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Word of the Day: TRUTH

TRUTH used to be a complete defense against the accusation that you had libeled somebody. Nowadays TRUTH is not your own defense against somebody’s libeling you. That is, if someone says, “John is a vicious man, because he says X,” John is not allowed to defend himself by showing that X happens to be TRUE. This is a kind of reverse ad hominem fallacy. In the ad hominem fallacy, you say that X cannot possibly be true because a very bad man is asserting it. That is, you cast doubt upon the message by bringing up the supposed wickedness of the messenger. This is a LOGICAL fallacy, because we know that even bad people can be telling the TRUTH, and the content of a message is not dependent upon who delivers it. But when we say that BECAUSE John says X, John must be wicked, we are doing more than deflecting attention away from X. We are preempting discussion of X altogether. This is, in a way, not an abuse of logic, but a refusal even to admit logic; it is an abuse of power. I’d like to call it the IN HOMINEM preemption: AGAINST the person, FOR saying what he says.

Oh, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t fools and liars and people who say wicked things. But the crux of the matter is whether what is said is foolish, mendacious, or wicked, and that is a judgment of fact — which returns us, rightly, to argument, discussion, the marshaling of evidence, judicious appeals to authority, experience, science when it applies, common sense, and the fundamentals of judging good and evil, what Lewis called “the Tao.” It returns us to examining whether a thing is TRUE.

TRUTH means a great deal more than facticity: read Dickens’ Hard Times, his most complete attack against utilitarianism, in its moral, epistemological, and political forms. A person who is TRUE not only speaks TRUTH; he can be relied upon in the clinches. He will not bend to pressure to say what is not so or to do what he believes is wrong, or to fail to do what he believes he must do. Feelings are ultimately not a reliable guide. That’s one of the things we learn as we grow up; we can have very strong attractions for something that is bad, and aversions to something that is good. The moral life does not consist in ignoring the feelings, or trying to cut them all away, but in training them, and indeed strengthening them, because for the most part, as Lewis also argued, deriving his wisdom from Scriptures and the medieval and Renaissance poets, we have more deserts to irrigate than jungles to clear.

The word TRUE reveals something about the common understanding of man. Carpenters and others involved in precise measurement, such as helmsmen, use it to denote what is STRAIGHT, DIRECT (cf. Latin RECTUS, RIGHT; Greek ORTHOS). The Hebrew EMETH suggests what is hard, like a rock. Our Germanic word also suggests what is hard, but instead like a great TREE, which word is a cousin of TRUE: cf. Welsh DERWEN, OAK. The Indo European root gives us Latin DURARE, to ENDURE; and the name DURANTE, TOUGH, shortened, fittingly enough, to DANTE — and a more inflexible fellow you’d be hard put to find anywhere.

Sometimes it is good to bend. We can always find reasons to be pliant. Jesus showed bountiful mercy to persons, was flexible as to ceremonial rules and cultural customs, but was absolutely unflinching when it came to the moral law: “Be ye perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” For being thus TRUE, they nailed him to the tree.