A lot of people think that “truth” is black and white, but upon closer examination, I have begun to believe the nature of truth is much more complicated.
Recently, I was sitting in Greek class having one of the most thought-provoking and frustrating debates I had ever had. First, because thinking of the idea of truth as a concept independent of fact, is very difficult to consider, and because of this it is frustrating to argue about. But secondly, because I didn’t really know where I stood. I was arguing based on my gut feeling, but I didn’t really know how to back it up. We were reading Plato’s The Euthyphro, which is a conversation set in ancient Greece between Socrates, the famous philosopher, and Euthyphro, a religious expert. Socrates encounters Euthyphro near the courts and asks him why he is there. Euthyphro tells him that he is on his way to court to prosecute his father for manslaughter. Socrates was astonished because in ancient Athenian law only the descendant’s family was allowed to prosecute.
Socrates tells Euthyphro that he must be a great expert on the nature of piety and holiness. He then asks if Euthyphro can help him understand piety, as Socrates himself was charged with impiety; a charge for which he would later stand trial and be sentenced to death. The dialogue continues with Euthyphro trying to define piety and pinpoint what makes something holy [τὸ ὅσιον] or unholy [τὸ ἀνόσιον], and concludes with Euthyphro conceding he cannot come up with an absolute definition of piety.
About halfway through the story I mentioned to my teacher that I thought that Socrates was being unnecessarily cruel to Euthyphro. My teacher disagreed, saying he thought what Socrates was doing was noble. He argued that Socrates was asking genuine questions and really did want to understand the nature of piety. I said fair enough, but there was no reason for Socrates to destroy Euthyphro’s understanding of piety, just because he didn’t agree with it. We dropped the discussion and continued reading the text, but the question stuck with me: is it worth making someone unhappy in the pursuit of truth?
In this case my gut reaction was no. Not because I believe that truth takes precedence over happiness but because this specific type of truth doesn’t take precedence over happiness. Thinking about this question made me realize that I needed to define what I meant by “this specific type of truth,” so I divided truth into two categories: observable truth and personal truth.
Observable truths can be investigated and understood by more than one person. If I have two apples and you give me four apples, I have six apples. Observable truths are absolute and singular. And they are essential because it would be difficult to advance as a society if we, for example, didn’t believe in these truths. After all, you can’t fly or even build an airplane unless you believe in the law of gravity. If we did not value observable truth, wonderful, useful things like air travel would never have been invented.
Personal truths are a bit more complicated: they can’t be observed or refuted. For example, my relationship with God is “X.” That isn’t a statement that really can be investigated or understood to be false. Personal truths are different for everyone. Personal truth wasn’t really anything I had explicitly thought about until that Greek class. Personal truth is just that, personal, so it seems wrong that we should destroy the happiness of others for our own personal sake.
What holiness means to one person is different from what it means to another. There is value in this, but in my view, it doesn’t override an individual’s happiness. And the question of whether or not it does override happiness is one that people are faced with everyday. It could be as simple as not talking about politics at a family dinner where not everyone has the same opinion. If we discuss a contentious issue we might learn something or change our minds, but we also run the risk of upsetting a family member and maybe even ruining an important relationship. We have to decide whether or not the risk of creating tension and unhappiness is worth the potential gain in personal truth. I come from an extended family where we do not all share the same faith. Thus, talking about where we differ within the religious realm can sometimes be pleasant and thought provoking, but too often it can end with a loved one feeling offended or angry.
Given that I believe that truth is not absolute, and that it varies from person to person, the question for me is not really whether truth has value, but rather how willing are we to pursue our own personal truth at the expense of other people’s feelings. And I fear that too often people get so busy seeking their own personal truths that they fail to consider the emotional impact of their search on other people. The pursuit of personal truth can devalue the importance of human emotion. Call me an optimist, but I think that if we can more deeply understand and value the importance of respecting others’ emotions, we can transcend how we deal with larger issues. And in doing so, we can get better at solving larger conflicts, between neighbors, communities, and even nations.