The One Thing Needful

“Be assured, my soul, that as God was able to turn Moses’ hand white with disease and cleanse it once again, so can He also cleanse and purify a diseased life. Therefore do not despair of yourself even though infected by many sins.”

From the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete

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The Anxiety of Truth

{Editor’s Note: Quiddity has a new author! Beginning with the following post, CiRCE journeyman and Magnet School English Teacher, David Wright, will make regular contributions to Quiddity, enriching our conversation. You’ll see why I asked him to join us in the next minute:}

The Anxiety of Truth

David M. Wright

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

– Emily Dickinson

I spent most of the third week of February at the CiRCE Institute. Our time together consisted of rigorous contemplation, discussion, and reflection. The experience was immensely enriching, and, I must admit, somewhat unsettling. Throughout the week, I became metacognitively aware that I was in a state of mental, psychic, and emotional unrest. Why did I feel this way? Why was I slightly nervous at dinner when each twelve-hour day was finished?

My conclusion and thesis for this essay:  truth (aletheia) can be unsettling. Ok. So that might sound a little trite, like saying “the sky is blue.” But in fact, the nature of truth is paradoxical and multi-layered. Similarly, upon reflection, we know the sky really isn’t blue. The phrase belies its depth.

The central paradox with aletheia is that it is at once simple, yet also universal, indelible, ineffable, and eternal. Maybe then, I felt unsettled during the week because truth is simply too radiant and too superb for my feeble, darkened apprehension. It is “too bright for our infirm delight.” Here, the insecurity stems from the relationship between the perceiver and the perceived. As one who continually desires to understand, I sometimes ask, Why me? I am too imperfect. Bearing the torch for truth is a task too large for my capabilities.

Yet, as Aristotle says, “All men by nature desire to know.” Our nature, then, demands that we quest, so we might as well honor her, take up the knapsack of books, and continue to walk this rather frightening road. Or simply, as Socrates might suggest, take up the knapsack of ideas, the realm where the true philosopher lives. Deeply ambivalent about the written word, he believed books offer pale reflections of the truth.[1] But in either case, the point here: adhere and seek.

And then of course there is the fact that we wrestled for hours with truthful ideas. The ideas are grandiose, full, and expansive. They, in many ways, transport. In short, tangle with them and it can feel like you’re wearing a parachute in a hurricane—feet on the ground no more. Here are some of the ideas we discussed: Propriety. The cultivation of human faculties. Attentive perception. Conceptualization. Re-presenting nature back to God. Rightly ordering the soul. Language. Reason. Will. The self. Freedom. Education as the seat of the soul—to name a few gusts from the eye.

Since this essay is a reflection on truth, I shall briefly present some of the uses and perceptions of aletheia in history.

In the Homeric texts, the term aletheia appears primarily in verbs of expression. This concerns the authenticity of what is said between people. Additionally, the Homeric notion of aletheia involves giving a full, complete, and accurate account. For example, in the Iliad Book 10, the Trojan Dolon attempts to sneak into the Achaean camp and is caught by Odysseus and Diomedes. Odysseus calls him to account, “Come, tell me the truth now, point by point.”[2] Similarly, we see this in the nineteenth book of the Odyssey, “Shall lay the clear truth naked to your view.”[3] Again, in the fourteenth book of the Iliad, “What, thou has vow’d; that with all / truth thou wilt bestow on me.”[4] As is evident, the primary context for aletheia appears in that of stories and speeches. The essential notion that I wish to emphasize here is that in Homer truth involves fullness in communication, an inclusion of all realities that pertain to accurately conveying the truth. In short, it is a candid verbal account which leaves nothing out.

Continuing with a look at the Pre-Socratic understanding, Thucydides’ idea of truth encompasses the accurate connection of language to the world. This means matching words to reality, logos to kosmos. Additionally, for Thucidydides, aletheia contains a strong connotation of visual imagery, or unconcealedness. We see here that truth involves a right correspondence and also visual metaphors.

Viewed as such, truth has everything to do with words matching nature, words representing objects faithfully. And what is fundamental to this representation? What ensures that this correspondence results in truth? The essence of truthful correspondence is propriety—which means to know a thing and to treat it according to its nature. The purpose of propriety is to honor the nature of a thing.[5] It is the suitability of the name to the named. “Propriety is a matter of imitation… To imitate rightly I must know (see or perceive) the nature of the thing I wish to imitate.”[6]

Of course this construct of truth expands concentrically through nature from the center point of perfect, pure Truth: the Logos, the Word; the Archetype of propriety; the unity and fullness of all things; the perfect concord of matter and spirit; the divine expression of the Father. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). As well: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

Plato’s perspective on aletheia is expressed most vividly in his Theaetetus dialogue.[7] Here Socrates concludes that knowledge is true belief that has been given an account of. In other words, truth involves two fundamental components: belief and support. Hence, one must truly believe the proposition by holding to a belief that adheres to one’s conscience and reason, and then possess good support, justification, and logic for that belief. Additionally of course, throughout many of his dialogues, Plato viewed truth as that which belonged to the timeless and immaterial realm.

Aristotl, in his Metaphysics, arrived at a similar definition of truth to that of Thucydides. His oft-quoted definition: “To say of something which is that it is not, or to say of something which is not that it is, is false. However, to say of something which is that it is, or of something which is not that it is not, is true.”

Again, we see that truth involves what we say corresponding to the facts of reality. I appreciate the Philosopher Mom’s way of saying this, “Aristotle’s account of truth… is that reality imprints itself on the human mind, revealing intelligible truths. Because his mind corresponds directly to reality, man is capable of knowing its essence.[8]

So, the classical idea of truth contains three aspects. One, words must correspond to nature, but nature has priority over language and culture. Two, truth is a unity between language and nature, while falsehood is a discrepancy between them. And three, words and language are signs that symbolize truth. Therefore, they must suitably and appropriately represent the truth. In addition, because words are signs, they are subordinate to the objects of nature which they symbolize.

The Medieval understanding of truth (veritas) derived primarily from St. Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas and retains this perspective: Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus—“truth is the adequation of the intellect to the thing.” A continuity in perception of truth existed between the classical world and the Middle Ages, in large part from Aquinas’s incorporation of Aristotle. Unfortunately, this continuity was radically altered with the Enlightenment and Kant. But for the medievals, truth involved not only the adequation of the intellect to the thing, but a rightness or rectitude (rectitudo) that something is as it ought to be, that it does that for which it was made.[9]

For the purposes of this essay, we shall hop over the “Enlightenment”—which in regard to truth and several other regressions may be more accurately termed the Dark Ages—and land at Kierkegaard. For truth is his starting point. “Can the truth be learned?” is the opening line of his Philosophical Fragments. After working through Plato’s Meno, Kierkegaard reflects on Socrates’ notion of inner truth and recollection: a person cannot seek what he knows, but also cannot seek what he does not know because he wouldn’t know what he is supposed to seek.[10] Consequently, for Socrates, learning and seeking are actually recollecting. And the teacher guides this process. “Thus the ignorant person needs to be reminded in order, by himself, to call to mind what he knows. The truth is not introduced into him, but was in him.”[11] This is an appropriate beginning for Kierkegaard in his Fragments, but far from the end. He builds upon this to the Christian experience of acquiring truth through grace.

Kierkegaard constructs this in complex, precise fashion, but I will relay it simply. For Socrates, the teacher leads the student to realize his own ignorance (untruth) and to then discover the truth or light which is in him. The teacher is the occasion, but the student must discover his own untruth himself. For Kierkegaard, the teacher is actually God, who acts as the occasion and prompts the learner to realize that he is untruth, and that he is untruth through his own fault (sin); and then God gives him the truth.[12] Kierkegaard puts it this way, “…a new presupposition: the consciousness of sin, and a new decision: the moment; and a new teacher: the god in time.”[13]

Finally, even though Pilate and the post-moderns are fond of asking, “What is truth?”—we see that it is quite easy to define:  asserting what is when it is, and asserting what is not when it is not. However, determining whether a statement is true or false can be the hard part. And to this question, there are generally three kinds of answers: one, some statements are self-evidently true, such as “The whole is greater than the part”[14]; two, some statements are true because they can be tested by experience and observations; and three, some statements, while neither self-evidently true nor empirically verifiable, are probably true based on reason, authority, or consensus, etc. So, defining truth is easy, knowing whether a statement is true or false is harder, and pursuing the truth is the most difficult.[15] This brings us back, full circle, to the anxiety of truth.

In conclusion, the aforementioned provide fruitful landing pads for a reflection on truth. And at the center of all things we find the Trinity, for God is Truth. The contact point is the Logos, Truth made flesh, guided by the Holy Spirit “…when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). From Socrates and Kierkegaard, the understanding of fallen humans as untruth resonates with Emily Dickinson’s poem and my anxiety with truth. Yes, I believe that the truth shall make us free (John 8:32), but I also suspect that the anxiety lies therein. We don’t always wish to be free; the prison of the flesh is what we are used to. (The title of Doris Lessing’s book The Prisons We Choose to Live Inside comes to mind here.) As untruth, our contact with Truth will inevitably contain some strain. And that contact will encompasses a process. After all, we remain in a degree of untruth in this life even while we are aware of it, and even while we pursue and acquire the truth. According to Kierkegaard, God reveals our untruth to us then gives us the truth. Yes, the revelation of our untruth is a radical point in our lives—“the Truth’s superb surprise”—but our acquisition of the truth happens by a process of sanctification through grace and by the perilous pursuit of truth, working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12), for, as Dickinson ends her poem, “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind—”


[1] Erich Segal, The Dialogues of Plato. (New York: Bantam, 1986) xiv-xv.

[2] Homer, The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles. (London: Penguin, 1990) 289.

[3] Chapman, George. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Translated by George Chapman. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1903) 484.

[4] Ibid, 172.

[5] Poignantly expressed by Buck Holler in an e-mail 2/23/10.

[6] Buck Holler, same e-mail 2/23/10.

[7] http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/theatu.html Dialogue translated by Benjamin Jowett.

[8] http://philosophermoms.blogspot.com/ “Nietzsche vs. Aristotle: What is Truth?” June 28, 2007.

[9] http://formalontology.it

[10] Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments. Ed. And Trans. by Howard V. Hong and Enda H. Hong. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1985) 10.

[11] Ibid, 10.

[12] Ibid, 15.

[13] Ibid. 111.

[14] Mortimer J. Adler, Great Ideas from the Great Books. (New York: Washington Square Press, 1961) 4.

[15] Ibid, 5.