Truths, oaths, and affirmations
John Keats famously ended "Ode to a Grecian Urn" with the lines "'Truth is beauty, and beauty truth' — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." These lines from an early 19th-century Romantic poet may seem obscure and inconsequential, but they hint at our postmodern relationship with truth.
The Romantics rejected the Enlightenment idea that the universe could be understood with rationalism and science and rejected Scholasticism, which relied on logic and reason. They believed that reality is best explained and understood through human experience, primarily through emotion. We would be foolish to believe that Romanticism is buried in the distant past.
Over the past four years, we have been asked to believe many lies, some small, some big, and some of immense consequence. To recall just a few: the Russia hoax, Covington Catholic, Brett Kavanaugh, and BLM. For many of us, these lies have been exposed and discredited, but for many of our neighbors, co-workers, and friends, they are unchallenged buttresses of their worldview. Why, despite all the evidence to the contrary, do these lies persist among so many people?
The answer is that the emotions associated with them persist. Many people feel that Russian collusion is real, Covington Catholic kids are racist, Brett Kavanaugh is a serial rapist, and BLM is standing up against a racist structure that murders unarmed black men. Their emotions define their reality.
Perhaps the best explanation why so many people cling to the lies comes from a reformed 19th-century Romantic, John Henry Newman, who wrote, "A peculiar thing about humans is that they cannot accept something intellectually until they accept it emotionally." The lies' believers are unable to see the truth because they are emotionally invested in the lie.
While each of the aforementioned lies has been exposed and discredited, we have not reconciled them as a society. All the lies, except for BLM, have disappeared from our collective consciousness and evaporated from public discussion. We have failed to address the underlying conflict, so how can we agree on truth?
Before we move on to the next crisis, scandal, or other distraction, it would be useful to contemplate our relationship with truth. For some, truth exists outside themselves, independent of their thoughts and feelings, and remains a goal to which they aspire. It is something to be glimpsed but never possessed, by practicing the virtues. It is something universal and transcendent.
For others, truth is malleable, plastic, and utilitarian. It is internal and individual to these people who feel and believe that their truth is unique and superior to any other truth. Their truth's universality extends only to the truths of other people at the intersection of their emotions and interests. They reject any conception of truth existing outside their consciousness.
When observant Christians or Jews take an oath before God, they do so, presumably, at great peril. If they fail to fulfill the oath faithfully, they will endanger their relationship with the Creator and suffer grave, potentially infinite, consequences. For secular oath-takers, nothing similar hangs in the balance. This is not to say that dishonest Christians and Jews do not exist (they do), but even dissimulating religious people have more to lose than a secular atheist.
When atheists affirm that they are presenting the truth, the collateral they offer is the value of their word. If it comes to light that they were dishonest, the value of their word is, presumably, diminished. For an ostensibly observant Christian or Jew, however, not only is the value of his word diminished, but he also suffers scorn in his religious community.
Today, does experience tell us that dishonesty is punished and that the value of the words of liars is diminished? There is ample evidence that James Comey, John Brennan, James Clapper, Peter Strzok, Andrew McCabe, and others violated their oaths of office and gave false testimony. Has the value of their words diminished? In some cases, they were fired from their jobs, but they landed lucrative book deals and cable TV "contributor" contracts. It would seem the market for what they have to say has improved.
There are scores of reporters, journalists, editors, and media pundits who have lied to the public for years about the above-listed scandals. Has their value diminished? I can think of none who has suffered any justice for his lies.
In a secular world, truth has no value if its absence has no cost. The Romantic movement opened Pandora's box in making individuals and their emotions the judge of what is true. We have yet to develop any effective response. Unless we re-establish a universal and transcendent truth as the goal or, alternatively, affix a cost to lies, we will never find common ground and move forward as a culture.
Chris Boland can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: George Washington swearing his oath on the Bible by Currier & Ives. Public Domain.