The world is in conflict about the truth and has been for a long time. Many are the disagreements, often violent, as to what the truth is, and is not. There are those that attempt to resolve the conflict by saying that there is no such thing; that the truth is simply a redundant term of little or no significance and is therefore irrelevant. Some say that the truth is only applicable to a few corners of science and mathematics, well away from the ordinary. Some concede that truth might have a place in religion, yet many disagree on this point, arguing that it might be the source of political or religious oppression or intolerance. Many argue that truth is really innumerable shades of gray, as my partners did; that there is no black and white; that there is nothing absolute. They argue that wisdom is selecting the right shade for the occasion, to suit the circumstances. Still others argue that truth is for experts only: they say only experts can understand something so deep and complex. In the same vein, some believe that truth is so large, that no one can find it out, or if they do, it can only be one little piece, in one little corner of an immense universe. Many are afraid that those that do find a little piece, inevitably are, or go insane.
With regularity I hear truth spoken of as incoherent, contradictory, irrelevant or incomprehensible. Some say that the truth is simply unrealistic: they cede that there might be such a thing, but they contest that it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with being practical. Others argue that the truth is whatever you make it, so the question is meaningless. I have heard truth described as unnecessary clutter that makes life a burden. Commonly I read and hear about the relativity of truth: that for one reason or many, the concept of universal, absolute truth is absurd in today’s enlightened culture, and aught to be done away with, posthaste.
Many believe that truth agnosticism, the gray world philosophy, is a new dawn of intellectualism in civilized society. Others believe that this is a new tragedy of the rising generation, an invention of the last twenty, fifty or one hundred years that portends the impending doom of all civilization. Be it good or bad, most people believe that these developments are somehow new.
They are not. These conflicts relating to truth are at least as old as recorded history. The first recorded philosophers dealt with similar ideas. History is replete with examples of individuals purporting the “new” idea that truth is relative; that the people before them had not broadly considered the complexities of life and had not allowed room for the wide variety of thought and beliefs necessary to “highly civilized” society. Therefore they concluded, that the old folks held to fixed, absolute truths, as evidence of small and meager minds that threatened the peace and prosperity of a bright and dawning future.
Those who knew better spent a great deal of time and effort, sometimes giving their lives, trying to propound the fact that these ideas are the same old errors from yesteryear. If we are to believe Plato, Socrates the father of Western philosophy, was condemned to death by the Athenian city council for being inflexible in holding to what he believed to be immutable truths. Many have considered the tale of his death and willingness to drink his own poison as incomprehensibly futile; a waste; a tragedy. Was it really? Or was Plato chronicling something worth more than life?
Now I hear some cry, “See! He was extreme! More valuable than life? He sounds like a danger to himself and society.” However, consider the fact that in Plato’s account, Socrates did not threaten his society. He had served in its defense and the defense of its loyal citizens. Yet, it was the society that required his life, which he willingly gave for his belief. The society, whose gods were those of the gray world philosophy, made a violent demand on his life, with which he peacefully complied. Those who survive are haunted with questions: Is the sword of truth bathed in blood, or is it the gray world that inevitably requires blood? and What is truth’s value?
To list only a few who have been recorded as giving their lives for holding their concept of truth as a greater value than life: Jesus of Nazareth, Saint Paul, Husayn ibn Ali, Jan Huss, Joan of Arc, William Tyndale, Martin Luther, Giordano Bruno, and Galileo Galilei. Many more have demonstrated their willingness to die in order to obtain or defend the truth, but have not been required to do so, including: Moses, Pythagoras of Samos, Siddhartha Gautama, and Muhammad. These individuals held that certain truths are irrevocably absolute and undeniable. These same individuals have each, in some significant way, altered the course of human history. Is there a connection?
Truth and its opposite, error, are central to the human experience. Ideas of truth have changed human history to match or exceed the influences of other more conspicuous ideas, such as wealth, art, commerce, or weapons. Repeatedly truth has been slandered and disregarded, only to be reborn and revered again throughout the ages of human civilization.
In order to understand the power and worth of truth, we must first have an accurate understanding of what truth and error are and how they come about. People throughout history have changed the course of their own lives, and the world, by their approach and fidelity to the truth. What principles we choose, make the difference.