It seems that it has been a commonplace since Greek tragedian Aeschylus two-and-a-half thousand years ago that “In war, truth is the first casualty”. Despite ethical misgivings, it would instinctively be recognised that the information and propaganda war was as important as the military one. However, once the fighting had ebbed and the belt of mistruth put away for the next conflict, it would equally be taken for granted that redactions and dissembling would be phased out in favour of a return to full transparency in peacetime.
Of course, this is not to say that the effect of nothing-but-the-truth has always been equally applied in all quarters of society or that it hasn’t been selectively used as a bludgeon by the powerful against the less so. But the notion of a gold standard of truth, the Truth indeed, served to underpin our legal framework and civic institutions and was not fundamentally in question.
All of this has changed now, and it has changed very quickly. In our postmodern world without grand narratives and ultimate meaning, truth itself has become debased and relativised such that it has become just another malleable commodity ripe for sectarian exploitation: my truth, your truth etc. Even scientific truth, considered by many progressive westerners to be better grounded than philosophical truth, let along religious truth, has been shown by successive discoveries to be entirely contingent on the extent of knowledge, with fractal patterns continuing beautifully but endlessly. All of this has created a great sea of confusion as to personal and collective identity and purpose, many of which show themselves now in the multiple crises of confidence especially in the western world.
I am a strong supporter of a genuine global transformation to a multipolar outlook, complicated to create, balance and sustain as it is. There is a compelling case to unhook long-standing geopolitical presumptions from their historical moorings and to give due weight to all great civilisational movements. This however is not the same thing as passively imputing an arbitrary equivalence in the absence of an absolute measure and therefore possibility of ranking.
And nor is it the same thing as arbitrary equivalence right down to every individual’s personal “truth”, for that way leads to full-blown anarchy in the entire absence of objective measure.
In between Aeschylus in ancient times and Californian Senator Hiram Warren Johnson during the Great War (to whom the same quote about truth in war is sometimes ascribed), in 1758 Samuel Johnson wrote “among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages”.
It might be argued that in wartime the love of truth becomes a dangerous luxury. I would suggest however that such a diminution of love of truth has latterly become deep-set in peace time, and that this is fundamentally behind the civilisational malaise affecting the western world. Whence truth if there is no absolute? And what is true love if there is no absolute truth to love, or to believe in and follow? Truth has become unloved to the point of invisibility.
This leads me to the logical end-point of a loss of absolute truth, encapsulated in a quote often attributed to G.K. Chesterton but in fact penned by Émile Cammaerts: “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing. They then become capable of believing in anything.”
I don’t think this is simply an abstract problem of whatever people’s personal beliefs are or the lights they follow. I think – and I think I observe – that it leads to an greater degree of tribalism clustered around manifestations of demagoguery and cod ideologies that tap into the human need for mimesis (mimicry). With this comes the visceral need for wave after wave of scapegoating for the purposes of expiation of supposed collective guilt, of periodically identifying and destroying the “other”, based on flimsy or even non-existent rationales.
This is what we are seeing, in our politics, in our institutions, in society at large.René Girard, the French 20th century philosopher who formalised these notions, would now be nodding his head wisely but sadly, worrying that to stop this cycle would take a supernatural effort to break the spell.
And thereby a glimpse of The Truth as it really is.