or, at least, to the pre-Socratics.
Did Einstein’s theories really precipitate a moral and cultural revolution toward relativism, as so many (Paul Johnson most recently) have argued, or were his views adopted by a culture that had already gone relativist. G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, which Lytton Strachey and his friends used to justify their immoralism, was published in 1903, at the very time Einstein was evolving his theory and long before his work was recognized. Besides, as Stephen Clark has argued, Moore’s work was distorted by his admirers. It was the culture itself, not Moore or Einstein, that wanted moral and cultural relativism. Why, is another matter.
The same holds true for the earlier revolution in physics that supposedly sparked the cultural revolution that is still called the Enlightenment. In the textbook version of intellectual history. Sir Isaac Newton’s demonstration of an orderly and rational universe inspired Voltaire and the other philosophes with a desire to find equivalent “laws” for the human world. The trouble is, Voltaire and the rest already knew what those laws were, a secularized version of Christian humanism. The Enlightenment did not need Newton or Copernicus—a rationalized version of Ptolemy, if offered as a revolutionary breakthrough, would have served the same purpose.
Parallels between the sciences that study nature and those that have man as their object are as perilous as they are intriguing. Some rules and methods are applicable to all subjects, but each discipline has its own unique rules (as each culture has its own peculiar codes of conduct). Those who write so glowingly of “the uncertainty principle” in morals or in art should recall Aristotle’s warning that mathematical precision was as out of place in studying human behavior as rhetoric in a syllogism.
Even within a single culture, there are different ways of knowing, different ways of truth. Levy-Bruhl, in describing the mind of primitive men, might also have been describing American journalists. Neither group has a grasp on the objective universe; both will say anything they like, so long as it fits the occasion. All the news that’s fit, runs the old joke on the Times.
Truthfulness and the experimental method are both cultural artifacts. More and more they belong in a museum. When I was a student at Chapel Hill, we still lived by the honor code. This caused no end of trouble for teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, because their Latin American students did not regard cheating as wrong, even when they had signed a pledge not to cheat. It is not that they were less honorable than the rest of us. Most of them came from good families, and they lived according to a strict code. But that code did not include, for example, marital fidelity and academic honesty. Classes were war games, and teachers were the enemy, and in love and war, all is fair.
We think the customs of our civilization are exportable, and they are, up to a point. We can take the son of a shaman or witch doctor and send him to college and medical school, and he may succeed brilliantly, but a few years ago I read an interview with an African M.D. who explained that Western medicine was good, in its way, for treating the symptoms of disease; it could even do something with the material cause, with the viruses and bacteria that make people sick. But for the ultimate cause—what root or spell made the man susceptible to the virus—one had to turn to native medicine.
Perhaps he is right, in his own culture, and if his own son becomes a physician, he will probably despise his father’s superstitions more than I do. But in the meantime, as the culture of Europe and North America is transmuted by millions of immigrants arriving annually from Africa, China, India, and Latin America, what is the chance of preserving our own strange regard for truth?
None at all. Go visit a school, and observe the music, the dress, the manners, the language, the violence. This is multiculturalism in action, where skinheads represent the last bastion of Europe and the cross is worn as a symbol of white racism. Teachers blame it on the home, but I know the children I sent off to school, and it is hard to recognize them after a year of formal education—private or public. Assimilation works, but we are becoming them.
But worse than the high schools and elementaries are the colleges and universities. In the very institutions established to promote honest research, students are now indoctrinated into multiculturalism, whose basic principle is a denial of the entire Western tradition of critical thought. Logic is sexist and racist. an instrument of oppression. Objective reality is an illusion, and the sciences that purport to study reality are only sophisticated games played by degenerate white males. History is bunk, because all that matters are the stories that people tell about themselves. The truth? “What is truth, said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.”
In one sense I agree with the alien defenders of alien traditions. Our culture did go mad on rationality; we have poisoned ourselves on universal principles to the point that we do not know how to defend our wives and children from enemies and rivals. We are so obsessed with seeing things from the other fellow’s point of view, we do not even notice that he is picking our pocket. And the exclusively scientific view of the world has so warped our personality that we, like Charles Darwin, have lost our taste for beauty, for art, for poetry, for music.
Admitting our faults and heartily condemning this “botched civilization,” we have to realize that these faults, as well as the corresponding virtues of truthfulness and sweet reason, belong to us. Salvation will not come from without, from exotic Oriental cults, from voodoo or salsa music. We can only reform ourselves within our own traditions—as we have had to do so many times in the past.
Reactionaries have always known that human culture is entropic—a steady degeneration punctuated by a few bursts of creative energy. The job of most generations is to preserve as much as they can of the light left over from the explosions and to add their own meager contribution—like fireflies in the sun. We are, as Vergil says, forever rowing upstream, and the moment we slack the oars, the current sweeps us rapidly back down. But we, in this generation, have watched the oars go slack, and as the boat begins to drift lazily down the stream, we throw the oars overboard and sit back to admire the novelty of the savage landscape we paddled by so many thousands of years ago.