“The truth, in our day, finds few defenders” writes André Gide in this short essay on the importance of a thoroughgoing attitude towards accuracy and factuality. The scientific methods of research and observation, he laments, are frequently scuppered by the relative, mythical, dogmatic and equivalent truths of religions and political movements. As relevant today as when he wrote it in the first half of the 20th century, this essay is a playful but cutting criticism of the ‘dazzled souls’ whose faith, as he puts it, does little to encourage enquiry. For another viewpoint on the relationship between logic and faith, try Leo Tolstoy’s description of his own inner journey, or this account from self-proclaimed dazzled soul, St Teresa of Avila. For a Zen master’s perspective on how to find the truth, read Daikaku Zenji’s treatise on throwing off delusion.
At the word Truth alone, ideas spring up and crowd around, like the shades on the bank of the Cocytus, imploring Charon, who is helping them to cross the river, to receive them. Which should be taken first into that navicula of words which saves them from being forgotten for a time? They jostle each other so much that I give up all priority and take them out of order.
My friend Strohl observed that the recruitment of great naturalists and observers of the phenomenal world was made much more easily among Protestants than among Catholics. That has to be verified, but would scarcely surprise me; for I have already noted how often that sort of presbyopia brought about by fixed attention on distant clarities and the contemplation of the intangible renders the aspect of the real world indifferent or insensible. Those dazzled souls are at the same time unconcerned and incapable of observing. They live in a sort of mystical phantasmagoria…. It goes without saying there are exceptions, and I refuse to generalize excessively; but when I heard Bauman, in his Trois Villes Saintes, speak of the “hairy leaves” of the cabbage, I thought irresistibly that the Virgin would not have much trouble in appearing to him. I don’t think my quip attracted much notice; yet I consider it had a certain importance. Yes, I believe that it constitutes the point of departure between two kinds of truths, and that the minds most sensitive to one, to conventional truths, may very well be insensible to others, the verifiable truths. There are also truths of an historical nature. Furthermore belief, Faith, does not tempt one to research, even if it does not consider all research as challenging to authority and impious.
Reflecting well on the matter, nothing is more precarious, more fragile than this idea of the Truth that we too easily consider natural and, if I may say so, innate. Entire peoples, and not only primitive populations, have been able to get along very well (or very badly) without it. The same with children. They like to live in the imaginary and have no imperative concern with what is. To what degree this notion of the truth (which is by no means spontaneous) comes to be perverted in them by the pleasing tales of Santa Claus, guardian angels, the Holy Virgin, little Jesus, etc…. have parents no conception? and that the child, afterwards, on reaching maturity, may very well, when he takes it upon himself to cleanse his mind a bit, “throw out the child with the bath-water,” as the German proverb expresses it excellently.
Upon what then is that notion of the truth to be established?
I think a number of minds do not have it naturally, get along happily without it, and even can not understand that, in certain others, the love of truth, the need of truth, is an exigency that can take precedence over all considerations of prudence or advantageous opportunity. And I believe that Catholics, essentially and by their very formation, concerned above everything with a dogmatic and mytical (sic) truth, attach much less importance to the truths I spoke of: the verifiable ones, and I understand by that, those of the Natural Sciences and History. That could be verified at the time of the Dreyfus Affair, which cut France in half: the one for the revision of the case comprising an enormous majority of Protestants and Jews; the Catholics ranging themselves for the greater part on the side of the accepted thing and of the “let us not go back to it.”
The truth, in our day, finds few defenders. Falsehood triumphs everywhere. My first, my principal grievance against Barres, is his having aided powerfully in balancing, in young minds, that swaying notion, enthroning in its place a convenient and yielding use of a relative truth, modifiable according to circumstances and places. There were, he taught, French truths, Lorrainese truths; the true one was the opportune one.
No need to glide along far to arrive at the “equivalent truths” that a young communist explained to me as being so convenient and even indispensable to use. It is a question of getting rid of an undesirable, but of getting rid of him according to Justice, that is to say in keeping the Law on one’s side. Now the crime committed is of an ideological nature so subtle that the people could not understand. For the use of the masses one can and must erect in place of the ideological subtility some great common crime susceptible of exciting indignation against that “enemy of the people,” so that the people remain convinced that it is their interests that are involved and that Justice defends.
Useless to insist, comrade; I have understood; you have the power: so you must be right…..
André Gide (1869-1951)
From: Autumn Leaves
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