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Posts from — July 2013

To Tell the Truth

To Tell the Truth

It would be fair to say that philosophical work is all about telling the truth. This presumes that we’re in possession of the truth, which we aren’t always, of course, and if we were, philosophical counseling would find itself without clients. Now, when we say “the truth,” we don’t mean something lofty or esoteric, and certainly not something limited to scientific truth, which is tied to correspondence to observable fact and, interestingly, falsifiability—in the sense that if one makes a statement that one holds would not be falsified by any imaginable condition, then the statement is no longer scientific, but something more like superstitious or dogmatic (thanks to Karl Popper for this fascinating insight). Beyond scientific truth is something more personal, and this is the sort of truth that has our interest as philosophical coaches. Personal truth often cannot be verified scientifically, because it has to do primarily with the self-relation, or as the Greeks might say, one’s relation to one’s daimon, or inner being. Staying on good terms with this inner aspect of who we are is so important, that the matter hardly can be overstated. And we cannot be on good terms inwardly if we’re out of sync with the truth, which means with what is. So, personal truth is ontological—in the sense that it has to do with being, with what is and is as it is, and nothing less. An example may help make this clear: If someone asks you to go out on a dinner date, and you know that you don’t want to go—you can feel the “no” rising within you—but you say “yes” anyway, the damage you do to your happiness goes far beyond the discomfort of an inauspicious evening out, because in the moment that you say “yes,” you dismiss or deny or trivialize the truth. It sounds like such a small thing, a forgivable error, and of course, errors are made to be corrected, but it is no small thing, because in turning your back on this little truth, you turn your back on being, on life, on who you are, and no good can come of it.

This is one of the most fundamental realizations underlying the methods of applied philosophy. Our happiness depends on our willingness to defer to the truth, to acknowledge it, honor it, live up to it, and so on—and never to regard any worldly or circumstantial benefit (Plato calls these “non-moral goods”) as having more value than the truth. Simply put, we cannot set ourselves against what is and win.

The commitment to the truth, in practical philosophy, unfolds through dialogue of a truth-minded sort. Socrates was a master of it. It is referred to in philosophical circles as the “dialectic,” because it is more than mere conversation. The dialectic is probative. It examines assumptions, beliefs, and implications in order to reveal imprisoning untruth, and at least to that extent, brings us closer to whatever truth the untruth was obscuring. While we may not always be in conscious possession of the truth, we can turn to the dialectic in order to “recollect” (another term from Plato) what we know, but “know in forgetfulness.” And this truth that we recollect can set right any inner disjunctions, reestablish harmonious relations with the daimon, and set us free.

Free of what? Most of the time, the truth frees us from the constrictions of ego-driven conclusions that, while promising some boon, invariably cost us far more than they deliver. In fact, many of us pick up some funny beliefs along the way, beliefs that life refuses to support, but this never seems to count against them—not until the internal stresses and strains surface as a serious health issue, a shattered marriage, or an uncanny series of setbacks that throws us, finally, into self-doubt, which can be a wonderful opportunity for self-examination and a rapprochement with the truth of who we are.

Let’s return to our example. If we say “yes” to a dinner invitation against our better knowing, we have for the moment turned away an opportunity to show up in the truth of the moment. Perhaps we harbored a belief that we must never disappoint someone else, never hurt another’s feelings. But as Socrates tells us in the Gorgias, the truth cannot be denied. We can look at the situation dialectically, and ask questions that may reveal how our expedient answer works against us. Suppose the invitation is not to dinner, but to bed? Or to the marriage altar? How far does one go in sparing another’s feelings when each step along that path takes one deeper into the dark territory of untruth and self-denial? These are important points that the dialectic can clarify and illuminate. We may be largely unaware of the toll that our departures from the truth take on us, but they add up, like accumulated debts, until finally, in one way or another, the bill comes due.

So, in coaching sessions, we work our way back to what is. It takes willingness and sometimes a little courage, but once the burden of untruth overtakes the temporary benefit, these things tend to make an appearance. If we’re willing to tell the truth, even if it means forfeiting this or that non-moral good, if we’re willing to defer to what is, a great deal can be put right in a short time. What the Greeks called “the good life” begins within. The truth is the beginning and the end, something the ancients knew and perhaps we have forgotten. “Know thyself,” the most famous of the Delphic maxims, does not require us to go on a retreat or undertake long periods of austerity or mediate on a hilltop. It is enough to tell the truth when someone asks us to dinner.

July 10, 2013   Comments Off on To Tell the Truth