What is truth?
As soon as I typed that question, my thoughts went directly to the scene in the New Testament when Pontius Pilate asks Jesus that very question (the reference is John 18:38, in case you were wondering). But I’m not going to discuss Christianity in this post, at least not directly, and not necessarily intentionally. Instead of discussing truth from a Christian perspective, I’m going to discuss it from a–shall we say Pagan?–Pagan perspective. If, of course, we consider Plato to be a Pagan.
|Yep, there he is. Plato.|
Plato seems to believe that truth is what is–it is things as they really are. A useful definition, but he also seems to believe that we can’t know things as they really are unless we practice philosophy. For him, we’ll remember, philosophy is the love of wisdom and the love of truth (Republic 476e2-3). And truth is not and cannot be discovered via empirical means. At least, that’s what Plato seems to believe.
But I’m not going to take the time right now to discuss how Plato thinks we discover truth. I’m only going to point out a few interesting passages.
In Book VII of his Republic, Plato has Socrates say that “calculation and arithmetic . . . lead us towards truth” (525a6-b1). He believes this because numbers are abstract and universal. Numbers are everywhere, and the principles of mathematics are universal and can be applied in a variety of circumstances.
Perhaps I’ll write more about that subject later.
Moving on, this may sound weird, but I think to some degree reading Plato has helped me to be a better teacher, at least to the degree that he believes this:
[T]he power to learn is present in everyone’s soul and . . . the instrument with which each learns is like an eye that cannot be turned around from darkness to light without turning the whole body. This instrument cannot be turned around from that which is coming into being without turning the whole soul until it is able to study that which is and the brightest thing that is, namely, the one we call the good . . . Then education is the craft concerned with doing this very thing, this turning around, and with how the soul can most easily and effectively be made to do it. It isn’t the craft of putting sight into the soul. Education takes for granted that sight is there but that it isn’t turned the right way or looking where it ought to look, and it tries to redirect it appropriately. (Republic Book VII 518c2-d7)
In other words, Plato always has Socrates ask his students questions, and the point of the dialog form that Plato constantly writes in (except for, perhaps, the Apology) is to show that the most important truths are only discovered, and the best teachers help students to discover for themselves. On that note, David A. Bednar once said, “The best lessons are caught, not taught.”
I wonder, since Aristotle was Plato’s student, how much of the above-quoted passage influenced Aristotle’s thinking. (There’s a whole bunch of stuff throughout Plato that alludes to what will later be known as Aristotle’s golden mean from his Nicomachean Ethics. There’s some other stuff, too, but too much for a parenthetical aside.) At any rate, in the first sentence of Book I of his Metaphysics, Aristotle says that “All human beings by nature desire to know.”
Now, we could talk about how sometimes the questions Plato has Socrates ask are a bit strange. We could also talk about how it gets a bit funny to see Plato constantly making people agree with Socrates (I believe Wayne Booth someplace calls this person that’s always agreeing the “Yes-man”), but Plato is smarter than I think sometimes he is made out to be. Notice that most of his dialogues are at least three times removed from the truth, the actual event. Take Plato’s Symposium, for example. Plato is telling us through the eyes of Apollodorus, who heard the story/dialogue from Aristodemus, who was with Socrates at Agathon’s house on the evening the story takes place. We’re several times removed from the truth here because Plato is trying to teach us that things as they really are are not always directly and consistently available to us as mortals.
I suppose I should now come full circle and quote from the New Testament, this time on purpose. Very well. Here’s the Apostle Paul on a similar idea:
But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God . . . But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:9-11, 14)