Socrates: should politicians tell the truth?

A: Should our politicians tell the truth Socrates?

S: An important question. Can we be sure we know what truth is?

A: Perhaps not. But if we don’t know the truth, then can we ever know if someone is lying. And if we can’t know a lie from the truth, we will never be able to hold our politicians accountable for what they say and do.

S: Then let us ask a different question. Is it right for politicians to lie?

A: Many years ago you said it was. Leaders could lie if it was in the public interest.

S: They could create myths that would support social justice, yes.

A: The modern city still likes its myths Socrates.

S: Who creates them?

A: People in power who want to preserve their power, and people who want to undermine them and take power for themselves.

S: And are they doing this in the public interest?

A: No. They are acting put of self-interest, or sectional interest.

S: How do they spread these myths?

A: In the modern world they have technology that invades people’s lives and minds.

S: With what kind of content?

A: Content that tries to give fear and anger a justification.

S: What do you mean?

A: I mean that, out of self-interest, people create myths that will explain the world to others by means of lies. The lies begin by justifying people’s anger and giving it a seemingly rational explanation. This justification and this rationality then grow and spread until they have provided a whole and complete picture of social life in their own image. Each lie explains another lie, and so on, until we have a house of cards.

S: What is the glue that holds the lies together?

A: Conspiracy.

S: Why?

A: Because it fills in all the gaps. It is a total explanation. Within it, the first small lies are wholly protected by the huge lies. And the huge lies become one big lie.

S: So the whole picture is a lie.

A: And most worryingly, within this total viewpoint, the lie is now used to judge truth and error.

S: The lie decides what is true.

A: Exactly.

S: You asked if our leaders should tell the truth. Given that they are in the total lie, might they think they are telling the truth, not realizing that they are captive to the lie?

A: More likely they pretend they don’t know and live in this intrigue. They know the lie serves them.

S: Is there an idea of truth left that is outside the lie, and which could oppose it?

A: The intriguers are cleverer than that Socrates. For these liars everyone else is lying. There is no truth left that does not live within the lies.   

S: Is it the case that politics in the city is just a battle between parties that accuse each other of the big lie?  

A: Viewed somehow from above, yes, I suppose it is. Each side believes truth is battling with the lies of their opponents.

S: So, when you ask should our leaders tell the truth, they all claim they are!

A: Yes.

S: Can that be true?

A: I suppose that if truth is objective, then no, it can’t be. We ought to be able to decide which are the real truths and which are the lies. For example, either someone did the thing they are accused of, or they didn’t. But if truth is only subjective, then truth can be different for everyone. Perhaps they did the thing they are accused of but don’t think they did anything wrong. Perhaps they believe they were badly advised, and that it wasn’t their fault. Perhaps they fall back on the big lie and just repeat that their accusers are lying.

S: What about evidence?

A: Perhaps within the big lie evidence can be dismissed as merely the lies of opponents.

S: And if the idea of objective evidence is lost?

A: Then the liars have a free hand.

S: And this would be an example of the death of the idea of universal truth.

A: Everyone claims the validity of their own view of truth. There is no universality any more.

S: Perhaps that is a universality, but of a new and different kind?

A: What do you mean?

S: The new universality that you have just mentioned is that there is no universality at all.

A: And many believe that too, Socrates. Many believe that the way to avoid the battles of big lies is to reject all claims to universal truth.

S: What is left?

A: Stories and styles, none of which can claim superiority. 

S: So, given all this, what do you now think? Should leaders tell the truth?

A: Yes. But I no longer know how it can be done.

S: Let’s try a different approach to the problem. Where can truth still be sought, even if it is not universal?

A: I don’t know. Perhaps in what people say?

S: You mean that we can still test truth in whether people mean what they say?

A: Yes. We can see if they are lying by holding them accountable to what they say. But why does what we say matter? Why is it a touchstone for truth when all other touchstones seem to be crumbling away?

S: When we speak, what happens?

A: Breath comes out of our mouths.

S: What shape does the breath take?

A: The shape of the sound of words.

S: Is breath another word for soul?

A: It has been

S: So, our words are shapes that our soul takes when the soul is moved from inside us to outside us.

A: You mean that words are how we put our deepest parts of ourselves into the world?

S: Yes.

A: So, we are our words?

S: Yes. When we speak we are putting ourselves out there in the world of other people.

A: So, if our words are true then they are the truth of the soul who speaks them.

S: And if they are lies?

A: Then I suppose our words create a separation between the inner soul and its outer life.

S: Might we now say what we think truth is?

A: In this case, truth is when there is no gap between who we are and what we say. We are the truth of our words, and our words are the truth of our selves.

S: Can we now ask that out leaders tell the truth?

A: We can. We can ask that they mean what they say. This would be the test of truth.

S: We may not agree with what they say?

A: Indeed. But we can trust what they say, and that makes conversation possible!

S: Why?

A: Because the conversation is based on integrity.

S: Will this necessarily lead to agreement on everything?

A: Absolutely not.

S: And what of the person who chooses to lie with his words?

A: I am not sure.

S: Might it be that the soul who lies is the soul who does not care about himself?

A: In what way?

S: If the words are not the man, then is that because there is really no man here to speak of? The words are empty because they contain no substance. This man has no truth to himself and therefore no truth to speak of.  

A: Such a man has no integrity?

S: None at all. The liar is unattached to himself because there is nothing for the words to attach to. He has no continuity between the inner and the outer. He can be all things to all people. He has no self to offend. He has no truth to speak.

A: And he makes a good politician! He can tell everyone what they want to hear.

S: Such is politics!

A: But if we are saying that truth is about meaning what you say, then truth is just about sincerity, not about facts.

S: Rather than try to define facts separate from the work of speaking truthfully, might we instead let facts speak in or perhaps speak to the gap between what is said and is done?

A: Can you give me an example.

S: The world has seen genocide.

A: It has. But some deny this.

S: Then let the truth of the voice of its victims be the facts that fill the space of untruth between the words and the soul of the deniers.

A: You mean, let fact be found in the truth of integrity, and let falsehood be exposed in the lack of integrity.

S: That is a good way of putting it.

A: But the lying politician or leader seems to get away with it.

S: This might be for many reasons. Perhaps people do not care enough about sincerity or integrity in their own lives to worry about it in their leaders? Or perhaps the lying leaders are able to control the ways in which they will held be accountable, always holding the powerless in the same contempt that they hold for the truth of themselves. But there might also be another reason.   

A: What is that?

S: He may be trained or even gifted in the arts of using words to maintain the separation of inner and outer self while appearing otherwise.

A: You mean he may be a brilliant public speaker?

S: Indeed, he may be an orator who understands the art of persuasion.

A: Persuasion can be good? It can be how people are inspired to build or to change their societies for the better.

S: Persuasion is always from the outside. Its truth comes to us from others, and seeks to find a way into us, so that their words might become our words.

A: And then, when we repeat those words as our own, we have been persuaded.

S: But if the words spoken with such flourish are intended to hide the lies, then the art of persuasion is the art of turning the inner corruption of one soul into the public life of many souls. 

A: What is the defence against this dark art?

S: As always, the defence is truth. Our own words must be our own truth, not that of others. And that, in turn, requires us all to be examining our own relation with truth. If the integrity of another helps us to find our own integrity, that is truly inspiring. But we must learn to distinguish the empty bluster of the man without integrity from the quiet yet still powerful words of the true voice.

A: So truth does not depend on the content, just on integrity? As long as the speaker believes what he is saying, he is telling the truth as he sees it?

S: No. Truth is not a means or a tool. Truth demands that content hold itself accountable to itself. Such self-accountability is already a different kind of leader and a different kind of politician.   

A: So integrity is its own content.

S: That is what the city must learn. That is how the city must judge its leaders and hold them accountable. That is how disagreements in the city can trust each other and speak to each other.  That is how all our differences can learn to live with themselves.

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