Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Truth About Truth (or, Fighting for Virginity)

To say that modern man has lost any true desire for truth is more of an over-simplification than an understatement. Read any popular magazine, newspaper, or blog article, and you will find this or that party or group clamoring for “the truth” or “the facts” of the matter or issue currently in fashion. Much to the chagrin of post-modern sentimentalist (from religious emergents to political pundits), the average person still wants the truth and nothing but the truth. As Chesterton put it, they want to close their minds on something solid. This, of course, is a characteristic common to all of mankind, though recently we have done our very best to hide it. As much as stuffy academics and snobby coastal elitist speak to the contrary, the truth is that we still believe in truth, a fact easily verifiable at every drive-thru, playground, or family reunion across the globe. Thus, it is a bit over-simplistic to say that modern man has lost a desire for truth, as though to say that they are fundamentally illogical and irrational, when the truth is that all humans are fundamentally (though incompletely) logical and rational. The deeper reality of this issue is not that we do not desire truth per se, but rather that we desire truth to be ultimately unobtrusive to ourselves, to be uncomplicated and tidy. We want the truth, but we also want the truth to be simple; and as Mr. Wilde once said, the truth is never simple.
An example is in order, and it must be a rather frank one so that I may have your attention. There is a slogan I saw recently, plastered across some demonstrator’s sign like typical asinine bumper-sticker philosophies, that said, “Fighting for Peace is like F—king for Virginity.” Of course, the unidentified demonstrator did not edit any of his obscenities, but I have; I want to capture your attention, not drive it away. I find this slogan to be a bit odd, precisely because it seems to make sense on the surface but is utterly absurd reasoning when one actually thinks about it. It looks simple enough: it is a comparison of opposites in a causal relationship; “fighting” cannot lead to “peace” anymore than sex can lead to virginity (though Donne may like to argue that latter point) because both sets contain opposites. So far, this is all smooth sailing, or so we initially think.
Thinking, however, is a dangerous business, and whether it is domesticated or left wild, it can pull down strongholds all the same. For example, when one actually thinks through the slogan for a moment, it seems that those who claim that you cannot fight for peace understand neither peace nor fighting. Fighting, in its proper sense, is not primarily destructive; it is primarily preservative in that it fights against that which is destructive. This is common sense: a man fights for his home or wife and children, not for the burglar that has broken down his door; it is the burglar that he fights against. Of course there are exceptions, but this is the rule: fighting strives to maintain what the fighter views as good, right, and proper. Likewise, peace, in its proper sense, is not the absence of conflict; in truth, it is not an absence at all. It is a presence, a presence of justice and wisdom and virtue, etc.; in short, it is the presence of all things commonly held as good, right, and proper. I am quite sure that a mere glance at any brutal despotism in history will easily yield times that contained what can be called an “absence of conflict,” but it most assuredly had no peace, because that which is good, right, and proper had been suppressed or outright removed (sometimes, ironically, in the name of peace!). European appeasement of Nazi Germany certainly created an “absence of conflict,” but not peace. An “absence of conflict” is more often a sign of passivity than peace.
Thus, if we view “fighting” as the maintenance of that which is good, right, and proper against that which would destroy it, and if we view “peace” as the presence of that which is good, right, and proper, then there is no reason to believe that one cannot “fight for peace.” To say otherwise is like someone saying that St. George cannot slay the dragon in order to save the princess because princess rescuing and dragon slaying are somehow opposite, which is an obviously absurd statement. In fact, take the earlier mentioned slogan, replace the phrase “Fighting for Peace” with “Slaying Dragons for the Princess,” read it again, and you will see how absurd the slogan really is. Of course you can fight for peace; like a princess, it is perhaps the only thing worth fighting for.
That the truth can maintain the intimate bond between “fighting” and “peace” succinctly demonstrates modern man’s problem in regards to the truth: we want it to be not only logical and rational but also manageable and simple. We want it to be plastered across signs and bumper-stickers and metas rather than charted in a book or spiritedly debated over drinks and cigars for days and weeks. From The Daily Show to The O’Reilly Factor, we prefer our discussions in bit-sized chunks, as though we seriously believe that anything substantial could be meted out in five to ten minute intervals. In addition, when we actually do begin to delve into the inky black depths of truth, we are shocked and awed that it is highly complex, even paradoxical (as with “fighting” and “peace”). The truth more often than not frustrates us because it not only wants to have its cake and eat it, but also seems to succeed in that very endeavor.
In short, I said earlier that any disparaging statements about modern man's desire for truth are merely over-simplifications; and they are over-simplifications precisely because the modern world’s notion of what “truth” is is overly simple, some would even say naïve, like a child thinking it can capture The Divine Comedy in a nursery rhyme. If we are to have any truly substantial dialogues about truth that get us anywhere anymore, we must put away our naiveté, tear down our protest signs and bumper-stickers (like modern iconoclasts), and return to the dangerous business of actual thinking (preferably with other people over drinks and cigars) while realizing that the truth is ultimately mysterious in that it is often hidden and always meant to surprise.

-Jon Vowell