Truth is Misery

January 26, 2017

The response I’ve seen since Trump has taken office is worrying. From the left you get a blend of legitimate worry, virtue signaling, and overreaction. From the Trump-supporting right I’ve seen mostly gloating. The media is loving all of the attention and I can’t help but be weary of it all.

Maybe I’m spending too much time on facebook (I certainly am), and while part of me suspects I should be glad that I have a social media contact base that is generally knowledgeable and passionate about politics, I’m not.

Warning: I’m going to sound extremely pessimistic and negative in this post. I think I’m right, though. Prove me wrong.

When it comes to politics, cultural issues, etc. we can hope that everyone is trying to at least marginally pursue truth, goodness, and otherwise virtuous paths . Obviously this is not true, as there are many out there who use politics entirely as a means to a selfish end (see: people who create websites designed to spread lies to make a quick buck) but maybe I can think it is for the people who will read this post. There’s a starting ground we should be able to agree on: truth and goodness are good.

Ok now for some ostensibly disparate arguments that my sleep deprived mind can’t properly organize. Hopefully it comes together in the end.

  1. Even just and wise policies are necessitated by evil

One of the most striking passages from Augustine’s City of God, that I think about frequently, is about the wise judge (Book XIX, Chapter 6).

“What shall I say of these judgments which men pronounce on men, and which are necessary in communities, whatever outward peace they enjoy? Melancholy and lamentable judgments they are, since the judges are men who cannot discern the consciences of those at their bar, and are therefore frequently compelled to put innocent witnesses to the torture to ascertain the truth regarding the crimes of other men.”

Ignore the torture part, and think about the general principle. Even my anarcho-capitalist friends presumably believe in some kind of system of justice, even if it’s not part of a government, persay. Even in such a theoretical voluntarily-joined court system, there are significant opportunity costs–the time and money that must be devoted to the system itself, and most importantly, the existence of human error:

“And what is still more unendurable—a thing, indeed, to be bewailed, and, if that were possible, watered with fountains of tears—is this, that when the judge puts the accused to the question, that he may not unwittingly put an innocent man to death, the result of this lamentable ignorance is that this very person, whom he tortured that he might not condemn him if innocent, is condemned to death both tortured and innocent.”

I suppose the pragmatic person might say that while even a great system of justice can’t be perfect, we can still have hope in that it could be worse. I sympathize more with Augustine’s feelings on the matter:

“These numerous and important evils he does not consider sins; for the wise judge does these things, not with any intention of doing harm, but because his ignorance compels him, and because human society claims him as a judge. But though we therefore acquit the judge of malice, we must none the less condemn human life as miserable. And if he is compelled to torture and punish the innocent because his office and his ignorance constrain him, is he a happy as well as a guiltless man? Surely it were proof of more profound considerateness and finer feeling were he to recognize the misery of these necessities, and shrink from his own implication in that misery; and had he any piety about him, he would cry to God ‘From my necessities deliver Thou me.’

  1. War and conflict are inherently lamentable

In the following chapter Augustine discusses even larger conflicts: the wars and violence between and within nations. I think there’s a particularly (but not exclusively) American application to be found here, insofar as we as a country enjoy glorifying the heroics of war and violence; it’s part of our national identity. Again, we see that the goodness to be found in the just war, the just response to violence and hostility is a relative and hollow goodness:

“For though there have never been wanting, nor are yet wanting, hostile nations beyond the empire, against whom wars have been and are waged, yet, supposing there were no such nations, the very extent of the empire itself has produced wars of a more obnoxious description—social and civil wars—and with these the whole race has been agitated, either by the actual conflict or the fear of a renewed outbreak. If I attempted to give an adequate description of these manifold disasters, these stern and lasting necessities, though I am quite unequal to the task, what limit could I set? But, say they, the wise man will wage just wars. As if he would not all the rather lament the necessity of just wars, if he remembers that he is a man; for if they were not just he would not wage them, and would therefore be delivered from all wars. For it is the wrongdoing of the opposing party which compels the wise man to wage just wars; and this wrong-doing, even though it gave rise to no war, would still be matter of grief to man because it is man’s wrong-doing. Let every one, then, who thinks with pain on all these great evils, so horrible, so ruthless, acknowledge that this is misery. And if any one either endures or thinks of them without mental pain, this is a more miserable plight still, for he thinks himself happy because he has lost human feeling.”

  1. Navigating the complexities of our existence on this flawed world is hard

I’m not talking about the inherent physical and emotional pains of existence here, but the mental existence we have of people trying to find the goodness and truth potentially within our grasp. This is hard, hard work that I almost always fail at. Discussion and debate, something I value tremendously, still fall prey to the problem of Augustine’s just war. Even a mutually beneficial discussion between two people is necessitated by the relative lack of knowledge pre-discussion. We are all frequently wrong, ignorant, and blinded by our own hubris and biases. Confirmation bias is an extremely powerful psychological force, and we must be vigilant to combat it at every corner. In this sense we are at war against our own minds.

All of this necessitates a profound level of humility and doubt. The best we can hope to achieve here is but a glimpse of the truth. Growing up in the Church I heard the word “conviction” a lot, and I always hated it. Those who were “convicted” of a belief or a course of action wielded the word like a shield against criticism or humility; they seemed to corrupt a good thing. Even so, to be convicted towards goodness–think those who fight slavery or other evils in this world–is undoubtedly noble. But again, these noble convictions only exist because of the horrible evil they fight against. This is all so humbling.

  1. I am intensely lazy

I’ve spoken against virtue signaling a couple of times already, but I have to admit that I cannot deny that writing this is that very act. On the other hand, I genuinely think that I am sharing, if even in the most minute and insignificant way, some semblance of truth here, even if tainted by my medically-diagnosed depressed mind. Of course, saying this might also be virtue-signaling.

To the point–the only thing in my life I have been even remotely successful at has been debate. I think I can accurately say that I have a quicker mind than most. I also enjoy mental pursuits quite a bit. On the other hand I am an incredibly lazy person, and I battle with that every day of my life. I try to write more often, to do more productive things with my life, but it’s extremely difficult. One area where I have some success in overcoming that laziness is in my attempts to have a disciplined mind. By that I mean that I try very very hard to understand my own biases, areas of pride, ignorances, etc. and I attempt to shape the way I speak and interact with people with all of that information in mind.

I fail constantly, but sometimes I succeed, which is more than I can say for many other areas of my life.

The point here is that I hope very much that this is actually a strength of mine that is valuable to others. That’s the justification I’ve given to myself for this post.

  1. Hope is not absent, it’s somber

I think Augustine is accurate when he talks about the pains and miseries in the ‘City of Man’. In his uniquely Neo-Platonian way he understands the limitations of this world–as something good, but deeply corrupted. What do we hope for in this world? A sliver of light. And even that is a gift. What do we ultimately hope for? Redemption and deliverance. Again I think I display my oddities here, but I never understood the way many people feel joy when faced with the truth of the gospel. I have never experienced the emotion as one of pure happiness and positivity. I feel it deep in my gut, as a punch to my pride and a recognition of my failures. Despite those things, I am loved. Despite.

I’m not saying this is the way Jesus’ sacrifice ought to be felt or experienced, it’s merely my experience, but I think (I hope) it’s based in, a very small way, some kind of truth about our sins and God’s great salvation. I hope it helps illustrate what I find so compelling in the Augustine passages.

How do I wrap these thoughts up into something coherent? Let’s see if I can:

-The world is deeply corrupted, and much of the good we can hope to achieve is only because of that corruption.

-If the way you react to political/social issues in the world makes you feel good, vindictive, or angry in that kind of “oh yeah I’ve got some righteous anger here to spew” way, you should probably take a deep internal look at your motives and your commitment to truth and impacting the people around you positively.

-I am a failure at all of this, but I hope to improve.

-The City of Man will never satisfy us, but there is hope.

“For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

-1 Corinthians 13: 9-12

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