January 2017 Print

Truth, Words, and Duty

by Patrick Murtha

Living in a Post-Truth Era

For all the brave orations about the liberty to have and hold any thought or to speak, on whim or with wisdom, any word; for all the proud and sometimes cowardly boasting about being in a land where freedom of speech reigns free and supreme; for all the supposed despising of orthodoxy and of that much maligned word called “truth”: at the end of all these, modern man, like ancient man and medieval man, actually loathes the lie. In principle he pronounces that the lie has its place in society, perhaps as a comfort or a convenience or to spur or to solve a conflict. And so, he speaks shamelessly like Mr. Shaw’s Grand Duchess, saying “All great truths begin as blasphemies,” when the truth of the matter is far simpler and less seemingly paradoxical: all great truths begin as reality. Or he speaks with judicial decision, as did Justice Breyer in United States v. Alvarez (2012): “False factual statements can serve useful human objectives,” when the truth of the lie is this: the social value of a deceit is no better than the virtue or the benefit of a disease. In practice, however, he quietly believes that the lie can have no more part in a healthy society than poison can play in a healthy diet. And so, he disputes the utility of “alternative truths” and “post-truths” and “false facts.” This reality does not appear so evident when the press, the politician, the professor seem so seeped in the academic or popular fads, which turn out to be nothing more newfangled and often flawed trends disguised as truths, novel or ancient errors robed like erudition; when so much that is lectured and learned as true is little more than an unintended yet unreasonable misrepresentation at best or a deliberate and definite deceit at worst. Nevertheless, what is said about modern man actually admiring and even loving, like a secret and even sincere love, the idea of orthodoxy, may be realized as true in the Oxford Dictionary’s choice for the “word of the year.” There were so many new-crafted words they could have chosen, but they rightly chose, perhaps for the wrong reasons, “post-truth.” The word itself means that mere emotions or individual gut-feelings hold more sway over public discourse than do demonstrable facts or reason; and it is often used, rightly or wrongly, to style the state of affairs that led to Mr. Trump’s nomination as president or to express the events that freed Britain from the Europe Union. It is a word that more than implies that emotions and sentiments and mere whims and desires have, in our modern times, replaced reality as the source of truth.

The reason this choice of word is significant is that it reveals the certain concern over what a good many writers believe to be a grave error of our time: the ignoring or the ignorance of truth. Some may even be ashamed to think or to say it, as this realization revolts against the very notion that every word and every thought ought to be free to be expressed, and yet the apprehension of this error may indeed lead to dispelling the false understanding of freedom of speech. It does offer a possible flicker of sunlight through the dense fog of this modern license, a certain hope and even happiness in truth. And perhaps what G. K. Chesterton said of former days, may be also true of these latter days, that “the heretic was proud of not being a heretic. It was the kingdoms of the world and the police and the judges who were heretics. He was orthodox” (Heresies, p. 1). The irony now, however, is that journalists and the anarchists believe that the common man, particularly the conservative, not so much the kings or the politicians or the police, have gone mad with heresy.

The Fierce Discernment of Truth

Nevertheless, it can never be overstated that the loss of truth is at the root of our loss of humanity and even our loss of happiness. In order to return to reasoning and restore the contemplation and comprehension of reality, modern man must return to a fervent and even fierce desire for veracity, and to a scrupulous and unsentimental discernment of truth, but I fear this will take more logic and more labor than modern man is willing to provide. For the first task would be to return to thinking, which is not merely moving images around in the mind or perceiving things as one desires to perceive them, but rather it is connecting and comparing the images and inferences of the mind with things as they exist about us. As Mr. Chesterton once, in a plain and unparadoxical conclusion, wrote: “Thinking means connecting things” (Orthodoxy, p. 27). While this statement lacks what many people are pleased to listen to Mr. Chesterton for (namely, his witticisms and paradoxes), with this clarity he has spoken in that simple and sincere manner of a true Aristotelian and Thomist. One might even reasonably assume that he had read in the Summa where St. Thomas writes that “truth is defined by the conformity of intellect and thing; and hence to know this conformity is to know truth” (Summa Theologica, Ia. Q 16. art 2.). For truth, as St. Thomas points out, is not in the thing itself but in the intellect. In other words, truth is the reflection and realization of reality within the intellect. The act of discerning what is true is the mind’s judging what the thing is; and the right and rational judgment of the thing, the accurate discernment of the thing, the correct comprehension of the thing—that is truth. It is simply the mind’s understanding a being as it really and even essentially exists, the mind’s being faithful to what is. The faulty intellect, the erroneous mind, fails to conform its thinking to the thing that is, or perceives a thing to be as it is not.

The failure of the mind to recognize reality, the intellect’s being untrue to what is true—this, one might reasonably and perhaps regrettably argue, is among the most caustic and calamitous crises of our time. Fr. Patrick Halpin, in his work on Christian education, Christian Pedagogy or, The Instruction and Moral Training of Youth, writes, “The greatest calamity which can overtake the human race is the destruction of truth” (p. 83). This thought Joseph Pieper shared when he, speaking about the corruption of communication in advertisements, newspapers, novels, politics, propaganda, cinemas and schools, penned these words: “[T]he commonweal of all people is then threatened, since by necessity it functions through the medium of the word. Then we are faced, in short, with the threat that communication as such decays, that public discourse becomes detached from the notions of truth and reality” (Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, p. 27). The failure to realize reality directly creates a terrible catastrophe not only for nations but also for the individual man. For a man without truth can no longer act with conviction and may—Heaven forbid!—lose his knowledge and faith in all things, even in God, when he can no longer discern what is and what is not. He becomes a man without a map or a compass attempting the paths and the passages of the Labyrinth. He becomes the man “that walketh in darkness, [who] knoweth not whither he goeth” (Jn 12:35). “For no one knows what is false, except when he knows it to be false; and if he knows this, then he knows what is true: for it is true that it is false” (Augustine. De Trinitate. Lib. 15. Cap. 10).

Now the great misfortune of this situation rests in the fact that a man will speak what he holds to be true whether it be, in reality, true or false. For communication of what is known or thought to be true is the primary purpose of words. It is what St. Augustine calls the locutiones cordis, “the words of the heart” (Ibid). Locutiones means, however, not merely words, so to speak, as individual terms without sense or syntax, but words formed into internal speech or discourse, as an utterance of the intellect once it has grasped, or thinks it has grasped, the sense and the certainty of a thing. It is from these “words of the heart,” this conclusion of the mind’s contemplating a thing outside of itself, this statement of the soul’s judgment on the object of its gaze, that the first verbal word, voiced or written, arises.

The principle of words, or what philosophers call “the final cause” or the reason-to-be, is this: a spoken or written word is a sign or a symbol of a human thought. St. Augustine defines sensible words more delightfully as “the word that sounds outwardly is a sign of a word that gives light inwardly” (ibid. Cap. 11). St. Thomas, shoring up his thought with the tradition of St. Augustine and the ancients, says in the Summa¸ “words are said to be true so far as they are signs of truth in the intellect” (Ia. Q16. A1.), and again, “A person who says what is true, utters certain signs which are in conformity with things” (IIa-IIae. Q109. A2.).

Therefore, it cannot only be the desire of the speaker to speak as he thinks, but must be the obligation of the speaker to speak what is. And speech being what it is, the instrument by which man becomes most brotherly and communicates his thoughts to aid and advance his neighbor and his friend, this freedom of speech is not only a liberty that can only be allowed in the pursuit of truth, but also becomes an act of virtue, of justice and even of charity. This freedom, as most freedoms do, presupposes an essential right of man, and that is, the right to know what is needed to be known for his own happiness. And truth only, though not all truths, is essential to that end of man. For only truth, and never a lie, can properly direct a man towards his good and ultimate end. As a result, this freedom of speech, this liberty to speak, can never be a license merely to talk but only to communicate the locutiones cordis, only to express the judgment of the intellect. As Mr. Pieper points out in his work on language, the purpose of communication, of speech or writing, is to converse, to make known, the true thoughts of one human to another: “First, words convey reality. We speak in order to name and identify something that is real, to identify it for someone, of course” (op. cit. pg. 15). It is a villain and a liar who deceives with his discourse, who speaks as true what he knows is not. Such a man, St. Thomas says, acts against justice, for in declaring what he thinks to be true, “a man’s chief intention is to give another his due” (IIa-IIae. Q109. A3 ad 3.). In his Ethics Aristotle says that virtuous man is he who “calls a thing by its own name, being truthful both in life and in word” (4.7). Any communication of any intentional error, any lie, or any deliberate “false fact,” stands contrary to the end of speech: “It means specifically to withhold the other’s share and portion of reality, to prevent his participation in reality” (Pieper, op. cit. p. 16).

Severe words, and reasonably so, have been said against him who speaks contrarily to what he knows to be true. Such a man firstly is no good for society, for his words become arsenal against his fellow man, a poison to his brothers’ and sisters’ minds, a device to deceive and destroy his neighbor. The false word is intended to direct another soul down an untrue road toward disaster. Quintillian, the renowned rhetorician of the Roman world, bemoaned the abuse of language by the sophists of his time, saying that it would be “better for men to be born dumb and devoid of reason than to turn the gifts of providence to their mutual destruction” (Institutio Oratoria, 12.1). Furthermore, he added that if his own work on rhetoric was ever exploited by the practice of deceivers and against the welfare of society, he would “have rendered the worst services to mankind, if I forge these weapons not for a soldier, but for a robber” (ibid).

Mr. Pieper associates this same treachery to tyranny and even to rape (op. cit. p. 32). Fr. Halpin’s words of warning bolster the standing of truth, of true words, of honest communication: “Lie to a man’s mind and you starve and poison it. Lie to a man’s character and he may sink never to rise. Lie to a man’s heart and his faith not only in man, but in God as well, may be jeopardized” (82). And again, he writes, “Certainly teach the young the value of truth, teach the young the malice of untruth. Let him learn what a perversion it is of that precious gift of God, speech. Let him learn why God gave him a tongue. Let him understand that language is the bridge by which he is put in communion with his fellowman for that man’s and for his own good….but when he does tell his thoughts his lips must not go counter to his mind” (op. cit. p. 83).

And certainly it is the words of Christ Himself that illuminates the depth of the treason and the tragedy of deceit when He compares such word-frauds and false-communicators to sons of Satan, saying, “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and stood not in the truth; because the truth is not in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father thereof.” (Jn 8:44).


Patrick Murtha is a teacher at St. Mary’s Academy in 
St. Marys, Kansas. He holds a Bachelor’s in Liberal Arts from St. Mary’s College and a Master of Arts in British and American Literature from Kansas State University. His work has appeared in The Angelus and Modern Age.