Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Aphorism for the Day (G. K. Chesterton)

This could be an unending series, because there are more aphorisms uttered by G. K. Chesterton than there are days remaining on earth to mortals like myself. Nevertheless, this one is good enough to stand all by itself:

If truth is relative, to what is it relative?

That comes from a weekly column Chesterton wrote for the London Daily News, on June 2, 1906. In nine words, it encapsulates the entire fallacy of (post)modern, subjective relativism -- such as those who want to reinterpret the truth of the Bible, in order to "adjust" it "relative" to their own desires, inclinations and lives (even with the very best of intentions).

It applies equally well to those in our country's political life who claim that the Founders expressed truths relevant only to their own time, and that the Constitution is a "living" document that must be interpreted anew by each generation. And if what the Founders embodied in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence was not any kind of "truth", but only something "relevant for their time," then forget the quaint notion that America stands for the truth. (For an example of a "relative truth" in our Constitution, good only until 1808, see how carefully Article I, Section 9 limited Congress' immediate power to address slavery.)

Whether uttered in politics or in religion -- they are the same claim, and the same same fallacy. If in doubt, reread Chesterton quote above, and try to answer his question while still making sense.


  1. The answer is that truth is relative to the Truth, and often means, "Your truth is relative to The Truth." That is, the statement "Truth is relative" means any human individual's perception of the truth is necessarily an imperfect thing, colored by experience, environment, reasoning ability, and so on. For those who don't believe in an objective Truth that really exists, it stops there. For those who believe there is a transcendant Truth that we can approach but never attain in this world, the problem becomes conforming ourselves to God to understand what is the real Truth and try to put aside anything that gets in the way of our perception of His Truth.
    The problem is that too many people stop at the "relative" part, just as too many are certain they have got the whole truth and nothing but the truth, when they are actually hung up on their own relative part.

  2. Thank you for that comment, VB. I think we are on the same page, but I am not so sure about many of our contemporaries. What a difference a century makes.

    Chesterton did not play around with capital letters, but when he used the word "truth" he clearly meant what you are calling God's Truth (logos, capital "T"), and not man's truth (little "t"). Much of today's fogging of the window (or mirror) comes from a failure to be clear in defining one's terms.

    For those who deny God's existence, truth is relative and ephemeral, because each man / woman perceives "reality" differently. And "reality" is not God, but just whatever each person thinks may be out there (in many cases, nothing). In such a world of no absolutes, there can be no Truth -- and so it is a truism to say that truth is relative. Generic man's truth is always, and by definition, relative to other humans.

    But for those whose faith is in God, Truth and God are synonymous: God cannot deceive, or lie. Men do, and so men can try to hide or dissemble the Truth. Regardless of what man does, however, Truth (God) abides, eternal and unchanging.

    As fallen beings, we must never be convinced beyond all doubt that we see or know the Truth -- that mistake simply elevates human judgment beyond all reason and human capacity. The best we can do is to be confident that Truth is there, eternal and unchanging, waiting for us to discover / uncover it through our faith in its existence and in its unfaltering essence.

    That is what made his faith so exciting and fulfilling for Chesterton: every new day was a chance to see some of the Truth, and to test what he believed he saw on previous days, whether that test came through encounters with other individuals, or events in his life, or just the sight of a bird perching on a fencepost. For him, Truth was unfailingly exhilarating. Pity, then, and pray for those for whom truth is all they want or ever will have.

  3. Chesterton here poses two big questions: If... and What...

    Keep 'em coming, A.S.

  4. No truth is relative unless it has children, with bewildered looks, standing behind the speaker. Lacking children, a group of labour union officials will do.

    If truth is relative to some and not relative to others, we can just vote "present", until whatever election is coming, passes on by.

    Life, music, the planets, the breakdown of a person's health, the health of a culture, and so many other things point to the fact that a stricter interpretation of the truth as derived from the scriptures is a better guide for human activity than something more permissive of human interpretation and will of the moment.

    Truth is a lighthouse on a firm rock, not a roller skate in the dark on the staircase.

    El Gringo Viejo