Time magazine has lost most of the influence it once had, but not its flair for striking covers. A spring one asked, in bold red lettering on a black background, “Is Truth Dead?”. They used the same cover format as they had once in 1966, then asking “Is God Dead?”. But that had been a late popular reflection on Nietzsche’s philosophical assertion that this was the case. The cover and content this time were current and narrow, and better replaced by “Has Trump Killed Truth?”.
Either choice recalls G. K. Chesterton’s wise priest, Father Brown, explaining we should worry less about wrong answers, more whether we are asking the right question. Perhaps Nietzsche was doing so, as was the cooler but epistemologically similar David Hume, but maybe should not have published their obituaries. Both of them were revolutionary philosopher-theologians and historians of ideas, ever afterwards misunderstood and misapplied as destructive gravediggers. All “searches for Truth with a capital T” can be defined as “searches for God with a capital G,” including those made by atheists, despite some insisting otherwise. It has been, and likely will continue to be, an eternal and worldwide search. For Western European civilization, it can be traced back to ancient Greek philosophers, Jewish prophets, Roman statesmen, and Christian synthesizers; then only partially recast by Enlightenment philosophers. Later philosophers, in the English-speaking world, after Bertrand Russell, have largely scaled down Truth-seeking to analyses of the language we use when turning to “ultimate questions.”
University courses in philosophy, if well-taught, may give practical benefits. They can aid thinking to purpose in anything from particle physics research to grocery shopping, as well as helping to refine each individual’s “search.” But for most people most of the time, decisions about what to think and what to do are not made with conscious use of, say, epistemology, ethics, or logic. In personal relationships, in occupations, in politics and public affairs, even scholars, when not using their specialized expertise, are more likely to employ “personal general knowledge,” as does everyone else. Rival philosophical theories of truth, even “pragmatism,” are assumed to require more close inspection of single propositions than time allows. Before even considering Truth, the way we accept or reject important claims about the world depends on Trust with a capital T, even to how far we decide to trust Hume, Nietzsche, or Russell, or all quasi-philosophers, disguised theologians, or ideology sales clerks. The alarming Big Question for this century Time might have chosen would be “Is TRUST Dead?”
Academic philosophers might dislike this choice, as “Trust” is an even harder term to capture in precise definition than “God” or “Truth.” It is more variable, multiply-layered in experience, mixes empiricism and rationalism, and worse, is ultimately intuitive. It embraces stances from dog-like blind faith to assurance strengthened over many years of close attention. Yet even that, once modified by the persuasive but counter-intuitive character of natural science since Galileo and Newton, came to be recognized as permanently divorcing Trust from certainty. Since Hume, for careful thinkers, that noun must be confined to the tautologies of pure mathematics and logic.
Our lives can still be greatly informed and enriched by close attention to history, as truthful as we are able to find it and make it, including empirical and analytical reasoning, aware of fallibility and acceptance of some claims of myth, so long as they are recognized as such. That latter talent is sometimes found, not in academic historians, but among gifted romantic poets. Take Wordsworth:
The world is too much with us, late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not – Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn,
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn,
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
In youth, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and many of their young contemporaries, celebrated the French Revolution. In age, they, and others less famous, mostly became conservative, appalled when they came to see that a mistaken trust in the future could produce worse consequences than a partially justified absence of trust in the institutions of Bourbon France. Americans, on the other hand, learned or not, from their less utopian Revolution to the late 20th century, mostly took a different direction. They combined a constitutional and social order both liberal and conservative, radical only in near-uninhibited capitalism and quick adoption of advancing technology. If “the world was too much with them,” and far more completely than the one that so depressed Wordsworth, it also brought broader and more equally-distributed satisfactions.
That complacent success, however, also encouraged another general enthusiasm, one always existing, but given exponentially growing intensity, a neophilia that is now “Americanizing” the whole world. Fashion and pressure on ever-malleable “public opinion” has made Trend with a capital T another order of the day. For many of the most powerful and influential people, The Trend has been trusted, often worshipped, as much or more than God or Truth.
Distrust has rolled on through history as well, but Americans used to see it as foreign, or as the lot of unhappy individuals, or at the most, of some minorities. But that confidence started collapsing in the last decades of the 20th century with astonishing speed. With hindsight, the most likely causes are so often cited, now by both political left and right, as to scarcely require detailed recapitulation – spiraling debt at all levels, the 2008 Crash, years of anaemic growth, increasing inequality, quickening automation, scarcity of well-compensated employment, and increasingly-unwelcome immigration. A related derivative force piles on as well, the triumph of nihilist entertainment over substantial content in TV and social media.
Donald Trump incarnates the public reaction to all of these, more effect than the causal agent he pretends to be, his constant theme being that “Trust is Dead!”. All serious conservatives should engage in the hard work of reducing the sway of this proposition, which will take years. In the universities, his most politically dangerous accomplices are not his supporters, but, displaying the paradoxical nature of politics, those of his faculty and student opponents who combine TV entertainment hysteria with thuggish censorship. They are trying to become The Trend, and they and spineless administrators should be resisted with firmness, intelligence, decency, and law. Otherwise, Trump may be the prophet of a coming new God, live and terrible.
(Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer, historian and former Senior Scholar of the St. Lawrence Institute. This article was first published by the Montreal online journal, Prince Arthur Herald.)