Politics and Truth Print
By James V. Schall, S. J.   
Tuesday, 05 April 2011

In Jesus of Nazareth (II), Benedict recounts the conversation of Pilate and Jesus at His trial. “Pilate asks Him: ‘What is truth?’ (Jn. 18:38). It is the question that is also asked by modern political theory: Can politics accept truth as a structural category? Or must truth, as something unattainable, be relegated to the subjective sphere, its place taken by an attempt to build peace and justice using whatever instruments are available to power?” (191)

Even though our founding document speaks about “self-evident” truths, they are rarely held to be so. Truth is pictured as “imposing” something like “dogma” on those who are free to “choose” whatever they will. The essence of man is “choice,” not reason and nature. In practice, modern polities, including our own, are not based on truth, but on its denial, or impossibility.

Tolerance no longer means allowing or insisting on peaceful discussion among differing positions. A positive intolerance is directed to any claim to truth as potentially “totalitarian.” “Democracy” is built on skepticism, not truth. Human dignity means human autonomy. We rightly choose not only about life and death but about the validity of first principles themselves. Relativism in all its forms rejects truth.

In this context, no conflict can be resolved. Controversialists cannot understand one another in terms each mutually grasps. For that to happen, what is necessary is a common, objective world in which we all live and on the basis of which we all agree. Conflicts are now decided instead by power, mutually agreeing that nothing is true, and indifference to the consequences of our acts. The desire for truth is an illusion. Its specter subverts polities that have chosen to live without it.

The question Benedict asked was whether truth could be a “structural category?” That is, does it make any public difference that something is true and something else false? If we say that it does make a difference, then we are denying the “rights” of those who are “wrong.” It is not so much that what is wrong has its own dire consequences. Rather such consequences cannot be admitted as evidence of wrongness. We just eliminate or ignore them. The “structure” of democracy does not allow it. It violates the “rights’ and “dignity” of those said to be in error.

Following Socrates, our civilization is built on the proposition that “it is never right to do wrong.” Obviously, if no distinction exists between right and wrong, the Socratic principle, found also in Christianity, makes no sense.

“What is truth?” – Pilate’s question to Christ – is perceptive and prophetic. Truth should be the primary subject of meditation of any politician. Pilate stated that no truth could be found in the accusations against Christ. To turn around and deny truth as a general principle means that Pilate realized that he had to justify the contradiction between his own knowledge and his action. This “resolution” is usually accomplished when some “theory” is called in to allow the politician to cover his tracks.

Thus, if we say that the man is innocent, then turn around and allow him to be killed, we fall back on the vacuous principle that truth is unattainable. And if it is unattainable, we cannot be bound by it. Yet Pilate was a Roman governor. The man before him was there because the Romans had the judicial power to acquit or condemn. The Romans prided themselves on their justice. Pilate was not deaf to its appeal. He “found no charge” in the man.

What might a polity be like in which truth was a “structural category?” First, it would be a polity that used names correctly. The opposite of truth is a lie. The worst thing that can happen to us, Plato memorably said, is to have a “lie in our souls about the things that are.” Plato recognized that we could lie to ourselves to enable us to do what we want.

The second structural principle is that truth is not something we simply create for ourselves. Truth is not the conformity of our minds to what we want. Rather it is the conformity of our minds with what is. Much modern thought teaches us that if anything is “out there,” we cannot be sure of it. Certainly, it has no order that implies a source. Even more certainly, we cannot find out what we are or what we ought to be from a reality that we did not ourselves create.

But we are not the cause of our own creation. The truth of what we are is for us to discover, to encounter, not for us to fashion what we are. Our end consists not in what we choose for ourselves, but in whether we choose the purpose implicit in our being. On this basis, truth and politics belong to one another.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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