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PhilosophyCenter | Odysseys

True Living in the “Post-Truth” World

True Living

“Truth is high, but even higher is true living,” according to one spiritual teacher from the East. Nowadays, in the madhouse rush of our so-called post-truth world, with “fake news” and “alternative facts,” with social media shaping politics and trivializing what it means to communicate, and every personal reaction no matter how thoughtless or hateful or banal stealing its fifteen minutes (or 140 characters) of “fame,” we might wonder what a term such as “true living” can mean. Questions of this sort generally have been left to philosophy to ponder, the worldly being disinclined to take them seriously. During my days at university, when business majors and others would ask what I was studying, the answer typically earned wry smiles and patronizing looks. “Philosophy? What can you do with that?” Heidegger, it seemed to me, had answered this best, suggesting that we can’t do anything with philosophy, but that if we let it, perhaps philosophy can do something with us. The golden opportunity to study inspiring subjects with gifted professors seemed far too important to reduce to the business of earning a living. And then there was the more fundamental matter of how to live, of what our lives meant and could mean, of what was required to live well, to live skillfully and creatively and deliberately, so that our lives might count for something, even if only in the private reckoning of our own values. But such things were the fanciful concerns of humanities majors, and of little interest to those for whom a thinking life had no projectionable cash value.

True living must mean living in agreement with what is true, but for the ancient Greeks, what was true was inseparable from what was good and beautiful, as these three were regarded as aspects of the same eternal standard. For them, living truly involved a certain skill in practical matters, and eventually even a virtuosity in living they called phronesis. Even today, over two millennia later, this standard holds up, such that if we lived by its light, our living would be transformed into a work of art. Phronesis seeks to serve the greater good, is self-possessed, picks its battles, recognizes and cooperates with the timing of things, is not rash or reactive, moves with rather than against conditions, is humble in knowledge and willing to learn, and so on.

Sadly, the art of true living prized by the ancients appears to be a lost art. Sullied by rampant relativity and an infatuation with the subjective and the momentary promoted by personal technology and social media that borders on the narcissistic, we seem to have lost that faculty that lets us know when something is true or not, and in this, the standards of beauty and goodness have fallen from our hands, as well. We eagerly adopt, upgrade, and bring into our homes technological gadgets without taking even a moment to consider whether or not they are good for us. Convenience is allowed to trump privacy to the point that our “smart” devices seem to be smarter than we are. We engage each other less, relying instead on virtual surrogates. We get out of our chairs and off our couches less. Consequently, we move less, breathe less, experience less. If we want to know something, instead of researching and investigating it and testing it, we simply “Google” it or look it up in Wikipedia, both of which are designed to provide quick answers, not necessarily true ones. Prejudiced by algorithms that rate search returns by popularity rather than truth, goodness, or beauty, Google establishes a truthless reality as the new standard for modern life. Wikipedia entries can be posted and edited by anyone, qualified or not. In a world where everything and anything can be “true,” facts can be “alternative,” dissenting journalism can be dismissed as “fake,” and scientific and rational evidence are derided and rejected out of hand, there is no compass heading and no way to avoid the paralyzing effects of nihilism, for if everything and anything can be true, then nothing is true. We can make the truth whatever we wish it to be, and who is to refute us?

It may be hard for us to wake ourselves from the dream of relativity and subjectivism sufficiently to retrieve a sense of what the truth, apart from conflicting opinions about it, might be. And this is where the statement cited at the beginning of this piece becomes central, perhaps even saving. “Truth is high, but even higher is true living.” Plug this into the Greek equation, and a glimmer of light appears on the horizon that can guide us back to a sustainable way of being, for the qualities of true living are always beautiful and good, and in these matters, we need no one to instruct us, for the voice of the beautiful and the good, and so, of the true, lives within us. The Greeks called it the daimon, and regarded it as a divine presence placed in each person by the gods to guide him on his life’s journey.

Does anyone doubt that the qualities of courage, generosity of spirit, fairness in dealing with others, compassion, kindness, humility, and the willingness to empathize with others are good and beautiful? Will anyone, even in the age of subjectivity, seriously deny that cowardice, pettiness and selfishness, cheating or exploiting others for personal gain, mean-spiritedness, indifference to the suffering of others, vindictiveness, self-aggrandizement, hatred, and cruelty are ugly and destructive? The light on the horizon soon expands into a beacon: There is no truth in adhering to principles that hurt others. People are more important than principles, as one professor of mine told me many years ago—a truth that true living never forgets, among others.

In the Gorgias, Socrates tells us that the truth cannot be refuted. The statement is practically a definition. Put another way, the truth endures. For this reason, it—and it alone—is sustainable. If we do the philosophical math here, we find it adds up to an inescapable conclusion: We may continue living only insofar as we live truly, which is to say, in agreement with the truth. No amount of relativistic reductionism or subjective cleverness can overtake the truth for long. What is, is. Whatever sets itself against the truth—and so, inevitably, the good and the beautiful, as Lao Tze states in the Tao Te Ching, “comes to an early end.” We did not create this world or ourselves; we do not create what is true, but what is true abides, and abides in the beautiful and the good. There is, as the Greeks knew in a wisdom we would be wise to retrieve at this late hour of history, no other refuge for humankind.