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2017-02-14
Caritas

Truth has been dethroned. It has become chance. When we become sick to death witnessing polical campaigns that sell themselves agressively to the masses while mobilizing intellectuals considered respected and honest, but still speak full of passion and ignore slander and fake news then 'truth' seems to be tucked away somewhere. If we are lucky, we can find it.

But it is not all bad. Because from there we also witness human narrow-mindedness and limitation in relating to truth precisely when truth is no longer on its high throne.

There was a time when truth (Truth, with a capital T) was placed up there by philosophers and scientists so it came to be imagined as untouched by passion or biased interests. In ancient Greece, Plato longed to uphold pure and eternal Truth. In modern times, rationalism and positivism also set out to uphold it, with the assumption that reason can explain all things and the sciences can prove what is true.

But experience proves otherwise. A Plato would be confused indeed if he were in a court house today, in the 21st century. Over there someone is taking an oath to say, in the American version, 'the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth'. But it is immediately apparent that Truth is not present before the judge's bench. There are only interpretations of a case presented by the parties concerned. And the interpretation is not one: they compete. The judge's final decision is merely an interpretation of truth. The verdict can still be appealed with a different interpretationand the process will continue, until at a certain point it ends. It is agreed that that point is the opinion of the Supreme Court.

In the end, what prevails is not truth, but authority: auctoritas, non veritas, facit legem.

And our Plato would be confused. He never thought that in this transient and problematic world, what is called 'truth'which is always proposed with language that is also transient and problematicis interpretation, not truth itself. It is shaped by one point of view. Post Plato, the thinker and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead said, "There are no whole truths. All truths are half-truths."

People used to think that a statement was called 'true' when our thought objectively reflected existing data. In other words, we are 'true' when what is in our thought fits precisely, is completely acceptable with what is in the world of reality. But what, exactly, is 'thought'? Thousands of years post-Plato, 'thought' is increasingly seen as not clear reflection. Thinking cannot be objective. Today, thinking is acknowledged as a function inextricably involved with the body with all its hormonal flushes and pulsating nerves. And what is 'reality' actually? An unstable process, an event that is forever changing and never entirely captured by thought.

Formerly, the sciences did not acknowledge this limitation. But in our post-positivist era came a different awareness. "Science does not think," Heidegger, the philosopher who challenged Plato, said. Sciencethe branches of which continue to proliferatedoes not aim to analyze life more profoundly. Science merely solves problems, but takes a distance from mysteryabout beauty and happiness, for instancewhich are never completely explained.

Times welcome different truthstruths that are no longer on the throne. Philosophy no longer professes it; truth has become part of science. But science is also unable to monopolize it. There is truth in art, truth in mystical experience, and truth that grows in everyday conversation.

So truth does not need to be, and cannot be, deserted. Gianni Vattimo, who wrote Addio alla verit (the English translation is Farewell to Truth), adopts a Greek word that Saint Paul used: aletheuontes. The word was exlained in Latin as 'making truth in caritas, in loving one another'.

This means not truth that comes from above, but rather something that is madeand is thus human truth. It is of course limited, but it involves the makers. And when the process of making it is done in caritas, then truth becomes the connector of social ties. Neither that truth nor the social ties are the product of any logical and fixed design. They grow via the connections of history, shared memories, and also our humble hopes.

The problem is this: humans are not always nice. There is no guarantee that caritas works. Hatred can rage with the truth of its own making.

Eventually, people have to choose. There is a line in the poem by W.H. Auden that resounds from the beginning of the Second World War: "We must love one another or die."

Goenawan Mohamad



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