Afonso Cruz · Portugal

We are used to lies

I’ll start with an ancient episode that I enjoy for many reasons. It happened to philosopher who is not well known. His name is Theombrotus. As you know, Plato wrote many dialogues and Theombrotus happened to read the book entitled “Phaedo”, which is about the immortality of the soul. When he read it, the argument was so compelling that he killed himself, because he was so sure that the soul, encaged in his mortal body, was immortal. So, he jumped off a cliff and committed suicide. This episode tells us that the power of an argument – and the power of words – can make you kill yourself, or, what’s worse, kill somebody else.

This “causa finita” argument, the final argument, usually destroys every form of dialogue. It is a conclusion that usually ends with death. It’s called the Truth, and when we are certain of it, dialogue ceases because we already know everything. Nobody will be allowed to have a discordant opinion, because that opinion would be, from the perspective of the owner of the Truth, a lie.

I will read a quote by Kurt Vonnegut, a writer that I like a lot. He was always connected to science fiction. In the USA, he has his own shelf in book stores. He was very concerned about truth. He wrote this: “I thought scientists were going to find out exactly how everything worked, and then make it work better. I fully expected that by the time I was twenty-one, some scientist, maybe my brother, would have taken a colour photograph of God Almighty—and sold it to Popular Mechanics magazine. Scientific truth was going to make us so happy and comfortable. What actually happened when I was twenty-one was that we dropped scientific truth on Hiroshima.” That is a closing dialogue of an argument which ended World War II.

There is an old debate in the Catholic Church in order to decide whether the Devil should be ugly or beautiful. Since his nature is absolute evil, they decided that his appearance should be horrible, should correspond to one another, be reciprocal. We find this not true, because we all know people that may be beautiful on the outside (appearance or look) but bad on the inside and vice versa. But the Church decided that since the Devil’s nature is evil, he must also look evil.

We are very used to lies.

I have two sons. When they are drawing a railroad, they first draw an horizon line, then the railroads, always parallel – like a ladder in front of us -, stopping at the horizon. This is a naive way to draw a railroad. Later, they learnt about perspective and they started representing the railways getting together at the vanishing point. We can say this is a good representation because it’s closer to what we see. It was a “renaissance” for them. We believe that perspective is a good way for representing things, although, in reality, the railways are always parallel. We are used to the lies of our senses. In a radical empiricism, we say that “If I see it, I believe it”. In the earlier example, reality is not what we see, because the railways never touch each other. This was a problem during the Renaissance period, when they discovered perspective, because, for the ecclesiastic and medieval painters, perspective did not allow you to show the real truth, but the errors of the senses. When I draw Christ, I would draw a big sized Christ and then, when I put the apostles around him, they would be drawn smaller. This is because I am representing my inner truth: Christ is big because he is very important to me whereas the apostles are smaller because they are less important to me. If there are angels in the picture, they are even smaller than the apostles. This was the truth for a medieval painter. Using perspective, if I was painting Christ and he was far from the observer standing point, a beetle or an ant in front, would be drawn in a bigger shape and appear larger than Christ. This is similar to what we see, but the opposite of my belief and my inner truth. Since perspective represents the errors of our senses which, while helpful for our survival, can be a lie.

We are used to lies, in what we see and also in what we listen to. We always believed that truth is what we see and what we don’t see is not the truth. Actually, in society what we hide is the truth. We hide our vices and show only our virtues. It is not our truth but it is the truth that we want you to see. Everybody does that. We show something that is not coherent with our inner truth. Truth is something invisible, something that is hidden somewhere beneath the surface. We need to open that skin to see what is hidden underneath. Dialogue can be deceiving when we fool people with the way things look outside. Our way of talking and our external appearance are very useful in fooling others.

Albert Cossery, born in Egypt, wrote a book entitled: “The Colors of Infamy”, which is about a thief who dresses up like a banker and this is why he is not suspected or prosecuted, since he doesn’t look like a poor worker or a beggar: “How could they? I am wearing the finery of prosperity. They think I am rich. In their minds, only poor people are thieves. That superstition goes back to antiquity and it suits me and suits my business perfectly”. Later in the book, there is a scandal involving a Minister. It is not publicized because “Crime in high society is tolerated in every country in the world. People are accustomed to this kind of exploit. They even applaud it. In my opinion, we need to find something else, something original and above all agreeable. There is no point to give this to imbeciles. Let us keep it to ourselves”.

In fact they kept the scandal to themselves and this is what happens in our societies. This is reality. He also added that: “This easy obedience to tyrants, which often verged on devotion, always surprised him. He had come to believe that the majority of human beings aspired only to slavery. He had long wondered by what ruse this enormous enterprise of mystification orchestrated by the wealthy had been able to spread and prosper on every continent. Karamallah belonged to that category of true aristocrats who had tossed out like old soiled clothes all the values and all the dogma that these infamous individuals had generated over centuries in order to perpetuate their supremacy”. And about this devotion to some reality of garments, he ends up like this: “Accused of embezzlement and fraud of every sort, Suleyman — like all his peers — would use his honour as his unassailable alibi, asserting that at the time the criminal acts had occurred, he was in the company of his honour”. Honour, used like this, is the greatest alibi, an argument so compelling that permits everything.

In the modern world, artists think that truth must be a contradiction: each observer has his own point of view. This is what cubists were trying to accomplish when showing an object from a 360 degrees angle. Each degree shows one point of view. Each has his own version of the object that is being observed, and this is why we dialogue. With certainties we would fight, kill, or cease any form of conversation. And that is why we are still dropping the truth on Hiroshima, and in every corner of our life.