Monday, February 06, 2017

Living within the truth

Truth is a simple and complicated concept at the same time. Everybody knows what it means, but everybody also knows how difficult it can be to determine whether a statement is truly true, as I asserted last week. Once I wrote an article in which I distinguished three different concepts of truth. They are for short 1) Truth as agreement of a statement with reality. It’s the concept of truth used in science; the one I discussed last week. 2) Truth as a way to express that one or more actions we perform are in agreement with the aims we have set. It was, for instance, the concept of truth used in communist circles. 3) Truth as a metaphysical idea that refers to what is superhuman, “not of this world”, so truth in its theological sense. I made this distinction between these three concepts of truth long ago and I doubt whether I can still endorse it. Nevertheless, it is valuable in some sense, for it makes clear that there is more than truth as defined in science and analytical philosophy (what academic philosophers tend to forget) and that our actions can (and some will say must) be guided by three principles: 1) Take account of the facts; don’t deny or ignore them. Reality will always overtake your false views. 2) Be consistent in your actions and act logically, otherwise you’ll not reach your goals. 3) Have a view of life, have ethical principles and be conscious of them (it doesn’t need to be interpreted theologically). These three principles are useful in morally difficult situations and they help prevent that you’ll perform actions that you’ll later regret.
This came to my mind – also because of what I had written last week, of course – when I thought about what is happening in the world at the moment. It made me also think of an essay by Václav Havel in which he tells us how we can live according to our own principles even under a repressive regime: His essay “The Power of the Powerless”. In Dutch it is titled (translated) “Try to live within the truth”, which explains why I had to think of it.
Havel considers there the case of the manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop, who has placed the slogan “Workers of the World, unite!” in his windows, among the onions and the carrots. Why did he do that? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the thought to unite the workers of the world? Not at all. The man hasn’t even thought about what the slogan means. He has simply put it there, because he lives in a repressive communist country and because he doesn’t want to have problems with the authorities. He simply wants to have a quiet life, avoid politics, earn his money and keep his job. He wants to live in harmony with society, as Havel calls it. By doing so the manager of the fruit-and-vegetable shop follows the ideology of the ruling communist party. If he would really think about it, he would know that this ideology contains an unrealistic view on society; that he doesn’t subscribe to the goals of this ideology; and that in the name of this ideology much is done what he thinks bad. Then, so Havel, this manager lives within a lie.
However, let’s suppose that one day the manager becomes fed up with all he has to do in order to lead a quiet life. All those nonsense measures he has to take, as he sees it now. Already since long he doesn’t believe anymore in the official ideology and he develops his own thoughts. He wants to show what he thinks and he wants to support people who think like him. He removes the slogan from his windows and begins to say what he thinks. He regains his freedom. But it will not be without consequences. The manager will be dismissed. Probably his children cannot go to the university. Etc. Then the man tries to live within the truth, so Havel.

Truth is seen as the agreement of a statement with the facts in the view of academic philosophers. But is it the whole truth, so to speak? For instance, can we say that there is truth in life? I think that Havel makes clear that there is. Truth is also following your values and stick to what you stand for. Havel shows with a simple case how it works. And living within the truth is not restricted to people living under repression. Also in democratic countries it is often necessary to take an explicit stand. Burning a candle in the window on occasion of an action of solidarity, as is often done, is such a simple stand. And there are often events that make that you feel that you have to say: Now it’s enough. Now I cannot accept it any longer. Sometimes it becomes important to row against the current. Then there are always ways to protest and to follow your principles, as Havel has shown. To live within the truth as he called it. Havel himself was a clear example and it even made that he was elected president of his country, Czechoslovakia.

Havel’s essay can be find on

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