JULY 20, 2022
“The truth will set you free.” The Bible says so, and even non-believers today insist on it. They are prone to saying: If the media just told people the truth about global warming, about Russia, about Trump, then the people would understand; if we only knew the truth, we would do the right thing.
But what if truth is powerless? What if truth has little or even no impact? That is the question Hannah Arendt raises in her essay “Truth and Politics,” asking: “Is it of the very essence of truth to be impotent?”
If truth is powerless, knowing the truth will have little impact on politics. Arendt writes, “Facts and events are infinitely more fragile things than axioms, discoveries, theories.” She understands that facts can be disputed, negated, neutralized. If Putin wants to convince his people that Ukraine is run by Nazis or if China wants to deny the torture and oppression of the Uyghurs, they have it in their power to do so. Because they are contingent, because they could be otherwise, and because they have no firm foundation outside of our agreement on them, factual truths can be denied, doubted, and destroyed: “The chances of factual truth surviving the onslaught of power are very slim indeed; it is always in danger of being maneuvered out of the world not only for a time but, potentially, forever.” Facts and truths in dictatorships can be tabooed so that speaking of them will lead to punishment or worse. In totalitarian regimes, facts can be outright erased.
Even in a free country, Arendt adds, a fact can be neutered if it is transformed into one among many opinions percolating in the marketplace of ideas. President Trump can convince somewhere close to 30 percent of the population that he is the winner of the 2020 election. “While probably no former time tolerated so many diverse opinions or religious or philosophical matters,” writes Arendt, “factual truth, if it happens to oppose a given group’s profit or pleasure, is greeted today with greater hostility than ever before.”
The best way to defeat truth, Arendt teaches, is to transform facts into opinions. Russia started the war in Ukraine; yet Putin’s propagandists argue that it is NATO and not Russia that is the true aggressor. Such propaganda doesn’t deny the fact of Russian aggression, but it turns it into an opinion. Truths are deflated and rendered impotent not by outright denial, but by envelopment in lies and fantasies, in plausible alternate realities.
Yet even if truth is made powerless, it exists. Facts matter. They are real. But it is also true that facts are difficult to pin down. Lawyers, historians, and philosophers have shown that we can never fully prove or verify facts absent interpretation; all facts must be picked — some might say cherry-picked — out of the chaos of events. Yes, the earth is warming. But it depends on whether we measure it over 1,000, 100,000, or 1,000,000 years. How much and how quickly it is warming, and how important this might be, depends on the frame of analysis. The principles underlying the interpretive choices one makes are neither factual nor truthful. There is no rule for the interpretation of facts.
At the end of “Truth and Politics,” Arendt asks, “[W]hat kind of reality does truth possess if it is powerless in the public realm.” Even if truth lacks the power to change the world, the loss of truth is not inconsequential; it is, she argues, world-shattering. Arendt distinguishes in this regard between justice and truth. She introduces the Latin adage, “Fiat iustitia, et pereat mundus” (“Let justice be done though the world may perish”). The idea that we should sacrifice the world for the sake of justice is absurd, Arendt argues. What good is justice if the world ceases to be? But she then raises the question of whether the same holds for truth. Is the maxim “Fiat veritas, et pereat mundus” equally absurd? Her answer is surprising. While the world is worth preserving even without justice, “the sacrifice of truth for the survival of the world would be more futile than the sacrifice of any other principle or virtue.” Without truth, there can simply be no human world. “What is at stake is survival,” Arendt argues. “No permanence, no perseverance in existence, can even be conceived of without men willing to testify to what is, and appears to them because it is.”
We need the truth, and those who would destroy truth for political goals are left with a dilemma: even they need truth if they are to rule a world. “Persuasion and violence can destroy truth, but they cannot replace it.” And the loss of truth, Arendt writes, carries with it a threat to “the common and factual reality itself.” This danger to the common world “is indeed a political problem of the first order.”
For Arendt, since truth is powerless in politics and yet irreplaceable in a public world, our political world must preserve spaces for the appearance and securitization of truth that are outside politics. We need institutions such as law courts, newspapers, and universities that will “say what is,” will tell a story in ways that give common facts “some humanly comprehensible meaning.” In this transformation of the given raw material of sheer happenings into a common story, judges, journalists, and writers help us to reconcile with the world, confirming the “ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.”
A French version of this essay appeared in Le 1 Hebdo.
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