By Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
May 21, 1950
It is error alone which needs the support of government; truth can stand by itself.” So wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1782. No matter what may happen to truth–suppression, distortion, malicious misrepresentation–it can stand by itself. Whatever requires the support of authority, especially governmental authority, is surely error. If it were truth it would maintain itself without assistance. For truth needs no promotion, no safeguards and no defense. It can stand “by itself.”
Is this what Jefferson meant? I doubt it. If he had known that these particular words would be so widely and uncritically quoted, I think he would have modified them. I think he would have said that “it is error alone which needs the coercive support of government,” and that truth has no other requirement than to be made plain. Unless this was his meaning, he was imputing to truth a sort of all mightiness which experience fails to confirm. In the ultimate sense, no doubt, truth is indeed inviolable, for it stands for reality against unreality, for what is against what is not, and nothing can be done to falsify it. If it is true, for instance, that the earth rotates upon its axis and that this is why we have the alternation of night and day, it remains true quite irrespective of who believes it, and will be just as true if everybody in the world decides to doubt it. In this sense, it is quite correct that truth can stand by itself.
But this is scarcely what Jefferson had in view. He was thinking of the power of truth to get itself believed, which is another matter. Otherwise, he would not have been so vigorously concerned for freedom of expression–which he certainly was. He well knew–none better–that unless this freedom was secured, truth could be put in shackles. And he would have expected us to know it, also. He intended his words about truth standing by itself to be understood in an appropriate context. It would never have occurred to him that truth could get along without defenders, without protagonists, without friends.
What he had in mind was similar to Milton’s famous saying: “truth is strong, next to the Almighty, and needs no policies nor stratagems…those are the shifts and defenses that error uses….Whoever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” Yes, in a free and open encounter! For truth can very easily be put to the worse if it is sufficiently bound and fettered.
Both Milton and Jefferson knew this, for they had every reason to know it, and we must take them not literally but in the entire historical context in which they lived and thought. Yet when we have said this, we know that we have not quite bridged the gulf between their times and ours. We are not as confident as they were. We have seen techniques of falsification of which they had no inkling. We have watched the truth perverted in such ingenious ways, and upon so huge a scale, and so successfully, that we begin to fear that truth does need protection, and the more vigorous the better. We even wonder whether it may not need the protection of government.
What is the position of truth if all the media of communication–or almost all–are at the disposal of error? The encounter can be free and open–entirely so in the sense that truth is not being actively suppressed–and yet falsehood can have its voice magnified a million times while truth speaks only in a suffocated whisper. When these are the conditions of the free and open encounter, which will win? Truth or error? Which, that is to say, will be believed–believed by the majority?
The nearest to this situation that Milton’s imagination could have taken him must have been a contest in which truth was badly presented by inferior protagonists and all the clever people were on the other side. He certainly must have known that the struggle of truth with falsehood is not often fought out under ideal conditions. We must suppose, therefore, that he believed that even when truth is handicapped, its own intrinsic merit will carry it to triumph. We must also suppose that Jefferson thought the same thing, for he certainly had plenty of experience of how truth could be handicapped in the arena of politics.
But what would either of these men have said if they had witnessed the nazification of Germany in the 1930’s? An entire policy was based upon lies; yet, it seemed to succeed. And if it is pointed out that the success was later turned to failure, how can we answer the assertion that this was done not by the superiority of truth over falsehood but by the superiority of American industrial production over German resources? Was it a victory of truth or of overwhelming force? What certainty is there that persuasive lying is not more effective than veracity? How can we know that there is anything automatic about the victories of truth?
Moreover, the matter is not as simple as that. Truth can be made to serve the purposes of falsehood so completely that it might just as well be false itself. Tennyson describes this in two fairly well-known lines:
“That a lie which is all a lie
may be met and fought with outright,
But a lie which is part a truth
is a harder matter to fight.”
And, of course, that is the kind of lie which has proved so formidable in recent times. It has been so successful, indeed, that some quite honest people have found themselves wondering whether it might not be necessary to do a bit of lying themselves –in the cause of truth. “We, also, must be ingenious,” they have said to themselves. “We must outwit our enemies and this may mean that we must match them in prevarication and mendacity. We must be just as plausible as they are; more plausible, if possible. We must refuse to be placed at a disadvantage. For it has become obvious that telling the simple truth is just naive. It makes us sheep in the midst of wolves. We must learn to mix the false with the true, like our opponents; and if it achieves an honest purpose, what does it matter if we go them one better?”
In favor of this attitude, a good deal of testimony can be cited from our wartime experience. Anyone who took the trouble to analyze enemy propaganda, at that time, discovered quite painfully how effective it was. The distortions were not always large distortions. But they occurred day after day attached to one incident after another and their cumulative effect was very great. The German statesman, Otto von Bismarck had said many years before, “When you want to fool the world, tell the truth.” But although his successors did not entirely neglect this maxim when it suited their purposes, they felt they could improve upon it, and for a while they seemed to succeed very well.
It is beyond all question a very effective kind of propaganda. No single statement is made too strong to be plausible. The false element is often just a matter of emphasis. But it all adds up. Part of its effectiveness, of course, is that of the stage magician who directs your attention away from what he is doing. You don’t see him putting the rabbit into the hat he is going to take it out of, because he attracts your notice unexpectedly to something else.
I remember being at a dinner in New York City during the “America First” period when this technique was being applied–by our enemies and by their sympathizers in this country–to the United States public opinion before we entered the Second World War. There were a number of persons present with considerable experience of public affairs, and also a prominent sociologist. The atmosphere was extremely gloomy. How could truth prevail against the widespread and ingenious falsehoods which had undermined the national conscience and vitiated the people’s awareness of the imminence of danger and disaster? Everyone seemed doubtful that truth could prevail, and some began to wonder whether allegiance to it was not a crippling handicap. Perhaps our side should manipulate public opinion–start some rumors and distort some facts? The final decision, of course, went the other way, but I cannot deny that some of us were much dismayed when we saw how frail the arguments seemed in support of sticking to the truth.
More recently, we have seen this same technique–the distortion of truth and the pressing of it into the service of falsehoods–even more successfully carried out by the communists than it was by the Nazis. Actual facts are made the basis of persistently misleading propaganda. The real evils of American national life are so presented that a considerable number even of Americans are persuaded that we are beyond redemption. Meanwhile, attention is directed away from the evils wrought by the Soviets–just as the stage magician does it–so that the audience doesn’t see the rabbit being put into the hat. We are reminded again of Tennyson: “A lie which is all a lie may be met and fought with outright, but a lie which is part a truth is a harder matter to fight.”
It is indeed. But it is not in the least necessary to go abroad to prove it. Not all the ingenious lying comes from beyond the Iron Curtain. Nor even from communists within the democracies. Our own native demagogues are just as skillful, and equally unscrupulous. They can use the power of government–of a part of it–to impress error upon the mind of the populace, and impress it deeply. They can stay within the protection of government, sheltering themselves with immunities and privileges. They can succeed alarmingly. They can get themselves believed. Not until disaster comes need it be seen by the people that these men betrayed them.
And meanwhile, truth can stand too much alone. There can be too few defenders. Too few who undertake the difficult, patient task of discovering the truth and insisting upon telling it. It is not the case–let us understand this, and clearly–that truth can stand by itself, without support, without protagonists, without friends, and be believed. Truth can stand by itself only in the sense that whatever is true will remain true, whether it is believed or not. In this sense, truth is inviolable, incorruptible, invincible. But this is, as I said a while ago, an ultimate sense. If truth is to win its victories in the immediate, practical arena of human affairs, it must have its militant supporters. It is not enough to say that truth is mighty and will prevail. Truth is mighty, and in the end will prevail–but at what cost, and do we want to pay that cost? Is it not necessary to make truth victorious here and now while destiny is being decided? Is it not needful in all respects to make truth the very breath we breathe in every part and portion of our national life?
Again I say, truth needs friends. Not just spectators, standing hopeful on the sidelines, repeating the ancient prophecies that truth will always win. But protagonists–friends. People who enter the battle and fight with all they’ve got! People who can be angry when they hear the truth distorted! People who can call lies, lies!
Yes, but people whose anger never makes them careless. People who are patient, thoughtful, thorough, who can separate facts from falsities and weigh the import of what they read and hear. This, as it seems to me, is now a desperate need, one which should extend us to the uttermost.
I have spoken from the viewpoint of practical necessity, but this is not the only viewpoint. No one can be truly religious who is not zealous for truth. It is the obligation of religion in all respects “to bear witness to the truth.” That is the New Testament phrase: “to bear witness,” not to leave truth standing alone, without disciples and without defenders.
No one was more sure of the supremacy of truth than Jesus: he knew that in the end truth is invincible. Yet, it was because the people would not believe the truth that he wept over Jerusalem. Jerusalem would not be saved, he said. Not one stone would remain upon another. All would be destroyed–because the people would not believe the truth. Disaster would come because the truth was unbelieved and unbefriended. And disaster did come. It was on its way while Jesus was speaking, even though there were still several years to go. On its way while the Temple market greedily prospered, and the priests chanted their hollow litanies, and the politicians cheated the people–and Jesus wept.
Not that truth was being defeated. No, truth is never defeated. Those who should have been the friends of truth–it was they who were being defeated. They and the enemies of truth. For truth is stronger, and always will be, than any lie. It is stronger, no matter how persuasive, how plausible, the falsehoods and the half-truths may be. And it is stronger for a very simple reason. It is the thing in itself, the fact, that which is actually so.
Let me put it in an illustration. Suppose I am out at sea in a small boat, and a storm comes up. Perhaps I do not like the direction in which the waves are coming. Perhaps I would like to run before the waves. But the compass says that the way to where I want to go does not permit of it. Very well. All I have to do is to take a large wrench or some similar object and lay it alongside the compass. The needle will immediately swing around towards where I want it. And I can set the direction of the boat to run before the waves. Everything now is as I wish it. Except that instead of going in the direction I want to go, I am on my way to mid-ocean and complete disaster.
That is what happens when lies prevail. They only prevail in the same sense that a compass is affected by a metal object laid alongside. They prevail by misdirecting us–misdirecting us towards disaster. And this must always be so, because truth is reality. Truth is what is: and when we try to guide our lives by what is not, or by what is only partly so, we depart from reality. This means that our next contact with reality is likely to be a collision. Whoever ignores reality or misconceives it or distorts it eventually collides with it. That is the story of all the great disasters of history. It will be the same in the future.
Truth may or may not prevail in the sense of being accepted; but it will certainly prevail in the sense of destroying–sooner or later–whatever stands in its path. It will do so because truth alone is real.
Whatever betrays the truth eventually crumbles before it. We can no more build a world on lies than an engineer can build a bridge on false specifications. And it is in this sense, in this and no other, that truth is invincible.
But truth can be disbelieved. It can be disbelieved under the impact of successful lies. But it cannot be substituted for truth as an actual basis. Lies have always produced calamity and always will. Only the truth can save us. And whether we side with truth or not, only the truth in the end can be victorious. As Lowell wrote it in his well-known hymn,
“Careless seems the great Avenger:
history’s pages but record
One death-grapple in the darkness ‘twixt
old systems and the Word;
Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne–
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and,
behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping
watch above his own.”
Prayer: O God, show us that the truth we see with our eyes will never be greater than the truth we love in our hearts. Amen.