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.

In 1990, soon after the Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced his fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the novelist was interviewed by Mike Wallace for 60 Minutes. At one point Wallace asks Rushdie why he would write a story (The Satanic Verses) in which the wives of the Prophet are prostitutes in brothels.

Rushdie: Well, it’s, of course, not his wives in brothels. I mean, let’s be accurate about this. It’s not his wives in brothels.

Wallace (skeptically): What is it?

Rushdie: There is a brothel in the imaginary city in which the prostitutes take the names of the prophets’ wives. Meanwhile, it is quite clearly stated the prophets’ wives are somewhere else being perfectly well behaved.

Wallace: Yes. But it’s in the eye of the reader. It’s in the eye of the beholder. And if you are a faithful Muslim…

Wallace is quite committed to this “eye of the beholder” take. The author sees it one way, the readers another—who are we to judge? When Rushdie persists in trying to correct the lie about his book, Wallace tries to frame it as a matter of the author’s “intention.” But Rushdie responds, “If I’m accused of calling the prophets’ wives whores, I didn’t do it.” At which point Wallace simply changes the subject, never deigning to acknowledge that truth and falsehood are at stake here—and that the truth is easily ascertained, if one can be bothered to seek it. Journalistic bothsidesism can be a kind of jesting, too.

What are the chances that the man who stabbed Rushdie on a stage in Chautauqua, New York, last August did so on the basis of accurate information about Rushdie and The Satanic Verses? The assailant’s understanding was probably as solidly grounded as that of the man who fired an assault rifle inside the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington in 2016, convinced that the restaurant was a front for a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton, or as that of the fans of Alex Jones and his InfoWars website who harass the parents whose children were killed at Sandy Hook.

Over the past few years, Jones has regularly defended himself by claiming to be an entertainer, a performance artist—a jester, if you will, like Pilate. Almost a poet. To the charge that poets lie, Francis Bacon’s contemporary Sir Philip Sidney said, “Now for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lies.” Alex Jones, Sidney Powell, and so many others: They nothing affirm, and therefore never lie. Problem solved.

The idea that “no reasonable person” would think that poets such as Jones and Powell actually affirm anything perhaps does not do the work the defense attorneys who deploy it want it to do. Even if it’s true, it raises questions. For instance, how should the law respond to the evident fact that there are millions and millions of unreasonable people in our country? Do the people who work for Dominion deserve protection from unreasonable people who threaten their lives? We’re still waiting for the legal system’s answers.

Meanwhile, we might do well to think more deeply about the appeal of lies. This is where Bacon, once more, helps us. He identifies several categories of truth avoiders. The first, as we have seen, is the “jester,” the person afflicted by a certain “giddiness” when faced with the possibility of knowing the truth, a flighty aversion to “bondage.”

Second, “the difficulty and labor which men take in finding out of truth” is too much for some people—especially (we might add) when “sharing” on social media is just a click away. Share in haste, repent at leisure—or, more likely, don’t repent. Justify yourself, delete that tweet, or defiantly insist that what you shared is true despite all evidence to the contrary. Actually “doing your own research”—as opposed to using that phrase—is far too hard.

Third, when the truth is discovered, “it imposeth upon men’s thoughts”—that is, you have to reckon with it in some way. (Surely this is what the “jesters” fear.) This is why people strategically avoid seeking the truth about their favorite politicians, or avoid going to doctors: When you find out what’s wrong with you, a course of treatment may be “imposed” on you, so better (you think, wrongly) not to know.

Finally, says Bacon, there is something more mysterious: “a natural though corrupt love of the lie itself.” Why do some people simply love lies? Because, Bacon suggests, “a mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure.” It makes life more interesting, more fun. “Doth any man doubt, that if there were taken out of men’s minds vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds of a number of men poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?”

I think this last insight is one we should meditate on—and soberly. As he reflects on the possibility of the irresistible appeal of prevarication, Bacon himself meditates in sober fashion. He finds himself recalling the great Roman poet Lucretius, who at the beginning of Book II of his long poem De rerum natura (alternately translated as On the Nature of the Universe and On the Nature of Things), wrote of the “joy” to be found “when the strong winds of storm / Stir up the waters of a mighty sea” and one can “watch from shore the troubles of another”; joy also “to see great armies locked in conflict / Across the plains, yourself free from the danger.” Now, to be sure, the poet continues, he takes “No pleasure…in any man’s distress”; rather he rejoices in being spared. But of all such contemplations, “nothing sweeter is than this: to dwell / In quiet halls and lofty sanctuaries / Well fortified by doctrines of the wise,” while others have gone astray in “The clash of intellects, the fight for honors, / The lust for wealth”—this ceaseless, pointless toil and struggle, which the philosopher-poet is endlessly grateful to have escaped. Indeed, it is good to be the philosopher-poet.

Bacon has a complex reaction to this passage. He thinks it is good, very good indeed, to be “well fortified by doctrines of the wise” and thereby to be protected from the storms of lies that toss many people about so violently. It is indeed gratifying, Bacon says, paraphrasing Lucretius, to be “standing upon the vantage ground of truth,” because up there “the air is always clear and serene.” But, he adds, the pleasure one feels is appropriate “so always that this prospect be with pity, and not with swelling or pride.” If you have been able to discover something that is true, then you should have compassion for those who are laboring under the spell of falsehood. And if instead of pitying them, you mock and belittle them, then you will become swollen with pride—and then, when the lies that comfort you come around, you will be unable to resist them. By the time he wrote “Of Truth,” perhaps Bacon had learned that lesson in one of the harder ways.

Thus, the problem with Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, a recent book by Rod Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative, is how consoling its message is, despite its tone of alarm: In its moral world, the lies we should shun come from those we already believe to be our enemies. But like the calls that come from inside the house, the lies that come from inside the community, or inside one’s very self, are the most dangerous. Dreher takes his title from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—and that commitment to resisting the Powers That Be is indeed vital—but it’s only half of the great Russian dissident’s story. It’s noteworthy that the other half, Solzhenitsyn’s most famous, and most deeply Christian, insight, which he articulates in The Gulag Archipelago, does not appear in Dreher’s book: “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an un-uprooted small corner of evil.”

Solzhenitsyn says of this revelation, this agonizing arrow of self-knowledge, that it was not something he achieved by main force; it was, rather, a gift: “It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience; how a human being becomes evil and how good.” To have to face his own inner corruption, his own deep love of self-righteous and comforting lies, almost did him in. It is easy to see, then, why that particular gift is one that most of us would rather decline.

The only way out of this prison of self-deception and self-justification is to love and seek the truth—and to believe that truth is something we share: not “my truth” and “your truth” but the truth, truth as a commons, a potentially fertile plot of ground we tend together and that is nurtured by our collective work or ruined by our neglect. We must shun the jesters, and pity the deceived. I can’t think of any imperatives more important in our cultural moment. Because the alternative….

In Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir Maus—a record of his parents’ experience in Nazi concentration camps in which the various people are depicted as animals: the Nazis as cats, the Jews mice, the Poles pigs, the Americans dogs, and so on—Nazi officers arrest a man as a Jew. But he isn’t Jewish, he insists, he’s a German. (“I have medals from the Kaiser. And my son is a German soldier!”) And Spiegelman draws the man’s face as a mouse, then as a cat, then as something that wavers between the two. But the officers ignore his pleas. They arrest him and carry him off, and so: He’s a mouse. He’s a Jew. He is what they say he is. In a society that does not love and seek truth and whose people do not know their own temptations and strive to expel deception from their own hearts, then, in the end, Truth will be what Power says it is. If we want to claw our way out of the mess we’re in, we have to ask ourselves the hard questions—then stay for the answers.