Sense and Nonsense: The Dangerous Truth

Intellectual disorder eats at the heart of every university, journal, city, and, yes, church. We are taught that there is no truth to be known—the only thing that exists is power. Everyone stands for an arbitrary commitment. Truth-tellers and truth-claimers are the most dangerous people in our social contract: They imply that it is possible to do wrong, and to err. We cannot resolve controversy on objective grounds, so we avoid even trying.

The crusade in our society is against those who profess to know and live what is true, even if they themselves often fail. The only way to deal with these truth-claimers is to marginalize them, to treat them as just another peculiar power group. Only if they can be made content with their own little version of reality can we tolerate them. Truth-claimers are, by definition, arrogant, while those who claim to know nothing are humble.

Tracey Rowland wrote in The Australian:

We have an intellectual class which for the most part does not believe that the human being is capable of using its intellect to discern truth from falsehood and, given such premises, is reduced to substituting semantic games and ideological deconstruction for scholarship and critical judgment.

Scholarship and critical judgment imply that the mind can know the truth. Such is the intellect’s purpose, to grasp the standards and criteria whereby truth can be distinguished from error.

Often it is intimated that truth is afraid of error. In the tradition of Thomas Aquinas, of course, just the opposite is the case. We do not know the truth until we can identify and explain accurately the arguments against the truth of any order, including that which claims there is no truth. Knowledge of truth includes knowledge of error.

Truth is the conformity of mind with reality. Thus, if we doubt our own knowing faculty, we will never know the truth. If we think the world an illusion, nothing exists to which we can conform ourselves. If we hold that it is only our mind that imposes order on a chaotic world, we will remain locked into ourselves. Thus, to butt up against a reality that does not conform to the vagaries of a mind filled only with itself is a very healthy experience.

In his Four Men, about a walk in Sussex in 1902, Belloc wrote, “For men become companionable by working with their bodies and not with their weary noodles, and the spinning out of stuff from oneself is an inhuman thing.” This remarkable passage suggests that noodles and brains become weary and tired when they are not constantly refreshed with a reality that did not arise in themselves.

Aristotle said that we begin our quest for knowledge in wonder, not in fear or need or power. That is, our minds are made simply to know and to know the truth. When we know the truth of something, we affirm this of that, in seeing why it is so. We say of what is, that it is, and of what is not, that it is not, as Plato taught us.

If these things about the truth be so, why is it that we have suddenly become a people for whom the truth of things is dangerous? It is because we know the direction of reality, of the truth of things, and we do not want to accept it. The greatest proof of the objectivity of intellect is its refusal to pursue an argument about the validity of the mind. When in Plato’s Gorgias, Callicles, the consummate politician, refused to speak any longer with Socrates, it was because he knew very well where the argument would lead him—to a truth that would require him to change his way of living and ruling. So he refused to talk to Socrates any longer.

This refusal is where we are as a civilization. When the Holy Father writes of “The Splendor of Truth,” he stands boldly in the most counter-cultural position of our era. He argues from truth to truth. He must be stopped at all costs because his logic, his argument, as such, cannot be broken. The only thing we can do about him is to deny the possibility of truth itself, a position that is itself contradictory, a contradiction we are willing to accept as a last desperate measure to prevent us from facing the fact that there are truths and we can know them. The only way we cannot know them is to refuse to think about them, to lapse into myths, ideologies, and the silly things we spin out of our weary noodles.

  • 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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