32. Truths against Opinions

We are accustomed to the word ‘truth’ and use it easily, without thinking about its true meaning. ‘Truths’ are everywhere: truths of mathematics, physics, religious and moral truths. Every ‘truth’, as we understand it, is opposed by some falsehood; all we have to do is make the right choice.

How did this understanding of ‘truth’ enter our mental life, and what should we do with it?

1. Belief in truth revealing itself in history

All peoples have known the tales of a golden age succeeded by a silver age, etc.; but one day a contrary notion appeared: that history is a battle between the forces of good and evil, the tension between which keeps growing until it reaches a certain point, beyond which is the final battle and the triumph of the righteous, the ‘perfect state’, the kingdom of truth. In a re-faced form and under the name of the philosophy of progress, this schema is familiar to us. ‘Truth’, asserts this philosophy, ‘reveals itself in history’.

Another branch of the philosophy of progress is the so-called ‘historical thinking’, for which one epoch ‘naturally and necessarily’ and ‘regularly’ follows from another. ‘Historicism’ does not understand the place of the arbitrary in history. For it, tomorrow is always better than the present day, and even more so than yesterday. As Pavel Muratov wrote:

‘Born and raised on the soil of centuries of Christian culture, we are born and raised as “historical beings”. We accept with such ease the ideas of all progress — scientific, social, moral — because the origin of the idea of progress is fundamentally Christian. The course of time, therefore, always appears to us as the participation of some higher beginning in our lives. No matter what our personal experience says, we cannot part with the feeling of a certain holiness of any “tomorrow”’.

Historicism, firstly, believes that the past ceased to exist because it was ‘bad’. Secondly, and this follows from the first, it sees in all historical changes for the worse ‘punishment’, i. e. moral judgement. Thirdly, he sees all novelty as solely and inevitably following from the state of things that preceded it. He does not see that from every present follows simultaneously a whole series of possible ‘futures’. From the belief that failure in earthly affairs is necessarily a ‘punishment’, follows unlimited materialism, i. e. the belief that earthly prosperity is a measure of morality, a reward for praiseworthy behaviour. Hence the materialism of the Old Testament…

2. One Truth

Historicism and the philosophy of progress, like all living and active worldviews of our day, are descendants of Christianity. Greco-Roman paganism did not know them. The idea of an exclusive truth was alien to the Hellene. He had opinions about the gods, but there was no one ‘one true’ theology; as for nature, different explanations argued with each other, and none claimed to be ‘the one’. The ancient world, hungry for knowledge, went from one source of wisdom to another until it came upon one that proclaimed the ‘one truth’ that cancelled all others. He was, you might say, ruined by Plato and curiosity. (Plato, it should be noted, realised the difficulty of his task, saw that without pious deceit and violence ‘one truth’ could not be planted, and therefore proposed the planting of a false memory of the never-been past, the banishment of poets.)

Not knowing the ‘one’ exclusive truth, the Greeks did not know atheism either. (Unless you count the non-recognition of certain — more often new — deities, which was then understood under this word.) Atheism in the world as we know it is forged by the Christian worldview, its claim to know the only truth. ‘Godless’ people in our day deny not so much the world’s mystery as the only understanding of it permitted by the dominant religious worldview. As for the world’s mystery, it is felt by a not so small number of people. Even Chekhov felt it — though he did not go further than this feeling. ‘Atheists’ would be fewer if they were not multiplied by the famous: ‘Cursed is anyone who thinks and believes otherwise’, because it is easier for a person to admit that he is cursed than to give up freedom of opinion.

This last is reminiscent of the questioning of Dostoevsky, who is generally regarded as a ‘Christian thinker’. However, in a bona fide Christian era, Dostoevsky would have been impossible — or would have ended up in a remote monastery, exiled ‘for repentance’.

Christianity presupposes communion with the One Truth, hence excludes reasoning and doubt. Dostoevsky can be imagined only on the outskirts of the Christian world. The same can be said of Clive S. Lewis. Lewis is too Christian for the 20th century, but to any truly Christian age he would seem too free-thinking. In truly ecclesiastical soil, ‘questions’ do not grow. ‘Christian philosophy’ is a sign of the decline of the Christian worldview.

3. Truths against opinions

What is an ‘opinion’? A private belief based on experience that does not exclude the existence of other beliefs. What is ‘truth’? The object of belief, in other words, ‘the one true opinion to the exclusion of all others’. Where ‘truth’ is nestled, thought has no place. As soon as we begin to think, faith is replaced by a degree of certainty.

Contrary to popular belief, ‘science’, i. e. the knowledge of the world by means of technology, does not deal with ‘truths’. In any field, only the above-mentioned ‘degrees of certainty’ are available to the human mind. ‘Scientific truth’ is most often an abbreviation for ‘a temporarily convenient assumption supported by available experience’. But assumptions become ‘truths’ every day. Everything in the hands of men brought up by Christianity, but left not so long ago without its guidance, becomes a religion, and a religion of a certain spirit: zealous, exclusive.

Fiodor Stepun wrote about it:

‘In the disease of the world is guilty not of science as such, which even before the 17th century blossomed in the West, but its excess of its competence, its wrongful desire to replace the faith. It is not science, therefore, that is a danger to culture, but religiously coloured scientism, the transformation of science into a kind of comprehensive integral worldview that cancels faith’.

The transformation of science into a religious worldview does not occur, of course, by itself. It has two reasons: firstly, the deep, in generations acquired religious education given by Christianity. Secondly, the natural human tendency to turn everyday habits, preferences, and customs into objects of faith.

‘Truths’ warm the personality, connect it to something eternal and infinite and, worse, in a reflected way elevate personal self-esteem. ‘It doesn’t matter how we act, it matters what we believe’. Dickens’s Mr. Pecksniff is an example of an individual who feeds off his truths, and yet does not share them in the slightest.

We have little or no ability to evaluate ourselves other than by the values we accept. This is the moral side of the question. The man of science, who places the altar of ‘truth’ where there should be a modest room for opinions, suffers from this ‘truth’ in another way. The unrecognised side of his personality craves religion (and religion of the Christian kind, i. e. exclusive and zealous) — and obeying it, he turns everything into religion. The disputes between Christians and ‘scientific believers’ are proof of this.

There have been many attempts to free oneself from the power of ‘truths’, and they have all ended in failure. If John St. Mill taught: there are no truths, only opinions, his modern heir teaches about true opinions. Liberation from the power of ‘truths’ has not happened. The motto of ‘tolerance and freedom of opinion’ no longer means anything in the West, where it came from. The alliance between admirers of Mill and admirers of Marx was short-lived. Mill’s ‘right to personal uniqueness’ becomes an obligation before our eyes — and uniqueness is prescribed for the masses as one for all, regardless of faces. Socialism proved to be stronger than Mill’s dreams. In the same way, the power called ‘science’ once rebelled against the truths of the Church in order to gain the right to say: ‘unscientific’ in the sense of ‘false;’ ‘science’ became synonymous with ‘truth’, which, of course, is completely ‘unscientific’.

There is something unhealthy in our relationship with ‘truths’. We realise — at least from time to time — that ‘truths’ cripple the mind and life, and at the same time we are unable to do without them. Every opinion we have degenerates into a ‘truth’, one might say. The educational machine of modern society particularly encourages that mindset which — for its own peace of mind — needs ‘truths’. ‘If there is no God’, exclaimed that hero of Dostoevsky, ‘how can I be a captain?’ Even this insignificant captaincy we want to make into a ‘truth’, whereas it is merely a useful establishment.

To us Russians, ‘truths’ are especially dear… And after all, the 20th century should have instilled in us a fear of them, as well as of all ‘universality’, ‘oneness’, ‘exclusivity’. The ‘general’ (‘universal’), the ‘only-true’ already used to be at enmity with the private, local, personal. Thus Christianity (‘universal’) once suppressed the understandings of the divine (‘private’) peculiar to individual nations. This is how the ‘power of reason’ in the 18th century brought a new universal unity to the peoples, against which Romanticism (defence of the private, local, personal) soon rebelled. The onslaught of the One in the 20th century was seemingly irresistible, but it too became exhausted in order to be reborn in a new movement.

The modern European-American is by nature a ‘universalist’, an admirer of unity and exclusivity. He does not like it when other people live and especially think in their own way. The thought of a culture based on truths from different sources; on truths accepted at different times and to different degrees — scares him. Such a culture is possible. This is how the ancient world lived, and in its place, at the cost of destruction and simplification, Christian Europe was built; and to some extent — enough to flourish despite internal contradictions — this is how Modern Europe was. The 19th century was great because it was able to draw on different truths at different times, I have said this before. But it was tormented by a painful longing for simplicity, unity, a single foundation — out of which came the all-destroying Russian ‘new order’, European science with its ‘last truths’… The German New Order, unlike the Russian one, grew up on Romantic soil. Nothing universal is inherent in it from the beginning. However, its exclusively moral approach to things that do not tolerate moral judgements, makes it akin to Class Socialism and the common ancestor of all ‘true worldviews’: The Old Testament. [1]

Where there is ‘universalism’, there is intolerance. Tolerance is peculiar to the local, the ‘pagan’; the pagan realises that the gods are the same for everyone, but are called by different names. Universalism assumes that there is one truth and many delusions.

The fervour of the convert also plays a large part in the acceptance of ideas and opinions as ‘truths’. Modern man comes to the mental baggage acquired in higher education from an almost complete emptiness: it is not surprising that he perceives everything new for himself religiously. This misplaced religiosity could have been avoided. He is, let us say, introduced to the fruits of mental labour in a ready-made form, without first having been taught the labour itself, without having been shown that its fruits are in any case contingent, local and temporary, worthy of reasonable certainty but not of faith.

If we cannot free ourselves from faith, we must at least learn to believe different truths in different circumstances, as our predecessors were able to do.

Huib Versnel says of the Hellenes:

‘Ancient Greeks particularly in the field of religion or philosophy of life displayed a disquieting capacity to validate two (or more) dissonant, if not contradictory, representations as being complementary rather than mutually exclusive. They not only accept the validity of either one in its own right, but also allow them to co-exist in such a smooth and seemingly unreflected manner that it often shocks the modern mind’.

Indeed: the modern mind seeks simplicity, unity, one source for everything. The Reformation is not unreasonably called a simplifying reaction within Christianity in favour of the Old Testament. Simplification, subordination to a single truth — something similar happened in the 20th century. The 19th century was still able to live with separate sources of truths: science, morality, religion, poetic feeling drank from different sources. The 20th century wanted simplicity, unity, poverty. However, its very ‘achievements’ are such that they kill any possibility of a simple and integral explanation of world events.

Again quoting Versnel’s words:

‘The suggestion that “the government of one omnipotent god” should be relatively more transparent than a regime of many gods is at least open to discussion. Even the most superficial acquaintance with the recent debate among Christian theologians on the notions of monotheism, theodicy, and omnipotence suffices to elucidate that things are just a bit more complicated than that. […] In contemporary Christian theology the division of theodicy is by far the most endangered of the whole concern, in fact it is close to bankruptcy and runs a fair risk of being closed down in the near future’.

Which is not surprising. To explain the events that followed the collapse of the Old World on the basis of the recently accepted view of the world as a rational enterprise with a single Master is extremely difficult. Either the search for meaning must be abandoned (as some minds have done), or it must be sought in another direction.

What is the mind to do? What worldview is possible for those who do not despair in the search for meaning, and at the same time do not find this meaning where their predecessors sought it?

4. Mind and mystery

Worldviews can be roughly divided into ‘open’ and ‘closed’ ones. An open worldview assumes that the visible and cognisable world is only a small part of the ‘world in general’; it recognises the world’s mystery and speaks calmly of its inability to know the world completely; it is characterised by humility. The closed worldview believes that the world is cognitively small and uncomplicated; that everything has already been learnt, only certain particulars remain. From this fundamental division follows a secondary one. The open world-view recognises the existence of gods or God; the closed one sees in the world only one’s own mind and and the store of dead things illuminated by its light. The attitude to religion, the ability to have religion, is derived from the attitude to the cognitive faculty of reason — and belief or disbelief in the inexhaustibility of the world.

Materialism is at war not with gods but with the sense of mystery. Any explanation, however obviously foolish, is better than the mystery of being. The supposedly ‘scientific’ passion for simplifications defeats and destroys everything, because for every phenomenon it is possible to find an extremely simple and, accordingly, extremely false, but ‘scientific’ explanation. ‘Scientific’ in this case is considered to be the absence of a mystery that soothes the researcher’s soul, or rather, the appearance of its absence achieved at the cost of pretensions and conjectures. The mechanistic worldview does not ‘solve’ the question of man, but only drives underground those parts of the human being that cannot be expressed flat-rationally, i.e. through simple schemas. Thinking must strive for clarity, but it still feeds from dark roots that cannot be cut off or deprived of nourishment with impunity.

In turn, any religion begins with the recognition that the world is not exhausted by what is commonly called ‘nature’; that ‘nature’ is only tucked into something greater. The name of this greater is mystery. Perhaps — not indifferent to man. He can call out to it and receive an answer from it.

Our days are so mentally shallow because they are bogged down in ‘nature’ and unable to take a step further. They do not realise that nature is not the whole, but only that part of it which can be perceived and investigated. Limitless trust in natural science, which supposedly gives the last truth about the world, is, in short, limitless trust in our senses and methods of enquiry. However, it has long been known that the power of science lies in the fact that it asks nature only those questions to which it can answer. Everything else is in the realm of mystery.

5. Search for small meanings

What is left for a person who does not want to accept a ‘closed’ worldview? I will say: the search for small meanings.

Not only are we not able, but we should not give up private truths. However, we should be able, in view of the many layers of the world and life, to be guided in different cases by different truths. Neither a mechanical understanding of man nor a religious understanding of mechanisms — I take the extreme cases — will do us any good. Doubt and experience are useful to us in all circumstances; he who doubts only in religion will be a believer only in science.

The world is layered and there are different forces at different levels. Having lost the Christian all-explaining faith, we dream of a new, equally universal worldview, and we find it in Marxism or Freud. However, we have to assume that we will never have any ‘key to the mysteries of the universe’; this key is a product of Christian or, later, scientific (science-believing) imagination. It follows, then, that we will never have the ‘one truth’ either.

If we want to understand life with the help of another ‘system’, we will have wasted our time. It is time for small truths — opinions verified by experience. The search for small truths in a time of universal loss of meaning is the spiritual adventure available to us, and I find it quite exciting. This ‘cultivation of meanings’ is a difficult, almost impossible endeavour these days because of the common belief in the meaninglessness of the world and of life.

Philosophy is above all the teaching of the meanings of things. The philosopher speaks of meanings, not of studying other people’s writings; the one who studies is engaged in the history of philosophy, which should not be confused with the subject it studies. There are too many studying ones these days. Someone should go back to the basics: consistently clearing away the rubble of thought left by the 19th and 20th centuries, both the deliberate lies of the ‘new order’ and the unresolved questions posed in the Old World. It takes inner labour to abandon ‘conventional truths’ and to arrive at new values through the search for small meanings, but inner labour is restless and does not promise noisy success, and is therefore undesirable.

The basics of this creative labour, i.e. that labour which is not directed towards external goals, which does not seek approval, which is done by the mind and soul for the mind and soul in the first place, i.e. purely internal labour, we need to learn again.

[1] The romance of ‘blood and race’ is characteristic of all Europe in the 19th century. In Russia it is ‘Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka’, Slavophilism, the triumph of ‘ethnic’  (‘popular’) over ‘national’ during the last reigns… When National Socialism won, ‘blood and race’ was already a relic of the past century. It could not count on widespread world support — precisely because it looked backwards and dreamed of the past, it had the 19th century as its spiritual home. An ‘ideal past’ did not excite the minds of the people of the 20th century as much as an ‘ideal future’.

Romanticism — attention to roots and the past, to the local and the peculiar; a reaction against the universalism of the 18th century. If national (‘pagan’) religions had not been so ruthlessly exterminated by Christianity, Romanticism would have had a pagan colouring. German Socialism was coloured in Romantic colours, just as Russian Socialism was coloured in Populist colours. Moreover: it can be said of the rule of the Socialists in Russia that it was directed against everything valuable from the point of view of Romanticism, namely, roots, traditions, peculiarities. The onslaught of Class Socialism was egalitarian in its basis.

Timofey Sherudilo.
From the book Twilight Time.

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