Sense and Nonsense: Truth, Bitter and Glorious

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Charlie Brown and Lucy are looking over the brick wall. Lucy has her elbows on the wall, with a sort of forlorn, not-again look on her face as she listens to Charlie Brown affirm, “I want to be liked for myself.” Charlie then turns on her with a kind of determined earnestness, “I don’t want to be liked because I know the right people.” Lucy just continues with her elbows on the wall. No change in expression whatsoever is detected on her face as she listens to this self-explanation from Charlie. Charlie continues, “I want to be liked for ME!” On hearing this, while Charlie looks at her with utter consternation, Lucy turns abruptly on him, to ask, “Who?” The truth, it is said, hurts.

With one of my classes, I was rereading Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard Address of 1978, an address prophetic in many ways, particularly in its insights into the flow or nature of American intellectual life as it is lived in the universities. You wonder, in retrospect, whether Solzhenitsyn’s address changed any of those Harvard seniors’ lives. You doubt it. Does that make you an inveterate pessimist? A realist?

On the surface, of course, the whole problematic of this famous address has altered. Marxism has turned out to be an admitted failure. We are busy speaking of “new world orders” and a kind of dynamism to confront “real problems,” which, alas, usually turn out to be yet newer ideologies like environmentalism, structures of sin, deconstructionism, and such stuff.

Yet, something in the very first words that Solzhenitsyn spoke to those Harvard graduates strikes me still as very sobering. It is something we do not like to hear. Solzhenitsyn had said that there was really very little “courage” in the West because of its well-being and materialism. To many, this moral earnestness was mostly sour grapes. The West, it was contended, was successful because of its materialism and its relativism. When the Berlin Wall was broken open, wasn’t it the remarkable variety of goods in supermarkets that was most noticed, that most clearly symbolized the cause of the failure of Marxist economies?

 

Still, we are recently become alert to the remarkable intellectual conformity found in the universities, the freer, the more uniform and rigid their thought. In university towns, like Santa Cruz, California, for instance, the student vote in local elections habitually is invariably 90- to 95- percent one party. “Proper political thinking” in universities has become the norm, not the exception. The only real way to be odd on campus is to read the Summa and find it makes sense.

In retrospect, we have Solzhenitsyn recalling Harvard’s motto, “Veritas,” truth. This speech was a remarkable exercise of thinking of truth as such. I think, in addition, of Josef Pieper’s book The Truth of All Things (Ignatius). Truth—the conformity of mind and reality; truth—what is not us becomes ours; truth—what is discovered in things, including ourselves, not made by us.

“Many of you have already found out and others will find out in the course of their lives, that truth eludes us as soon as our concentration begins to flag, all the while leaving the illusion that we are trying to pursue it,” Solzhenitsyn began. Truth eludes as soon as our concentration on it begins to flag—I think of the abortion question. The truth: To kill a human being is evil. The truth: To declare of a human being that it is a human being. What is the evidence that a conceived human cell, at any time from the moment of conception to its death four-score-and-ten years later is not what it is, not human? There is no evidence.

To kill a beginning human life, you cannot tell the truth about it, especially to yourself. And you cannot call what you—be you doctor, mother, nurse, father, advisor, priest, psychologist, justice of the Supreme Court—do by its truthful name. You have to equivocate. But books are written, radio and tv talk shows go on, things are justified, smoothed over, rights of privacy, of toleration, all these sorts of things. The illusion remains. You do not have to tell the truth. It is too painful.

The pursuit of any truth, Solzhenitsyn continued, “this is the source of much discord. Also, truth is seldom sweet; it is almost invariably bitter.” Now of course, does not this doctrine about the truth being a source of discord, about it being “almost invariably bitter,” seem a bit much? Why, it is certainly contrary to St. Thomas, to the idea that we rejoice in truth. Does not truth cause dissention? Let’s just get along. You have your truth; I have mine. No big deal. What arrogance, to claim that truth exists.

To be sure, Christ was seen as a kind of rock of contradiction. He said the world would hate Him. He said He was the way and the truth and the life. So there is something strange about this truth. In the Garden of Eden, Eve was told that if she ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, she would not die. She was lied to. Is it true that there are things we find by the use of our reason that indicate that we do not make our own rules about what we are?

In his essay on “Sacramental Things,” Belloc wrote the following remarkable lines:

Glory (which, if men would only know it, lies behind all true certitude) illumines and enlivens the seen world, and the living light makes of the true things now revealed something more than truth absolute; they appear as truth acting and creative.

“Truth active and creative”—this must mean that what things are, what they do if they follow their being, is incarnate in them: the word, the truth, is enfleshed in each thing. What does it mean, “glory lies behind all true certitude”? Glory?

The truth is painful. A lady was entertaining her friend’s small son. They were at supper. She watched the boy. “Are you sure you can cut your meat?” she asked him solicitously as he struggled to cut his meat. “Oh, yes, ma’am,” the boy replied without looking up from the plate. “We often have meat as tough as this at home.” The truth is bitter.

“All things, then, are knowable in themselves,” Josef Pieper observed. “All that exists, because it exists, is ordained toward a knowing mind, even toward the finite knowing mind.” We can find no bitterness in this truth. The bitterness lies in us, lies in the fact that we can say of what is that it is not, and of what is not, that it is. We can do this. We do do this. Hence the bitterness. Hence the truth that is seldom sweet.

And yet what “glory,” as Belloc called it, it is to know that absolute truth is something more than itself, that it is entwined with life and action and that we confront it, almost as if we are being given a word every time we encounter what we are not. We speak the word and we reach glory, because glory is there. We only find the truth bitter when we find the world bereft of word, word that calls out for us to say what it is we see and know and act upon.

“I want to be liked for ME!”

“The truth eludes us as soon as our concentration flags . . . Truth is seldom sweet; it is almost invariably bitter.”

“Oh, yes, ma’am, we often have meat as tough as this at home.”

“Glory illumines and enlivens the seen world.”

“All that exists, because it exists, is ordained toward a knowing mind, even toward a finite knowing mind.”

VERITAS.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

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Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).

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