by Max Leyf edited by O Society July 19, 2019
A global scepticism—if not a downright dismissal—of truth appears to be the order of the day. Nietzsche’s immemorial Parable of the Madman:
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!” — As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? — Thus they yelled and laughed.
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition?
Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us — for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars — and yet they have done it themselves.
On the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”
[Source: Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.]
Nietzsche is in many ways the prophet of the contemporary postmodern, post-truth Zeitgeist that characterises our time. Indeed as early as 1882, Nietzsche set the clear keynote for the post-truth era with his notorious enunciation of the death of God. For Nietzsche, the death of God implied the death of truth as its necessary correlative. “What are man’s truths ultimately?”
Nietzsche asks in The Gay Science, “Merely his irrefutable errors.” (Walter Kaufmann trans., section 265.) Even if one pointed out that Nietzsche, at the very least, seems to depend on the truth of his own statement in order to meaningfully discount the truth of all other ones, still, such a logical objection has little bearing on the tenor of uncertainty that resounds about all chambers of the present age. Indeed, this disregard for truth appears in many forms today: from populist politics to Quantum Mechanics and multiverse hypotheses. If we are to have any hope of evaluating our situation, we must ensure that we have, in the first place, understood what is meant by “truth.”
2 Discussion on Making All Things Equal:
“To use an attribute to show that attributes are not attributes is not as good as using a non-attribute to show that attributes are not attributes. To use a horse to show that a horse is not a horse is not as good as using a non-horse to show that a horse is not a horse, Heaven and earth are one attribute; the ten thousand things are one horse.”
~ Chuang Tzu (translation Burton Watson)
In other words, we must, at the very least, understand what we mean to reject. Only then can we have any insight into the nature of the present moment, which we otherwise merely live out blindly. What is Truth? “Quid est veritas?” The only method adequate to answer such a question without assuming at the outset what it ought to prove is Goethe’s way of knowledge, which we have enlisted throughout this entire dissertation to approach the most fundamental questions. Steiner also characterises the nature of any eventual answer to such a question as “what is truth” in a passage that we will find occasion to return to in the next chapter:
The answer given…will not be of the purely theoretical sort which, once mastered, may be carried about as a conviction preserved by memory. Such an answer would, for the whole manner of thinking on which this book is based, be no real answer at all. (Preface 1894)
Our approach, therefore, will be to “get to know” truth rather than attempt to define it. Framed in a Goethean spirit, if we manage to to participate the “deeds and sufferings” of reality with our understanding, both synchronically and diachronically, then we will discover the truth of things. “Reality,” in the context of this study, will be employed as a synonym for “being.” “Truth” simply refers to reality, or being, as it is known—the language of being as it is spoken in our own voice. This is very straightforward, since we do not assert, cognise, or perceive something, and also assert, cognise, or perceive that it is true. “True” is not a predicate like “bright” or “feathered.” An inquiry into truth, therefore, is simultaneously an inquiry into reality. “Quid est veritas?”
In the remainder of this introduction, we will approach the question from the perspective of myth and philology. Next we will attempt to discover what light the philosophy of Steiner and Barfield may shed on this question before turning to Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Nietzsche for supplementary insight. In the final chapter, we will attempt a conclusion of sorts with the help of Aristotle, Barfield, Steiner, and Novalis.
“Truth” shares an etymological root with “tree” (Old English treo or treow). This connection likely stems from prehistoric man’s experience of the shared meaning of true and tree as “something one can depend on,” or “a central structure of physical-metaphysical orientation.” Thus, we should include this connotation in our concept of truth.
In a separate investigation from this one—a philological investigation of truth—one might consider whether the etymological connection to “tree” discloses other facets of truth beyond dependability and orientation. Some ramifications of fruitful discovery might include generation and corruption, participation of the seasons, speciation, orientation to heaven, or attraction to the Sun which opens the eyes of men and which is the material cause of seeing, to name a few possibilities.
Returning to our own branch of inquiry, we will attempt to illuminate the essential semantic connection between “tree” and “truth” that the etymological one indicates. We can discover the answer in pictorial form in the testimony of diverse myths and cosmological accounts from around the world. Viking culture exemplifies this connection in the being of Yggdrasil, the “World Tree,” whose form traverses and sustains the Nine Realms. The Poetic Edda presents several depictions of Yggdrasil. In the Völuspá, for instance, one can read of “the glorious tree of good measure, under the ground…”
An ash I know there stands,
Yggdrasill is its name,
a tall tree, showered
with shining loam.
From there come the dews
that drop in the valleys.
It stands forever green over
Yggdrasil also plays a crucial role in one of the most significant accounts of the Poetic Edda: Odin’s intuition of the runes. One can read the following verse in the Hávamál, in which Odin All-father recounts the scene:
I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from whence its roots run.
Odin seeks to align himself with the World Tree, and thus he hangs himself upside down. To hang oneself upside down makes intuitive sense for, as Plato observed in the Timaeus, humans are inverted plants “not of earthly, but of heavenly growth.” The human being is rooted to the world through his nerve-sense system, whose heart is the brain, in the same manner as the rhizomes of the tree relate the latter to the living Earth. Upon aligning himself with the Tree, Odin ultimately receives the knowledge of the depths: the transubstantiation of speech into symbols. It is impossible to shut one’s mind to the symbolic language of this image. The runes, of course, were the medium of written language for the pre-Christian Nordic cultures.
Language, in turn, is the medium by which meaning is communicated. A being for which the conception of truth did not imply meaning would be a being for which the question of truth was irrelevant like a rock, or a supercomputer. Language therefore is meaning in transmission, and verbal language is simply a codified form of what is present in all meaningful communication. Λóγος (lógos) is a more fitting term for this universal, super-dialectical language, and thus, as we indicated in the last chapter, we will find many occasions to employ this term throughout the remainder of the present theme.
The Hávamál offers one example of an archetypal image that permeates all cultures of Aryan or “Indo-European” origin. Pherecydes of Syros, for instance, describes as similar cosmology of the World Tree asaxis mundi. Writing in the sixth century B.C., he describes the Earth as:
“A winged oak, strong and mighty; its roots extended into the depths of Tartaros, its trunk was encircled by Ogenos, and its branches reached into Ouranos. “(Schibli, Hermann S. (1990), Pherekydes of Syros, Oxford: Clarendon Press.)
The Katha Upanishad, which was composed in India in approximate contemporaneity with Pherecydes’ writing in Greece, also invokes the World Tree for a cosmological account:
“This universe is a tree eternally existing, its root aloft, its branches spread below. The pure root of the tree is Brahman, the immortal, in whom the three worlds have their being, whom none can transcend, who is verily the Self.” Katha Upanishad 2:3:1
Also in India, and at roughly the same time, the Palī canons relates the first accounts of Siddhartha Gautama’s enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. The Torah likewise famously presents a tree associated with knowledge, though in a slightly different context than the Palī scriptures. The third book of Genesisrecounts that Adam and Eve both tasted of fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, “And the eyes of them both were opened.”
Given that the consumption of the forbidden fruit is a fait accompli in our post-lapsarian, post-modern, post-truth era, the curiosity that motivates our exploration of the subject cannot do any harm that is not already done. Indeed, the pursuit of knowledge may even prove to be our deliverance, for though the devil first tempted the Fall, he may have been unknowingly serving as agent cause for an higher design.
As Mephistopheles declares in Goethe’s Faust:
Ich bin ein Teil von jener Kraft,
Die stets das Böse will und stets das Gute schafft.
“I am part of that power which
would do forever evil and which does eternal good.”
~ J. W. von Goethe, Faust. Translated by A. S. Byatt. Penguin Classics, 2005. (p. 70)
Thus with “eyes that are opened,” we will continue our investigation of truth. After a brief exposition of the mythos of truth to serve as introduction to the subject, we will continue in the next chapter with an inquiry into its lógos, or λóγος, and the instrument by which we undertake such an inquiry is none other than the same λóγος in us.