Due to our present circumstances, I am taking a small detour from writing on the Presocratic philosophers in order to write an article about about the nature of truth.
I remember that, as children playing in the pool, we liked to see who could hold a beach ball under water the longest. It was not an easy task. We tried to push the beach ball further down thinking that it would be less likely to pop back up. Of course, we discovered that the more we tried to keep the ball under water, the more difficult it became to hold it there. It always popped back up after only a few seconds.
This image reminds me of a verse from St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.1 If truth is to be opposed, it can only be suppressed. Like the beach ball, the more that it is suppressed, the more difficult it becomes to do so.
The Nature of Truth
This leads to a philosophical consideration of the nature of truth. Prior to Descartes in the West, it was a given that absolute truth existed.2 From a metaphysical perspective truth was pursued as if it could be discovered and comprehended. Even Descartes did not deny the existence of absolute truth. But by shifting the conversation from the metaphysical to the epistemological, he put skepticism front and center in philosophy. The operative question used to be “What do you know to be true,” while today, truth claims are almost always met with some form of, “Well, how do you know that to be true?”
After the emergence of extreme skepticism, the concept of absolute truth, as it had been previously understood, was eventually abandoned and replaced by relativism. But this is not completely accurate. The excursion into relativism was not really an abandonment of the concept of absolute truth, but simply a transition where the idea of absolute truth based on divine authority was replaced by an absolute truth based on human power. (The former is absolute truth in se, whereas the latter is absolute truth de facto.) Since the Enlightenment, we have been moving from authority-based truth to power-based truth. Authority- based truth is transcendent since it come from God, while power- based truth is immanent since it originates from man.
Introducing relativism into the equation made it possible to uncouple the concept of truth from God and to couple it to human agency. Once human authority has severed itself from the truth, then it becomes illegitimate. (In another sense, however, it retains some semblance of legitimacy because the governmental structures themselves are established by God).3
Legitimate and Illegitimate Authority
An illegitimate authority must rely on force since it has separated itself from the authority of God. We can recognize an illegitimate authority because it governs by power, using force to accomplish its will. We have seen this in the past in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Mao Tse Tung’s China. Mao famously said, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”4 We see this today in countries like Venezuela and North Korea. Sadly, we are starting to witness this in the West.
Dr. Jeff Mirus, in his article “On Power and Authority,” states the following:
“Authority differs from power in that the term “authority” suggests a right to or fittingness for the power that goes with it. True authority is justified by what a person is, by what he has received from a higher authority…(by which) he is connected to the “authorship” or origination of the power he will exercise…When things are well-ordered, power derives neither from the will to exercise it nor from the strength to enforce that will.”5
For example, a police officer’s authority does not derive from his gun, but from the legitimate governmental authority under whom he is commissioned. He must use his power in a manner fitting with and according to the authority that he has received. His power is the outworking of that authority and not vice versa.
The power that comes from divine authority is harmonious and ordered, whereas the power that comes from an autonomous human agency is disordered and oftentimes despotic. A legitimate government does not have to be overtly Christian. On the contrary, a non-Christian government can be legitimate as long as it governs in accordance with natural law. An illegitimate government must resort to force because it has no real authority on which to base its claims.
The Tyranny of Relativism
A modern relativist will profess that there are a many “truths,” but in the end, it his his truth that he wishes to apply in an unconditional manner, not only to himself, but to others as well. A purely relativistic culture is impossible. Sooner or later on group’s “truth” must prevail over the others. Whose truth prevails? The answer is whoever can wield the most power. A relativistic society is one in which various groups vie to control of the levers of power in order to impose their version of truth on the others.
What is anathema at one time can become accepted practice depending on who has power. Ideas which were only recently considered “a matter of personal choice” have now become the law of the land. This carries severe social and legal penalties for those who disagree. The relativist remains a relativist when he has little power, but once he comes to power, he strangely metamorphoses into an absolutist, persecuting those who disagree with him. His “tolerance” disappears under a cloak of despotism.
The weakness of this method is that it is impossible to hold a society together by mere force. After the bloodshed and the purging, an authoritarian society eventually burns itself out after it runs out of victims and collapses in on itself due to the moral rot within. As Aristotle said, all evil eventually collapses in upon itself. After the dust settles, the only thing remaining is the truth.
The West’s Descent into Tyranny
I think of nations such as Russia and Poland, under the grip of the U.S.S.R. in the 20th century, whose people were forced to teach atheism in schools and forbidden to practice religion.6 Both countries today, although far from perfect, are once again free nations that are able to practice the Christian faith. History is full of examples of attempts to stamp out Christianity. The Romans threw the entire weight of their empire against the fledgling church. Rather than destroying the church, the church converted the empire. The Roman Empire had all of the military might and the Christian Church had none. Christians prevailed because they had truth on their side, truth embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. Raw human power can never prevail over divine authority. The truth cannot be conquered. It always prevails precisely because it is the truth.
During the dark days of the Soviet Union, the Soviet government churned out volumes of propaganda now relegated to to the ash heap of history. But works like Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, which documented Solzhenitsyn’s time in a Russian Gulag, are still read because they are true. Also, back then in the Soviet Union, Russian grandmothers kept the Christian faith alive by teaching the faith to their grandchildren.7 Consider that it was the faith of the Russian grandmothers, resting on the authority of God, that helped defeat the domineering power of the Soviet Union.
In the West, we are in a period of deep darkness. This darkness may last several more years, decades, or even several centuries. It may be similar to the darkness that prevailed in Europe from the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD to the Carolingian Renaissance in the 9th century.8 During that time, the truth was preserved by monks in the monasteries until the storm passed.
This present storm will pass as well. The truth cannot be destroyed. It is like gravity. We can deny its existence, but we cannot negate its effects. This does not mean that it will be easy for those on the side of truth. But it is the rule, not the exception, that the church prevails through suffering. The paradox is that the indestructible truth prevails through human weakness and frailty. Try as they might, “cancel culture” will never be able to cancel the truth. It is a fool’s errand. They may succeed for a short time, but power alone is not enough to prevail; they have severed themselves from true authority and will eventually come to their end.
In the past, the heroes who preserved the truth were people like medieval monks and Russian grandmothers, people who had little power in the eyes of the world. The question is, as we face the same foe, albeit in a different disguise, who will be the heroes in this present darkness?
The following two quotes about light and truth are from St. Augustine:
“All truth and understanding is a result of divine light which is God himself.“9
“The mind needs to be enlightened by light from outside itself, so that it can participate in truth, because it is not itself the nature of truth.”10
Jesus Christ said:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Finally, consider the following question:
How do we fight against the looming tyranny in the West? Please leave your comment below. Thank you!
- Romans 1:18
- Kornblith, Hilary. “EVER SINCE DESCARTES.” The Monist, vol. 68, no. 2, 1985, pp. 264–276. JSTOR
- Romans 13:1-6
- Tse Tung, Mao, “Problems of War and Strategy, ” Selected Works, Vol. II, p. 224, November 6, 1938, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/works/red-book/ch05.htm
- Mirus, Dr. Jeff, “On Power and Authority,” Catholic Culture, Feb. 1, 2008, https://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/on-power-and-authority/
- Brickman, William W. “RESISTANCE TO ATHEISTIC EDUCATION IN THE SOVIET UNION.” Journal of Thought, vol. 9, no. 1, 1974, pp. 16–28. JSTOR
- Cooperman, Alan, “On Russian Easter, Many Recall Grandmothers Who Kept Faith Alive,” AP News, April 6, 1991, https://apnews.com/article/bd51769f50bc741600cbb313d4614955
- Paparella, Emanuel, essay “Medieval Monasticism as Preserver of Western Civilization,” metanexus, May 31, 2008, https://www.metanexus.net/medieval-monasticism-preserver-western-civilization
- Allers, Rudolph. “ST. AUGUSTINE’S DOCTRINE ON ILLUMINATION.” Franciscan Studies, vol. 12, no. 1, 1952, pp. 27–46.
Bibliography and Sources:
Cahill, Thomas, How the Irish Saved Civilization, Anchor Publishers, New York, 1996
Cooperman, Alan, “On Russian Easter, Many Recall Grandmothers Who Kept Faith Alive,” AP News, April 6, 1991, https://apnews.com/article/bd51769f50bc741600cbb313d4614955
Rummel, R.J., Death by Government: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900, 5th edition, Routledge, Oxfordshire, England, 1997
Royal, Robert, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, A Herder & Herder Book, The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 2000
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr, The Gulag Archipelago, 1st edition, translated by Thomas P. Whitney, Harper & Row, New York, 1974