A dismissal of truth appears to be the order of the day. In 2016, for example, the illustrious Oxford English Dictionary selected “post-truth” as its word-of-the-year. The OED’s choice expresses the prevailing spirit of the time, since the former’s descriptivist approach entails that its selections are meant to reflect, and not to dictate, language usage. Since language is the means by which we communicate meanings, that “post-truth” was the word-of-the-year bears a significance beyond the mere fact of the matter. When words cease to be true, they also cease to mean.
In many ways, Friedrich Nietzsche is the prophet of the contemporary Zeitgeist. Indeed as early as 1882, Nietzsche set the clear keynote for the post-truth era with his notorious enunciation of the death of God. For Nietzsche, the death of God implied the death of truth as its necessary correlative. “What are man’s truths ultimately?” Nietzsche asks The Gay Science, “Merely his irrefutable errors.” Even if one pointed out that Nietzsche, at the very least, seems to depend on the truth of his own statement in order to meaningfully discount the truth of all other ones, still, such a logical objection has little bearing on the tenor of our present time. Indeed, this disregard for truth appears in many forms today: from populist politics to quantum mechanics. If we are to have any hope of evaluating our situation, we must ensure that we have, in the first place, understood what is meant by “truth.” In other words, we must, at the very least, understand what we mean to reject. Only then can we have any insight into the nature of the present moment, which we otherwise merely live out blindly. Let us, therefore, embark on our exploration of the question.
I. “Quid est veritas?” What is truth?
“Truth” shares an etymological root with “tree” (Old English treo or treow). This connection likely stems from prehistoric man’s experience of their shared meaning as “something one can depend on,” or “a central structure of physical-metaphysical orientation.” Thus, we should include this meaning in our concept of truth. In a separate investigation from this one, one might consider whether the etymological connection to “tree” discloses other facets of truth beyond dependability and orientation. Some ramifications of eventual discovery might include generation and corruption, participation of the seasons, speciation, orientation to heaven, or attraction to the Sun which opens the eyes of men and which is the cause of seeing, to name a few possibilities.
Returning to our own branch of inquiry, we will attempt to illuminate the essential semantic connection between “tree” and “truth” that the etymological connection indicates. We can discover the answer in pictorial form in the testimony of diverse myths and cosmological accounts from around the world. Viking culture exemplifies this connection in the being of Yggdrasil, the “World Tree,” whose form traverses and sustains the Nine Realms. The Poetic Edda presents several depictions of Yggdrasil. In the Völuspá, for instance, one can read of “the glorious tree of good measure, under the ground…”
An ash I know there stands,
Yggdrasill is its name,
a tall tree, showered
with shining loam.
From there come the dews
that drop in the valleys.
It stands forever green over
Yggdrasil also plays a crucial role in one of the most significant accounts of the Poetic Edda: Odin’s reception of the runes. One can read the following verse in the Hávamál, in which Odin All-father recounts the scene:
I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.
Odin seeks to align himself with the World Tree, and thus he hangs himself upside down. To hang oneself upside down makes intuitive sense for, as Plato observed in the Timaeus, humans are inverted plants “not of earthly, but of heavenly growth.” The human being is rooted to the world through his nerve-sense system in the same manner as the rhizomes of the tree relate it to the living Earth. Upon aligning himself with the Tree, Odin ultimately receives the knowledge of the depths: the transubstantiation of speech into symbols. It is impossible to shut one’s mind to the symbolic language of this image. The runes, of course, were the medium of written language for the pre-Christian Nordic cultures. As we indicated above, language, in turn, is the medium by which meaning is communicated. A being for which the conception of truth did not imply meaning would be a being for which the question of truth was irrelevant like a rock, or a computer. Language therefore is meaning in transmission, and verbal language is simply a codified form of what is present in all meaningful communication. Λóγος (lógos) is a more fitting term for this universal, super-linguistic language, and thus we will generally employ this term throughout the remainder of our investigation.
The Hávamál merely offers one example of an archetypal image that permeates all cultures of Indo-European origin. Pherecydes of Syros, for instance, describes as similar cosmology of the World Tree as axis mundi. Writing in the sixth century B.C., he describes the Earth as:
a winged oak, strong and mighty; its roots extended into the depths of Tartaros, its trunk was encircled by Ogenos, and its branches reached into Ouranos.*
The Katha Upanishad, which was composed in India in approximate contemporaneity with Phycydes’ writing in Greece, also invokes the World Tree for a cosmological account:
This universe is a tree eternally existing, its root aloft, its branches spread below. The pure root of the tree is Brahman, the immortal, in whom the three worlds have their being, whom none can transcend, who is verily the Self” †
Also in India, and at roughly the same time, the Palī canons relate the first accounts of Siddhartha Gautama’s enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. The Torah also famously presents a tree associated with knowledge, though in a slightly different context than the Palī scriptures. The third book of Genesis recounts that Adam and Eve both tasted of fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, “And the eyes of them both were opened.”
Given that the consumption of the forbidden fruit is a fait accompli in our post-lapsarian, post-truth era, the curiosity that motivates our exploration of the subject cannot do any harm that is not already done. Indeed, the pursuit of knowledge may even prove to be our deliverance, for though the devil first tempted the Fall, he may have been unknowingly serving as agent cause for an higher design. As Mephistopheles declares in Goethe’s Faust:
Ich bin ein Teil von jener Kraft,
Die stets das Böse will und stets das Gute schafft.
“I am part of that power which
would do forever evil and which does eternal good.” **
Thus with “eyes that [are] opened,” we will continue our investigation of truth. After a brief exposition of the mythos of truth to serve as introduction to the subject, we will continue in the next piece with an inquiry into its lógos.
* Schibli, Hermann S. (1990), Pherekydes of Syros, Oxford: Clarendon Press
† Katha Upanishad 2:3:1
** Von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Faust. Translated by A. S. Byatt. Penguin
Classics, 2005. (p. 70)