By Sam Magavern


The Montréal Review, January 2024


Scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Titania and Bottom (1848-51) by Edwin Landseer (National Gallery of Victoria)


It seems like an opportune time to be talking about truth. According to the Washington Post Fact Checker team, during the four years of his presidency, Donald Trump made 30,573 false or misleading claims. He lied an average of six times a day in his first year. By his fourth year, he was up to 49 lies per day. And, of course, that’s just his public utterances. Who knows how many more times he lied in unreported statements?

Two things strike me about what the Post calls a “tsunami of untruths.” First is the fact that, far from proving a liability, incessant lying is one of the primary keys to Trump’s astonishing political success. Second is that, for his lies to succeed, he needs a huge infrastructure of support from conservative media, social media platforms, allies, and supporters willing to believe his lies, or, what is much worse, to repeat and amplify them knowing them to be false. In other words, Trumpist lying is much more than a personal failing; it is integral to a powerful network of contemporary institutions.

This sustained assault on truth requires all of us to respond with vigorous civic and political action. One way to begin is to think hard about what the word “truth” means and enter into conversations with each other about a value that is universally respected and yet constantly contested. In this essay, I’ll explore what “truth” means to me, in hopes that you will find a little food for your own reflections and discussions.

Let me start with a very rough definition. By “truth” I mean something like “accurate perception and understanding.” By “accurate” I mean something that:

  • can’t be proven wrong by providing better evidence or demonstrating internal contradictions;
  • accords with my understanding of related phenomena; and, in most cases,
  • has been confirmed or at least supported by experience – mine or other people’s.  

Some things are easier to categorize as true or false than others. Take the definition of truth I just offered. Is it true? Yes, in the sense that I have not mistaken “truth” for a different word, like “potato.” Yes, in the sense that my description is, I hope, relatively coherent. But my definition of “truth” is not true in the way that a definition of water as H2O is true. Truth is a word and a concept, not a thing. It is composed not of atoms but of meanings. Imagine that we collect what every person in the world understands by truth, parse out the clearly mistaken versions, and write them in a book. Unfortunately, by the time we’ve compiled them, many people will have changed their minds, died, or been born. Concepts have lives; they refused to become dry-mounted specimens.

I don’t claim that my working definition of truth is universal, exhaustive, or timeless. Perhaps the most important thing is what it excludes: certainty. When it comes to our most important concepts, certainty is a red herring. We can discuss concepts only with words, and words, unlike numbers, have multiple, shifting meanings. We can’t observe a concept in controlled, repeated experiments. Since truth is an abstract concept – made by the ever-shifting population of people who use it – it means different things in different contexts. In what follows, I’ll discuss what truth means to me in the contexts of science, history, art, religion, philosophy, and daily life.

In science, truth tends to mean verifiability: if something is true, we should be able to observe it happen the same way each time conditions recur.

In history, nothing happens the same way twice, so scientific truth is impossible. Instead, history deals with three different levels of truth. First, history asks the question, what really happened? Who fired the gun that killed the king? If I can gain enough reliable data, I may reach a truth not that far from scientific certainty. But history goes on to ask the question, why did it happen? Why did he fire that gun? Was he an isolated madman, or was he expressing widespread popular rage? Here, I am trying to identify causes and effects in a somewhat scientific way, but certainty is impossible. Human motivations, especially those of far-off or dead people, can’t be completely pinned down. I have to be satisfied with probability. 

Finally, history asks the question, what does it mean to us? Why should we care about the king’s murder? This final question is, in a sense, the primary question, because no one would bother writing or reading history unless it meant something. But this question is also inherently subjective. What something means to me depends on my experiences, desires and prejudices. Nonetheless, some historians are more objective than others. The fact that objectivity can never be total does not make it meaningless.

Objectivity requires me to transcend my partiality as much as I can while never pretending to have completely escaped it. Objectivity asks me to gather as much reliable information as possible, look at each question from multiple viewpoints, and account for my own biases and assumptions.  

Artists do not pretend to objectivity, but they do lay claim to truth. To ring true, art must be true to itself: it must achieve internal coherence. A solo by the great jazz saxophone player Charlie Parker is true in the same way it is original: Parker finds and makes an idiom that obeys its own laws and doesn’t pollute itself with extraneous sounds. But great art also tries to correspond to reality, to represent something accurately. When Parker plays “Embraceable You,” he expresses something about sadness, love, beauty, and loss – something about life that can’t be expressed any other way. If, in mid-solo, he became sentimental, imitative, or apathetic, then he would hit notes we might call “false.”

Western religions typically claim to offer not just truths, but the truth – the only accurate account of the most important things in life. The tragic, unfinished conversation about monotheism is what claims it should make toward truth. I believe that religion’s truths are closer to art than history or science. I wish all religions would be content to utter uncertain truths about what life means. Religion has the freedom of Shakespeare and Sophocles: it is not bound to speak only in verifiable facts. To the contrary – the richer and more ambiguous a religion’s symbols, the better it will express our sense of the mysterious core of life.  

To compare religion to art is not to insult it. Art has always told deeper truths about what it means to be alive than history or science. Also, it is only an analogy. Art’s first allegiance is to beauty, while religion tells us how to live. It brings us together not as passive spectators but as active participants – congregants in rites and sacraments that bind us to each other and to transcendent values. But nothing should prevent a religion from doing these things as a humble participant in the world’s conversations about truth, rather than as the chosen bearer of “the truth.”  

Plato created a philosophy, not a new religion, but his philosophy does have one sacred rite: the conversation about truth. Plato was attracted to certainty. He respected – even revered – the power of mathematics. He propagated a theory of forms in which truth means correspondence to a fixed, immortal reality. But if Plato had fully identified philosophical truth with science, he would have written logical treatises, not fictional conversations about Socrates. As obsessed as he is with the notion of seeking the truth, Plato is enraptured with the experience of conversing: talking and listening to Socrates – and, in particular, listening to Socrates show someone that he doesn’t really know what he thought he knew.  

Seeing the truth connotes an instantaneous experience. I thought it hadn’t rained last night, but when I go outside, I see a puddle. Aha! I see the truth. How different an experience it is to listen to Socrates talk about baffling things in baffling ways: sometimes very logically, but other times contradicting himself, using specious arguments, cracking jokes, and making up myths. Socrates claims to know only that he does not know. Plato does not think we can read his words and simply see the truth; instead, he creates a “truth experience” that we undergo as we follow the winding paths of conversation, sometimes ending in front of a blank wall.  

Plato undercuts his own truth claims still further by having his guru be a man who never writes a word and distrusts writing. Socrates tells us that the written word can only mislead and distort; the truth is best caught in live conversation. It is as if Plato were saying: “since Athens killed Socrates, no one, including me, will ever converse with him again. The best I can offer is a fictional reconstruction, not of his conversations per se, but of the experience of conversing with him. But my respect for him and the truth is so great that I will admit that he would disavow such a project.”

Plato sought the truth through dialogues. In the twentieth century, the great literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin developed a theory of the novel as “dialogic” or “polyphonic.” For Bakhtin, a novelist is able to reach a higher truth by suppressing her own viewpoint and presenting, instead, the multiple viewpoints of her characters. It’s a deeply democratic vision, in which no one person, even the author, can ever be fully authoritative, much less authoritarian.

For Plato and Bakhtin, knowing the deepest human truths is inseparable from knowing individual humans. We can’t simply know the propositional content of Plato’s work; we must come to know Socrates. We can’t just know Dostoevsky’s opinions; we must know his characters, mysterious people like Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov. In Biblical Hebrew, to “know” can mean to have sex with – suggesting that knowing another person is both more earthy and more uncanny than knowing a mathematical equation. Even in modern English, if I say “I know Frank,” I mean more than that I know a true set of facts about Frank. I mean that I have some kind of relationship with him. 

Knowing another person takes us beyond knowing as seeing or hearing. We know each other with our whole persons: our souls and bodies. To know somebody is to enter into a relationship that changes over time and is never fully explicable. Shakespeare lets us know his characters intimately and intensely, but never completely. Why does King Lear divide his kingdom? Why must Prince Hamlet destroy Ophelia? The more we study them, the more fathomless they are. Knowing a philosophical truth may be more like knowing a person than knowing a formula. Given that individual humans are so enigmatic, it is hard to think that great truths about human life would be any less mysterious.

The temptation of certainty leads to dogma, fundamentalism, and ideology. The great sages try to save us from this temptation by integrating knowing with not-knowing. Buddha says that it is impossible to know the truth about the existence of the gods. Jesus preaches in parables that resist becoming mere doctrine. In the Talmud, none of the rabbis is finally authoritative. Each of them must enter into conversation with each other, as well as with students, future commentators, and the texts themselves. The Talmud is, in many ways, what Bakhtin would call polyphonic – presenting multiple viewpoints without necessarily choosing among them.

Truthfulness, a life full of truth, requires more than honesty and integrity; it also requires me to pay attention and listen. If I rely too much on seeing truth, my gaze, like Medusa’s, will turn my world to stone: static, boring, and unreal. Let’s say that I meet someone at a party. If I try to “see” him immediately, I will make a snapshot judgement based on assumptions and stereotypes. If I talk only about what I think I know, then I will not really listen. I need to expose my ignorance and seek out topics that he knows better than I. By showing this respect toward him and this frailty in myself, I may create enough trust that he will let me know him better.

At times, I worry about the kind of truth often called authenticity: being “original” instead of a copy. In some moments, I find self-consciousness horrifying. When I start seeing myself act instead of just acting, when I start seeing myself through others’ eyes, I fear that I am playing the part of me instead of being me. Hamlet is deeply conscious of being forced into ill-fitting roles. His anger at being expected to play the vengeful son for his father, the indulgent son for his mother, and the loving suitor for Ophelia make him terrifying to himself and others. He turns people, including himself, into corpses. 

But “all the world’s a stage” is a phrase from a comedy, not a tragedy. John Falstaff, Nick Bottom, Toby Belch, and other Shakespearian fools do not care about authenticity; they view the playing of parts as a source of joy, not disgust. For Hamlet, to be “Hamlet-less” would mean sterility and death. For Nick Bottom, on the other hand, to be “Bottom-less” is a source of inexhaustible mirth. To be an actor, however bad, is delightful. To be something other than oneself, even a donkey, is too strange and wonderful for words. Here is a portion of Bottom’s great speech after changing back from donkey to man:  

When my cue comes, call me and I will answer… God’s my life, stolen hence, and left me asleep! I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream – past the wit of man to say what dream it was. – Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. Me thought I was – there is no man can tell what methought I was, and methought I had, but man is but a patched fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen; man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream; it shall be called Bottom’s Dream, because it hath no bottom . . .

Hamlet is intrigued but disgusted by the idea of the world as a stage; he responds with desperate attempts to direct and manage the action – to be more than a mere actor. But Bottom says, “when my cue comes, call me, and I will answer.” He is willing to respond whole-heartedly to fate’s call, even if it calls him to be an ass. Bottom’s dream can’t be “truthfully” explicated, even – or especially – by himself; but a ballad by Peter Quince has the best chance of capturing its essence. The artist (Peter Quince, or Shakespeare) is the “patched fool” who tells us truths based on our dreams. 

One of Bottom’s truths is that, if it is impossible to be authentic, it remains possible to give a “true” performance. My goal is not so much to refuse performance as to perform in a way that conforms to my values. My goal is not to avoid imitating others but to make sure I imitate good people. I can’t be a person without multiple personae; I can’t have character without being a character in stories I do not write myself. One way to have integrity is to imagine a person with integrity and then impersonate that person, play the role so deeply that the distance between me and him begins to shrink. 

The struggle to speak true words requires perpetual irony, self-criticism, dialogue, and openness. I can aim for a good, unobstructed view of things without deluding myself that I am standing on a mountain peak. I can make a new start on truthfulness without thinking that I am beginning at the beginning. I can aspire toward truth without claiming to own it. I can participate as one voice in a conversation, open to persuasion.


Sam Magavern is a public interest attorney and writer. His books include Primo Levi’s Universe and Noah’s Ark. A new book of poems, Ovid’s Creek, is forthcoming from BlazeVOX.




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