What is Truth?

Hui Tzu said to Chuang Tzu, “I have a big tree of the kind men call shu. Its trunk is too gnarled and bumpy to apply a measuring line to, its branches too bent and twisty to match up to a compass or square. You could stand it by the road and no carpenter would look at it twice. Your words, too, are big and useless, and so everyone alike spurns them!”

Chuang Tzu said, “Maybe you’ve never seen a wildcat or a weasel. It crouches down and hides, watching for something to come along. It leaps and races east and west, not hesitating to go high or low-until it falls into the trap and dies in the net. Then again there’s the yak, big as a cloud covering the sky. It certainly knows how to be big, though it doesn’t know how to catch rats. Now You have this big tree and you’re distressed because it’s useless. Why don’t you plant it in Not-Even-Anything Village, or the field of Broad-and-Boundless, relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it? Axes will never shorten its life, nothing can ever harm it. If there’s no use for it, how can it come to grief or pain?”

~ Chuang Tzu

by Scott Preston Chrysalis edited by O Society April 17, 2019

I once wrote about how the terms “truth”, “trust” and “truce” are related to one another. From that you might also draw the implications that follow from a “post-truth” regime or a crisis of truth.

Today, after reading an article about how two US university professors have made a name for themselves by offering a course in “Bullshit detection”, I decided to dive a little deeper into the origins and history of the word “truth”, with some surprising results.

The word “true” or “truth” is traceable to the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word *dru-. The word *dru-, in turn, means “tree”.

What’s with that?


From that cascaded a flood of associations: The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge in Eden; the “World Tree” Yggdrasil in Norse mythology; the name “Dionysus” as meaning “He of the Trees”; the odd relation of the terms “saviour” and “savage”, both related to the word “silva” — woods or trees (although perhaps in contrary senses, as one leading out of the bush and the other leading into the bush). The name “druid” is most evidently derived from *dru-, and according to online sources means “the tree-seer”, and so the long-standing association of the druid with the oak tree.


That also brought to mind one of William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell that “a fool sees not the same tree as a wise man sees”. It also brought to mind something Castaneda’s don Juan told him about trees — that the tree, and not the ape, was man’s closest relative. The tree also appears as a symbol of truth in William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It is also very likely the significance of Goethe’s insight into the “Primal Plant” or theUrpflanze.

What is it about the tree that suggests the identity of tree and the true or truth? One association is the “steadfast”, “sturdy”, “faithful” — the rooted. But a tree is also a coincidence of the opposites — root and crown, stem and branches that might obviously suggest the cosmic tree — the actual shape of the cosmos. There is, of course, also an association of the tree with the spinal column, the chakras, and the branching nervous system, and the kundalini energy as the “sap”, and the leaves, of course, with the individual lives of men and women.



There is also a relation between the name “Drew”, meaning “wise”, and *dru-. This also reappears in The Game of Thrones, where the “Three-Eyed Raven” is also entangled in the roots of the world tree. There is also the iconography of Christ on the Cross, this cross being identified also with the World Tree.

Over time, of course, truth has become dissociated and abstracted away from its more organic and earthy roots, as it were — the association of truth and tree probably dismissed as a “superstition”. That dismissal, however, has clearly resulted also in the mind’s alienation and estrangement from Nature. So, our contemporary “tree-huggers” may well be acting out a very ancient archetypal ritual that associated truth and wisdom with the tree — an embodied truth and wisdom.


So, a term like “post-truth” can be quite paradoxical and ambiguous. It may mean a rejection of this “uprooting” of truth from life as it is actually lived, or it may mean the exact opposite — a complete uprooting. One man’s bullshit may be another man’s compost, as it were. So “post-truth” (or “collapse of reality”) may be either or both a complete disintegration or a new restructuration of what we mean by “truth”.

Not everything dismissed as “superstitition” is superstition. And likewise, not everything that claims to be “rational” is at all rooted in Reason, but is itself a superstition.

In fact, the word “superstition” has, itself, an interesting origin and history. It is the opposite of the meaning of the word “under-stand” or (in German) Verstand. And this sense of ‘over-‘ and ‘under-‘ (over- also in the sense of “overthinking” or excess) are articulations of the verb “stare” — to stand, which also forms the word “exist” (“ex-stare” meaning “to stand out” or “to stand forth” as emanation or manifestation). There is, then, some connection between the word “super-stition” and the word “paranoia” (as “mind beside” or as being “beside oneself”).


What is it about the tree that it “bodies forth” truth, wisdom, faith? This is what marks the difference between a true symbol and a mere sign. A sign “indicates” or points to, but a symbol “bodies forth”, and does, in a sense, invite you to become one with it. That pertains to the old Hermetic epistemic (and empathetic) principle — to know a thing, you must become the thing you wish to know. Such knowledge we call “intimate” knowledge, and it is gained differently from what we call “objective” knowledge gained by distancing or “standing back” or “apart”.

(For those interested in following this intimate way of knowing, Max Leyf’s recent series on “Goethean Science” — parts 1 to 3.3) is a very good starting point).

The ancient identification of tree and truth, of course, belongs to the magical and mythical modes of consciousness and perception. This way of knowing does not discredit or invalidate it as knowledge. It belongs to integral vision or “fourfold vision” — that one can perceive the tree as truth, as well as “object”, is part of that fourfold vision — the noumenal and the phenomenal aspects are conjoined in the tree. For Goethe is was evident in the Urpflanze vision, just as Blake could also perceive both the phenomenal and noumenal aspects of the sun, or seeing with the eye as well as through the eye. That is to say, the phenomenal and noumenal are not discrete or separate worlds.

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