Aaron Sorkin put those words in the mouth of a corrupt a marine officer in “A Few Good Men.” A dramatic exchange, but a hell of a question. Two questions, really.
1. What is truth?
2. Whose truth is it?
Is there absolute truth? Or is it only just a matter of perspective? And since there can be no point of view from nowhere, does the truth — the real truth — depend on where you are standing?
First a couple of thoughts about truth from the Jewish tradition:
The 19th century Chassidic leader, Menachem Mendel Morgansztern, known as the Kotzker rebbe, is famous for his passion for truth, which is also the title of the book Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about him. A remarkable and unusual chassid, he spent years in solitude, distrusted language as a means to understand spirituality and even refused to let his thoughts be published.
And there is the famous exchange between the schools of two of the most important sages of the Talmud, Hillel and Shammai. Certainly one must always tell the truth, but what do you say about a bride who may not be so beautiful? Shammai, always the strict one, says you tell it as it is. Hillel recognizes that in her groom’s eyes, she is beautiful, so she is and that’s what you say — and that’s the law.
So is truth relative? Does it change with the circumstances? Is it only in the eye of the beholder?
For example, is the Bible truth in the literal, historical sense? That depends on whom you ask. And which Bible we are talking about. The Hebrew Bible with its conflicting tales of creation and talking serpents, and report of halting the sun in the sky? The Christian Scripture with 37 miracles, raising the dead, turning water into wine and feeding 5,000 men and untold numbers of women and children on five small loaves of bread and two fish? Are these even meant to be historically accurate reports? We know that our understanding of history today is relatively recent.The Bible may be a sacred document, but does it document true experience? Or does its holiness lie in a spiritual vision, a road map of ethics and recognition that there is a divinity beyond our finite world?
Also, we know more about the cosmos than we did even 10 or 15 years ago; and certainly we have a better understanding of our world than centuries and millennia ago. Based on that we believe certain things are true. Space is curved. The time we have been on earth exceeds our human ability to even grasp it. And we are convinced that we are on the right track to knowing more about the structure and even beginnings of life. Really? There is a reason evolution is called a theory. We really don’t know for sure. Gravity? Relativity? Maybe, but absolute truth? We can only go on what we know now.
So I believe that what we call truth is an illusion. An illusion fueled by our need to believe we have some control of our world. It provides a framework for dealing with the inevitable uncertainties we face. But we exist in an imperfect point in time and space, and real, absolute truth is beyond us. We can only believe truth is what we have learned to this point and must recognize the rock solid foundation we see today may be a shifting sandscape.
Truth is something we want, something we need. But it is something we are only telling ourselves we know. And, as Hemingway closes “The Sun Also Rises:”
“Isn’t it pretty to think so?”