The Sack of Truth: A Fairytale at the Heart of Redemption and Classical Education

Ruth Sawyer’s classic fairytale “A Sack of Truth” saved the lives of my sophomores and redeemed mine. Not only is the title brilliant and amped for discussion, but the tale smacks paradigmatic for classical education. It contains that which is really real and true.

I am now even more convinced of the power of fables and fairy tales to shape one into a right human being—and to truly educate by cultivating wisdom and virtue in the heart.

If you haven’t read the tale, I’ll briefly summarize:  There lives a king in Spain. His daughter is ill. A doctor says only the finest pears in Spain will cure her. The king asks for the finest pears from all over to be brought and the one whose pears heal his daughter will be richly rewarded.

A poor peasant with three sons has a pear tree that produces other-worldly golden pears. He sends his oldest son to the king with a basket of pears. On the road he meets a sad-faced woman carrying a little child who asks him what he has in the basket. Rather than offering the sad woman and child a pear to eat, he snubs her. It is a kind of test. The woman turns his pears into horns. When he arrives to the king with horns, the king throws him into a dungeon.

The second son is sent with a basket. He responds to the needy woman in the same way and fails the test. He is also thrown into the dungeon.

Importantly, when the third son is introduced, this is what is said of him: “No one had ever thought him very clever, only kind and willing and cheerful.” When he meets the sad-faced woman he thinks to himself, “I must not be greedy with those pears. There is the old saying—‘He who plays the fox for a day, pays for a year.’” He uncovers the basket and gives a pear to the child.

He shows compassion and therefore passes the test and gets to the king. His pears heal the king’s daughter. The king offers him anything he wants. Again the story says, “he thought of the old saying: ‘gratitude is better scattered than kept in one’s pocket.’ He asks for the release of his brothers.

The rest of the story involves the sack of truth, but I won’t retell that part here. Essentially, things work out well for the youngest son.

In my class, we discussed much concerning this. Here are some of the questions I raised:

I asked if they were admitted to our very-hard-to-get-into high school because they were clever or because they were kind, willing, and cheerful.  Clever was the obvious answer. I responded that as a result they have been admitted into an institution that desires to create the two older brothers.

Standard education is very interested in what a child can do or how much he or she knows (cleverness), not in who the child is.

I asked if the students’ very full and heavy backpacks were sacks of truth, sacks of knowledge, or sacks of BS :). We concurred that, unfortunately, they were not sacks of truth. And if they decided to call them sacks of knowledge, then through discussion we realized that it would have been better to call them sacks of BS because at least BS knows that it’s BS.

In other words, there’s a big difference between truth and knowledge. And there’s a big difference between knowing and knowledge. Notice that Aristotle said, “All men desire by nature to know.”  He did not say “all men desire by nature, knowledge.”

Why are our schools founded upon gaining knowledge and not on desiring to know?

I asked what the youngest son did when he faced his crises, his moments of temptation.

The students said that he recalled two old sayings: “He who plays the fox for a day, pays for a year” and “gratitude is better scattered than kept in one’s pocket.”

I asked if he looked the sayings up on the internet.

Students: No

I asked if a nearby animal shouted them out.

Students: No

I asked how he knew the old sayings.

Students:  he remembered them.

I asked where he got them:

Students:  in fables and fairy tales.

I asked them what lines will come to them when they find themselves in their moments of high temptation.

Will they be lines from the latest blockbuster movie or video game?

Or maybe, just maybe…

If we read enough of them in the next nine months…

Classic fables and fairy tales.

By which we will fill our sacks of truth.

And save our souls.  And a needy mother and child on the way… and maybe even the king’s daughter.

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A Lovely Afternoon Walk with Socrates and Phaedrus (Via my new Boeing Time-Traveling Vessel)

David Wright

Recently I had the fortuitous opportunity to travel back to the fifth century B.C. and take a lovely spring walk with Socrates and Phaedrus, just outside the walls of Athens. Coincidentally, Phaedrus had just arrived from a long morning walk and talk with Lysias when the door of my Boeing time vessel hemorrhaged open from a rather skittery landing.

I recognized Phaedrus immediately from the wry look of love on his handsome Athenian face. He couldn’t stop smiling and repeating lines from a speech about love. And you can always tell when someone is in love or talking about love because it is at the heart of reality.

Surprisingly, he paid little attention to my time-craft or my explanation of how I’d journeyed from the future. The speech and the idea were the logos of his entire essence; so much so that very little could distract him.

I greatly admired this—for my current cultural epoch is one of distraction; it is almost anti-speech and anti-idea. Furthermore, this was such a blessing, for I wished to be hardly noticed. I merely wanted to meander with them and take part in their discussion—the one that Plato recorded in his Phaedrus dialogue—without disturbing the moment because of my clothes or language. It all played out quite nicely.

My how green and rustic it was on the outskirts of Athens! Absolutely lovely. The insects whistling and the plantlife breathing fostered not only contemplation but also eloquence. For who would want to disturb such harmony with imprecise words? For nature speaks its own high language with perfect propriety.

Fortunately (actually once-in-a-lifetime-lucky), Phaedrus and I ran into Socrates sauntering near the west gate looking confused. It was really quite funny; he was extremely deep in thought and mumbling to himself—and having difficulty deciding whether to head toward the city center or toward the country. We quite easily convinced him to join us for a country stroll. And of course I had a small mp3 recorder. Our conversation proceeded as follows:

SOC: What were you doing there? Lysias was entertaining you with his eloquence, I suppose?

PHA: You shall hear, if you can spare the time to go with us. Oh, by the way, this is David, he’s from quite a ways away, though I’m not sure where. He’s very cordial and interested in discussion.

DAV: The pleasure is all mine. So nice to meet you. I hope you can spare the time to come with us.

SOC: Spare the time! Don’t you realize that to me an account of what passed between Phaedrus and Lysias is, to use Pindar’s phrase, ‘a matter which takes precedence even over business’?

PHA: Come along then.

SOC: Your story please.

PHA: Well, Socrates, what I have to tell you is very much in your line, for the subject on which we were engaged was love – after a fashion. Lysias has written as speech designed to win the favor of someone who is not in love with him. That is the clever thing about it; he makes out that an admirer who is not in love is to be preferred to one who is.

SOC: Noble fellow! I desire to hear your account of the speech.

DAV: I’d love to as well.

PHA: I’m an amateur. How can I reproduce such a perfect speech?

SOC: Don’t be coy. I know you’ve been out here walking and repeating the speech so much you have it memorized! That’s why you’re outside the city walls. Now you’ve met another man who likewise has a near disease-like passion for speeches. So get on with it!

DAV: Your fidelity to speeches is remarkable, as is your commitment to memorization and recitation, two canons of rhetorical discourse sorely lacking in my culture.

PHA: Let’s sit on the pretty grass in the shade below this tree. A gentle breeze is blowing.

SOC: Lead us on.

PHA: Tell me, guys, isn’t there a story that Boreas abducted Oreithyia from somewhere here on the banks of the Ilissus?

SOC: No, it was some quarter of a mile downstream, where one crosses to the temple of Agra; an altar to Boreas marks the spot, I believe.

PHA: But seriously, Socrates, do you believe this legend?

SOC: The pundits rejected it, so if I rejected it I’d be in good company. In that case I should rationalize the legend by explaining that the north wind blew Oreithyia down the neighboring rocks when she was playing with Pharmaceia, and that her dying in this way was the origin of the legend that she was abducted by Boreas.

But though I find such explanations very attractive, Phaedrus and David, they are too ingenious and laboured, it seems to me, and I don’t altogether envy the man who devotes himself to this sort of work, if only because, when he has finished with Oreithyia, he must go on to put the Hippocentaurs into proper shape and after them the Chimaera.

In fact he finds himself overwhelmed by a host of Gorgons and Pegasuses and other such monsters, whose numbers create no less a problem than their grotesqueness, and a skeptic who proposes to force each of them into a plausible shape with the aid of a sort of rough ingenuity will need a great deal of leisure.

Now I have no time for such work, and the reason is, my friend, that I’ve not yet succeeded in obeying the Delphic injunction to ‘know myself’, and it seems to me absurd to consider problems about other beings while I am still ignorant about my own nature. So I let these things alone and acquiesce in the popular attitude towards them; I make myself rather than them the object of my investigations, and I try to discover whether I am a more complicated and puffed-up sort of animal than Typho or whether I am a gentler and simpler creature, endowed by heaven with a nature altogether less typhonic.

DAV: I’m sorry, but I just have to comment here. Socrates, you have said several salient points. First, you mention that the pundits reject the myth, and that rejecting it is the popular thing to do.

In fact, they de-miracle-ize the legend don’t they?  Or as you say, they “rationalize” the legend by saying that a north wind blew Oreithyia down or else she fell from the Areopagus. But as you rightly say, these kinds of explanations are attractive but too ingenious and labored.

The slope of skepticism is a slippery one. Once a person begins this sort of cutting and trimming to fit his rational and empirical expectations and assumptions, he must continue to force all other phenomena into this machine—as you say, to put the centaurs and chimaera into proper shape.

This machine, by the way, becomes the dominant machine in about nineteen centuries, during a period called the Enlightenment. And once the machine is created, it can’t stop growing—it seems to feed itself.

You wouldn’t believe how indomitable the machine becomes in my century, entirely ruling the universities and the socio-political culture. Each successive generation since the Enlightenment has added a mechanism to the machine—a monistic gear, a materialist ball joint, an empiricist lever—and of course the fuel for the machine is an uncritical belief in technological progress.

And I love how you connect this to knowing oneself. The creation of this machine comes at the expense of the Delphic injunction. To ‘know thyself’ is vital; for man himself is the centaur and the Chimeara, a multi-faceted complexity who, ironically, defies and contradicts the very machine we have created.

To focus on the mystery of man and his soul is to watch the machine disintegrate. Your commitment to contemplating your own nature, Socrates, is in fact the greatest gift you will give mankind. For you and your commitment to the examined life is actually one of the few beacons, along with Christ the coming Messiah, that save philosophy.

Yes, you actually save it from the tyranny of negating systems such as sophistry, skepticism, nihilism, and many others. Indeed, true philosophy is rarely practiced in my era, and it’s almost nonexistent in schools, universities, and philosophy departments.

Unfortunately, because you are a point of light and a kind of savior, you will have to suffer for this. But I’m only telling you because I have a feeling you already know…

PHA: This is the place to rest and discuss.

SOC: Indeed a lovely spot for a rest. The plane is very tall and spreading, and agnus-castus splendidly high and shady, in full bloom too, filling the air with the finest possible fragrance. And the spring which runs under the plane; how beautifully cool its water is to the feet. The figures and other offerings show that the place is sacred to Achelous and some of the nymphs. I choose to lie down. Now read the speech of Lysias to me.

PHA: Why a lover not in love is preferable to lover who is in love. First, lovers repent the kindnesses they have shown when their passion abates, but for those not in love, there never comes a time for such regret. They behave generously, not under constraint, deliberately calculating their own interests.

Relieved from the disadvantages that being in love brings, nothing remains for them but to do cheerfully whatever they think will give their partners pleasure.

Second, lovers are apt to value any new love who comes along more than the old.

Third, lovers admit that they are mad, not sane; they know that they are not in their right minds but cannot help themselves. How then can one expect that designs formed in such a condition will meet their approval when they come to their senses?

Fourth, if you choose the best from among your lovers, you will have few to choose from, but if you look for the one who suits you best in the world at large, you will have a wide field of choice, and so a much better chance of finding one worthy of your friendship.

The fifth point concerns reputation. Lovers are easily offended by on another and incur worse reputations than non-lovers.

Sixth, lovers are more prone to quarrels and jealousy than non-lovers.

Seventh, with lovers, physical attraction precedes knowledge of character or circumstances, so it is uncertain whether they will want to remain friends when their passion has cooled. But for those not in love, who were friends before they formed a liaison, are in no danger of finding their friendship diminished as a result of the satisfaction they have enjoyed.

Eighth, lovers approve words and actions that are far from excellent and praise things which do not deserve the name pleasant—passion impairs their judgment.

Ninth, those not in love have an eye more to future advantage than to present pleasure, thereby laying the foundation of lasting affection.

Tenth, if you are possessed by the notion that firm friendship is impossible unless one is in love, then we should have little regard for our sons, fathers, and mothers.

And the eleventh and final point is that it is not the most insistent suitor that one should favor, such as a desperate lover, but one best able to make a return.

Well, what do you think of my speech, Socrates and David, isn’t it a wonderful piece of work, especially the diction?

SOC: More than wonderful. Divine. I concentrated on you and saw how what you were reading put you in a glow. I followed your example and joined in the ecstasy, you inspired man.

PHA: Do you think this is a laughing matter?

SOC: Why, don’t you think I’m serious?

DAV: I’m having trouble taking you seriously, too, Socrates.

SOC: Why, don’t you think I’m serious?

PHA & DAV: No.

SOC: Well, approving of the speech’s matter is one thing, and its style another. If you want to approve of the former, it is you who must take the responsibility. I can only admire its style, the clarity, shapeliness, and precision with which every phrase is turned. The matter I don’t suppose even Lysias himself could think satisfactory.

DAV: This ought to be good.

SOC: It seems to me, Phaedrus and David, that he has said the same things two or three times over, either because he couldn’t find sufficient matter to produce variety or from sheer lack of interest in the subject. The speech struck me as youthful exhibitionism; an attempt to demonstrate how he could say the same thing in two or three different ways.

PHA: Nonsense, Socrates. If the speech has one merit above all others, it is that no single aspect of the subject worth mentioning has been omitted; no one could improve on it in either fullness or quality.

DAV: I have a feeling Socrates may be able to improve on it.

SOC: Wise women and men of old have written on the subject more soundly.

PHA: Who are they?
SOC: Either lovely Sappho or wise Anacreon or some prose writers. And I can compose a better speech because I, in my ignorance, have been filled with external inspiration, like a jar from a spring.

DAV: Your acknowledgment of those who have come before is both humbling and vital to the great conversation. Nothing is new under the sun. We all absorb and build from those who have come before. I am excited for your speech.

SOC: Come, shrill Muses, help me in my tale. In every discussion, there is only one way of beginning in order to come to a sound conclusion—that is to know what one is discussing.

DAV: You must mean the crucial topic of Definition in the canon of Invention.

SOC: Right. Most people are unaware that they are ignorant of the essential nature of their subject. Believing that they know it, they do not begin their discussion by agreeing about their use of terms, so as they proceed they fall into self-contradictions and misunderstandings.

Do not let us make the same mistake. The subject we are discussing is whether the friendship of a lover or non-lover is preferable. Let us begin by agreeing upon a definition of the nature and power of love and keep this before our eyes as we debate whether love does good or harm.

Love is a kind of desire. But we know that one does not have to be in love to desire what is beautiful.

In each of us there are two ruling and impelling principles whose guidance we follow: a desire for pleasure, which is innate; and an acquired conviction which causes us to aim at excellence.

Sometimes these two are in agreement within us and sometimes at variance. The conviction which impels us toward excellence is rational, and the power by which it masters us we call self-control; the desire which drags us toward pleasure is irrational and when it gets the upper hand in us its dominion is called excess.

The conclusion to which all this is leading is obvious. When the irrational desire that prevails over the conviction which aims at right is directed at the pleasure derived from beauty, and in the case of physical beauty powerfully reinforced by the appetites which are akin to it, so that it emerges victorious, it takes its name from the very power with which it is endowed and is called eros or passionate love.

Now, let me summarize Lysias’s speech. The man who is under pleasure and a slave to pleasure will inevitably try to derive the greatest pleasure possible from the object of his passion. Hence, he will wish for his object to be inferior in all ways— in intelligence, in physical appearance and bearing, in possession of wealth, in number of friends and family members—so he can ensure total dependence from the object.

There is no kindness in the friendship of a lover; its object is the satisfaction of an appetite, like the appetite for food. One who is in love is faithless, morose, jealous, and disagreeable, and will do harm to one’s estate,  harm to one’s physical health, and harm above all to one’s spiritual development, of which nothing is or ever will be more precious in the sight of God and man. There, my speech is over.

DAV:  So you agree with Lysias? I detect a strong level of irony in your speech, Socrates. For one, it seems too “ingenious and labored,” to use your words about the pundits from earlier. It seems you’ve made an effort to trim love of its wings to fit it into a physical and rational box. I’d like to hear a speech from you in favor of love and being in love.

PHA: I also expect to hear just such a speech. For some reason, I don’t feel like you’re showing all of your cards…

SOC: OK, I confess, that even while I was speaking some time ago I felt a certain uneasiness; I was afraid that I might be ‘purchasing honor with men at the price of offending the gods’. Now I see where I went wrong.

PHA & DAV: Where?

SOC: Our speeches were dreadful, guys, dreadful—both the speech of Lysias and the speech you made me utter. They were silly and more than a little blasphemous. What could be worse than that?

DAV: Even the speeches themselves lacked love. What you are about to say is what I came here to hear. Let it fly!

[The rest of our conversation on that lovely spring day outside of Athens will be revealed in a subsequent post.]

The Mechanism of the Organic: A Tribe Called Coleridge

A few beats in regard to the organic and mechanical components in the act of creation:

Concerning the creative process, there appears to be a connection between Aristotle’s Poetics and Poe and Coleridge. Aristotle seems to believe that creating art comes by “remixing” artistic elements and devices already in existence. Coleridge picked up on this and influenced Poe (and Flannery O’Connor). For Coleridge (and the Romantics), imagination was essential to the creative process. He divided imagination into three categories: Primary, Secondary, and Fancy. This is what he says about the first two:

“The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite of the eternal act of creation of the infinite I AM. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, coexisting with the conscious will, yet still identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation.”

So, what do these three categories mean? It seems to me that the first, Primary Imagination, is almost like an out-of-body experience. It is pure imagination; it is spiritual and divine. Note here that it is not Aristotle’s remixing idea, which relates to Coleridge’s other two categories. Primary Imagination creates pure, new ideas. It is akin to Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” 

Coleridge’s Secondary Imagination is that which is filtered by our conscious, rational act of creating.  Hence, it is imperfect and impure. But of course it is entirely necessary and essential, for there would be no way to capture the primary imagination’s creation without it. And this seems to correlate with Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow” that is captured only by being “recollected in tranquility.”

Coleridge’s third category, Fancy, is rather Aristotelian. Here imagination creates by remixing already existing things in fresh, new ways– especially juxtaposing opposite or contrary things. In his Biographia Literaria, he says the imagination “reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image.”

Plato’s dictum “Great is the power of contradiction” relates nicely to this. So does the fruitful activity of comparison in the rhetorical canon of invention.

In conclusion, we see that all three are essential in the creative process. Coleridge’s Primary Imagination is akin to the organic, and his Secondary and Fancy categories are akin to the mechanical.

After all, as the clever and artistic nineties hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest asks in their “What?” track,

What is position if there is no contortin’?

What is a glock if you don’t have a clip?

What’s a lollipop without the Good Ship?

What’s America without greed and glamour?

          So we might also ask, what is organic without the mechanical?

Not a, not a, not a, not a darn thing

What’s Duke Ellington without that swing?

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.