Hope Itself   /   Fall 2022   /    Notes & Comments

Staying for the Truth

A brief interrogation into the nature of truth.

Alan Jacobs

THR illustration; woodcut by Lars Lindgren.

The Gospel according to John tells us what happens when an itinerant preacher and prophet called Jesus of Nazareth is brought before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, for questioning. Pilate wants to know more about this odd man, who says, enigmatically enough, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” To which Pilate rejoins, “What is truth?” Then he turns away to talk to someone else.

In his 1625 essay “Of Truth,” the English writer and politician Francis Bacon—who, a few years earlier, had been deposed from his place as Lord Chancellor of England for corruption—commented on this passage: “What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” The hint here is that Pilate turns away from Jesus after asking his question because he is afraid it might be answered. And Pilate may not be the only one who has such feelings.

“Jesting” Pilate—truth is but a game to him, a joke. People like that, Bacon says, “count it a bondage to fix a belief.” Bacon’s thoughts on these matters are useful to us because there are many such jesters—always have been—and many reasons for jesting. When Dominion Voting Systems first brought suit against Donald Trump’s legal adviser Sidney Powell for defamation, Powell’s attorneys declared that “no reasonable person would conclude that the statements were truly statements of fact.” What is truth? said jesting Sidney.

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