Unloose the Gordian Knot!
I am not so fortunately placed as others here would seem, to live without method, unmoored and amiss, in both action and belief a foreigner to truth, at all times determined by a handful of dust, begging from the Pragmatist’s cup, existing in every possible way, but never according to that one which is entirely self-evident to them.
Alas, perhaps I’ve missed my introductory philosophy lesson?! I did hear the clock ring a while back, and after all, I am like a man who sees the works of a watch for the first time…what healthy mind can reject its evidence?
I am glad then, there are those eager to fill my place in that penal colony: they will tell me, as they always do, with the coveted deliciousness of opening Pandora’s box, that nothing is true, as nothing can be ‘absolutely true’ – whatever they suppose that to mean. And how they love to let that harrow rake their backs, every contusion an ascendancy, every scream a benighted blessing.
I enjoy a good philosophic romp as much as the next man, but I will not be disposed to find my intellectual integrity in an infinitude of untruths, endlessly at odds with each other, requiring the most strenuous of juggling acts to maintain, so that none can be held simultaneously nor touch another without immediate contradiction. Convenience and balance agree more with my simple tastes; and besides, I despise hypocrisy too much to stand if my human sentiments were opposed to my rational impulses.
Still, I will not pretend to know those who on behalf of obscure axioms are settled by the relativity of any truth, no matter how obviously universal; a point they appear to defend as though it were self-evident.
‘There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative…The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it. They have all been equipped with this framework early on, and it is the modern replacement for the inalienable natural rights that used to be the traditional American grounds for a free society…The danger they have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance. Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating.’
Setting aside our new virtue, I would oblige the good Dr. Bloom for a moment of his better discernment, to defend what I feel to be a mistaking of Self-Evident as Absolute, among his students certainly, but also by the rest of us who’ve been prepared by that fifty year’s inculcation.
When one attempts to grapple with the problem of the Absolute, to run his fingers along its intricacies, to dig into its grooves and hoist its bulk on his back, the more does he come to learn that what he handles is no less than that impossible Gordian knot. And he is doomed to puzzle away at it indefinitely, not because it is intuitive to him, or because he agrees that this knot ties together the most natural explanations, but rather, for the basic reason that compels all curiosity: it exists; because it has been proposed and stands before him. So, like the obscure, black-hooded figures of history who swarm and tire away at it, does he also become paralysed by the mass of rope, quibbling on at an eternity of twists and loops and tangles, failing to see that nothing of the world around him, nor the people who inhabit it, depend on a single one of its tethers. If he could just gather the Alexandrian courage to simply cut it…
When in grade school we read of those things which we hold to be self-evident, before the time when we reasonably should, and usually from a teacher who is past her season to relay—whenever we make our acquaintance with this idea, we should remember that we are not reading from the book of Philosophy. The concept is unaware of the petty abstract, with absolutely no appeal whatsoever to the Absolute, its origin taken to be altogether wider and more grounded than the general run of philosophy.
Self-evident is a term that invokes being, one which springs from a collective humanity, different in the minor points, but alike fundamentally in those matters of dignity, well-being and prosperity. It is a word that if removed from its human subject loses all its sense, as it does immediately when taken into philosophical quandary; it is the child of conscience, which cannot be made to chime with any feeble logic, with some omniscient foundation—luckily, it is much more fortunate than that. It is a word that joins us in our unspoken sympathies, which needs bear no doubt about itself, that forces us to recognize the misery of our fellow man, his pain and his downfall, and to know indelibly, without any syllogistic pretext, that it is wrong.
Socrates called it our Daemon, a child will call it her Golden Rule, but in whichever way you refer to the Self-Evident, it will always resemble that universal, internal voice, inherited by everyone who grows to have a healthy mind, if bearing even the most average moral stock. Whether it is ‘true’, well that is a question better dealt with by Orwell:
‘In England such concepts as justice, liberty and objective truth are still believed in. They may be illusions, but they are very powerful illusions. The belief in them influences conduct, national life is different because of them. In proof of which, look about you. Where are the rubber truncheons, where is the castor oil? The sword is still in the scabbard, and while it stays there, corruption cannot go beyond a certain point…But in a sense it is irrelevant whether democracy, at its highest or at its lowest, is ‘better’ than totalitarianism. To decide that one would have to have access to absolute standards. The only question that matters is where one’s real sympathies will lie when the pinch comes.’
Of course, only a fool would declare that the Self-Evident is absolute, there is no need to. All that is needed is to acknowledge ourselves in the lives of our fellow creatures. Denying the Self-Evident when we pretend to wonder at the obviousness of our sympathies, is doing no less a thing than that complete rejection of our own humanness. For the sake of not appearing simple-minded in the face of poorly conceived, discursive, hairbrained philosophies? For the same sake, to pretend in spite of ourselves that we are something less than what we are, that we do not know and feel in every tingling hair when something is self-evidently right or wrong?
Let the intelligentsia, who have always been perfectly content to do so, bind themselves together in endless philosophic contortions, to trip and hobble over their principled unknowingness. Let us do the real living. In every question there is a glimmer of truth, if only we weren’t so afraid of our own self-evidence and the vested human authority to govern it.