Sense and Nonsense: Willingly Being Deceived

Truth has become unfriendly. We “hold” these truths that no truth can exist, that all views are created equal, that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are defined only by ourselves. They have no objective content. We have nothing in common except that we have nothing in common. Our civic peace exists on the supposition that no truth exists. Therefore, we are all “equal” in our common acceptance that no truth binds us. The order of our polity is the projection, outside of ourselves, of our souls.

To maintain that truth is important, even that such a thing exists, causes a dark suspicion of fanaticism. To be sure, we may merely mean, culturally, that any bold affirmation is “one’s own private truth.” It cannot mean that anyone’s “truth” has anything to do with anyone else’s “truth.” Certainly controversies about the truth of things cannot be resolved by human minds. We must always bracket “truth?’ Who, after all, dare say what it is? No source of authority exists outside of ourselves. Even when two people accidentally agree that some proposition is true, this agreement is not and cannot be the logical conclusion of a tight argument to which minds assent because they see the evidence. No evidence can coerce the mind to conclude this way or that. Hence, no one needs to see the truth of “truth” if he does not want to. To coin a phrase, everyone is “free to choose” his “truth.”

Scripture had it quite wrong, of course. It is not “truth” that shall make us free, but precisely its lack, its denial, its impossibility that will free us. For nature, it is said, reveals no order, no basis upon which we might base any affirmation that this or that is true or false. Our own souls, moreover, reveal no internal order to which we are attuned. The suspicion that there is a natural law or natural order, indeed, is a most dangerous one. “Truth” is not following reason. It is a private projection presupposed to nothing but an order-less reality filled with order-less souls.

In the third book of the Republic, Socrates remarks to Glaucon, “And isn’t being deceived about the truth a bad thing, while possessing the truth is good? Or don’t you think that to believe the things that are is to possess truth?” (413a) What’s this? Surely Socrates had it all wrong. To be “deceived about the truth” should mean, in today’s relativist terms, holding that truth is possible to know or achieve. The fundamental modern “truth?’ however, is that there is no truth. The things that are have no relation to any mind. To possess the “truth” is to see that our minds are the only source of intelligibility in the universe. Nothing out there is “speaking” to us.

In the classic view, by contrast, a world exists with its own order, an order it did not give itself but according to which it manifests itself to minds. Its truth is the relation of this order to the mind, as Anaxagoras said, to a mind that knew it first. In the universe, other minds are found. We ourselves possess them. They are open to this world and its order. With these minds, we can and want to know what is. We, on self-reflection, find minds with a kind of infinite thirst to know what is, to know what is not merely themselves.

In a world of no theoretic possibility of “truth?’ there can be no conversation, no grounds other than power to resolve differences or to affirm agreements. All our statements are mere declarations of what we “hold.” Some like to think that we must agree on limiting our “truths” to what does not “harm” others. But why we should accept such a limit is not so evident in lieu of some principle about why we should not harm, or even less what we mean by harm and to whom.

Truth, as I say, is unfriendly. Indeed, it is arrogant. It judges. It says of what is that it is, and of what is not, that it is not.

Certain principles, when embraced, destroy the mind. One of these is the claim that the mind can know nothing outside itself. A second concludes that what the mind knows cannot be communicated to another mind. A third insists that contradictory positions, which can be recognized even on the theoretical denial of truth, cannot resolve anything.

We must lower our sights. We do not coexist with one another on the basis of agreement but of disagreement. We agree to disagree. This is our “truth.” It makes us free to be what we are not. We are free to be our own self-makers and continuous self-remakers. We are free to deceive ourselves about the truth.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (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 and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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