Cor ad Cor: This Week at Newman

Francis Fast Ph.D.
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Truth: Nicety or Necessity?

C.S. Lewis, the Christian apologist of the mid-20th century and author of The Chronicles of Narnia, argued that for every three contemporary books we read, we ought to read one old book because it will push back against the bias of the moment and help us access more universal insight. The undergraduates in Newman’s Catholic Studies program experienced this last week as we read Augustine’s Against the Academics and considered his question: do we need to know the truth to be happy? 

At first blush, the dialogue’s question doesn’t seem that remarkable or controversial. We all recognize the need to know the truth about reality to build pipelines or develop vaccines--although we may disagree about where to make them or how to distribute them. Yet Augustine is not talking just about technical knowledge, but more importantly, about knowledge of “things human and divine,” or, in other words, who we are as human beings and how we ought to act.

David - The Death of Sacrates
The pagan philosopher, Socrates, chose to die rather than abandon inquiry.

Augustine is pushing back against the claims of the skeptical “New Academy” (now rather old news), which argued that we could not know any truth with certainty. Its devotees insisted that wisdom never gives absolute assent to any claim, since at best, the claim will only be probable or “truth-like,” rather than certain or true. In short, their mantra was: “don’t get taken in.” According to the most famous member of the New Academy, Cicero, this skepticism is the wisest path to take, especially about disputed questions, because instead of rejecting someone else’s position, you’ll always be able to say, “I’m not sure: I’ll have to consider it further.” Cicero knew how to look good in an argument.

Augustine presents a wide range of responses to this skeptical approach. Still, the one the students in our classroom found especially pointed was this: if we don’t think we can know the truth about things, we can’t hold ourselves accountable for our actions. We can’t hold other people responsible either. Any action can be justified as “probably correct” if we don’t have any sure reference point for “actually correct.” An adulterer can claim that his act seemed “probably correct;” a politician can claim that we’re “not certain” about the sources of inflation; a doctor can insist that he doesn’t know whether a human fetus is a person. On the one hand, this sort of cautious statement might seem to diffuse conflict in the moment, but, in the long run, if we reject the habit of saying “this is true,” we can neither establish a standard for our behaviour nor promote one for society as a whole.

Of course, there are plenty of situations where we may have legitimate doubts about whether a claim is correct: Augustine recognizes this but argues that just because we don’t know doesn’t mean that the truth can’t be known. Suppose we let our own imperfect knowledge about a particular issue turn into skepticism. In that case, we will neither try to get a solution ourselves nor believe that anyone else can. Many today point to the need for greater consensus in public life or more courage to deal with complex issues and make the hard decisions needed for a happier society. Augustine’s point, calling to us from 1600 years in the past, is that if we want people to pursue courageous solutions to social problems, we must first believe that we can know the answer when we find it.

Francis Fast, Ph.D.

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