“For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (Jn. 18:37-38)
This snippet of dialogue comes from part of a conversation between Pontius Pilate and Jesus on Good Friday. After asking Jesus “What is truth?” Pilate walked away from him. He didn’t wait to hear the answer. Was he not interested in an answer? Or, cynically, did he believe there wasn’t one? Perhaps Pilate didn’t think that truth exists at all.
What he didn’t say is “There is not truth.” That would, of course, be false. And yet many people make that claim today. That very statement is self-contradictory and self-refuting. The reason? If it is correct, then it would be true. But, then, nothing can be true, and therefore, “There is no truth” cannot be true. The reasonable and logical outcome, then, is that “There is truth” must be correct.
Since truth exists, then, what is it? There are multiple ways of explaining it, all of which are related to one another. Additionally, what one means by “truth” has to be properly understood. Since the meaning of truth can be a bit complicated, it is worth looking at how we should understand it in a normal, everyday context, and then how a person’s relationship to truth plays out in his life and actions.
Perhaps the best way to start is to focus on the truth as it is normally understood in conversation and interaction: that is, the truth about the things around us. When an object is perceived, if it is perceived correctly, then it is said to be known “truly.” For example, if a woman sees a dog but calls it a banana, another person will correct her and say,“No, that is a dog, not a banana.” Her initial assignment of the category “banana” to that particular canine was erroneous and, therefore, she did not identify the truth about what it was.
Notice that this fundamental way of perceiving and naming nature presupposes that nature is something that can be known and understood. It also presupposes the normal, innate human capacity to perceive and rightly judge what things are in the world. Both of these are reasonable starting positions. This means that, unless a person is somehow impaired, that person can know the truth about things. As a starting definition, then, one could say with Thomas Aquinas that truth is “the equation of the thought and the thing.” In that statement, the word “equation” means that the perception of the object matches up to what the object is in itself.
From this very basic ability to perceive reality for what it is, all sorts of other truths come to light. People begin to reason about reality. That means that they are able to draw conclusions about more and more of what can be known. This is where areas of learning, like philosophy, art, science, literature, math, grammar, etc. begin to develop. Over the centuries and millennia of human existence, this body of knowledge has grown as the human race has grown. Truth, then, has to do with the intelligibility of the world and human capacity to know it. The adjective “true” describes the accurate perception of reality and also the logical reasoning based upon that perception.
Yet, there is even more to truth than this objective and rather dry description. Truth is also something that people desire and expect from one another. How does one person give truth to another? The Catechism of the Catholic Church reads: “Truth as uprightness in human action and speech is called truthfulness, sincerity, or candor. Truth or truthfulness is the virtue which consists in showing oneself true in deeds and truthful in words, and in guarding against duplicity, dissimulation, and hypocrisy” (No. 2468).
Another way of saying this is that the truth living in a person is the virtue of truthfulness. Truth becomes a part of one’s identity and of one’s way of interacting with other people in the world. Without the virtue of truthfulness, individuals fracture interiorly (that is the meaning of the “duplicity, dissimulation, and hypocrisy” in the quote above) and society consequently degenerates. Thomas Aquinas said it this way: “Men could not live with one another if there were not mutual confidence that they were being truthful to one another.” Living in falsehood and then perpetuating those lies does have serious consequences — at the very least, there will be a lack of personal integrity and a negative impact upon community and society as a whole.
There is an alternative to that rather dismal picture. No one person alone can make a society truthful. Each person can only decide how he or she will bear witness to truth personally. The mechanism that was mentioned above, namely, accurate perception and then proper naming of that perception, can be applied to human speech, action and interaction.
Through choices to speak and act in truth, a person becomes truthful and virtuous. That, in turn, has an effect on society. The transformation of the community, however, only happens through the transformation of its members. The building up one one’s personal integrity through truthfulness happens one choice at a time. The solidifying and reintegration of society occurs through the same process happening in multiple persons over generations. The ability to identify and speak truth, and be truthful, is a chief characteristic of a society wanting unity and peace.
Sister Anna Mare McGuan is a Religious Sister of Mercy of Alma, Michigan. She serves the Diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee, as the director of the Office of Christian Formation.