Saturday, September 20, 2008

Hard Truths & Noble Lies:

The followers of Leo Strauss have taken a lot of heat for their positing the notion of a "noble lie." Though I'm not a Straussian, I completely understand where they are coming from (and perhaps this is because I found Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind" so profound, even if I disagree with much of it). Philosophy teaches unadulterated truth. And very often truth isn't lovable. The notion that the "truth" will set you free and is always "good" is itself a noble lie. We lie to little children when we tell them about Santa Claus and we also lie to them when we tell them, in no uncertain terms, "everything is going to be alright."

This is what philosophers qua philosophers *do not do.* Yet, this is also why philosophers have been historically hated when too publicly philosophical and since Socrates until the Enlightenment used to be killed for "spilling the beans," so to speak. [That is, they may be able to act as "philosophers qua philosophers" privately, only when in their philosophers' closets.]

The strong tendency for normal (that is non-philosophically minded) folks to rationalize away "hard truths" also leads to massive amounts of unconscious positing of noble lies. All different ideological sides do this.

And that further complicates the issue: Because of differences over "the good," one man's noble lie is another's pernicious lie waiting to be debunked.

Take drugs for example. During the height of the anti-drug war propaganda, there was a tendency to believe that illegal drugs were simply of the devil and that no good could come from them. And this is what was taught to school children. When young, I believed it. Admitting there could be anything good about drugs was just one of those "unacceptable" truths.

Now, there certainly are bad things about drugs. Figures like Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, River Phoenix, John Belushi, Chris Farely and many others attest to the danger of drugs. But, we should note that all of them died at their creative peak. In other words, whatever the dangers of drugs, they show no evidence of harming the creative productivity of those artists and may have helped their output. [The Beatles' music started to sound a hell of a lot better after Bob Dylan smoked them up and they started to do hallucinogenic drugs.] One could argue they would have been just as creative or more creative without the drugs (I seriously doubt it). But given the known creative output, one could just as easily argue the drugs influenced the creativity. The noble lie tendency is to say there's nothing positive that can be said of illegal drugs and argue from that premise.

Or take evolution. I believe it's true. And I believe evolution is compatible with various religious beliefs. But it's also incompatible with various traditionally held beliefs like Young Earth Creationism. Accept Darwin and you have to give up YEC and various "literal" accounts in the Bible. And that's a truth that some folks for understandable reasons have a hard time swallowing. I, for one, don't want to be like the boy who told the Christianists kids that Santa doesn't exist and would opt for a "noble lie" of perhaps arguing evolution and traditional biblical interpretations are more compatible than they really are.

I've previously blogged about the need for a potential noble lie of asserting Islam to be a "religion of peace." [Indeed, sometimes the philosophers' noble lies can transform various belief systems in accordance with their gently deceptive sentiments.]

As my readers know, I like to deconstruct the idea of a "Christian Nation," to expose the tensions between America's Founding ideals and traditional biblical Christianity and to show how many notable Founders turned out to be not "real" (meaning orthodox Trinitarian) Christians after all. In fairness to me, I didn't let this cat out of the bag and the secular historical academy is to the left of me. You see, much of this was taboo during the Founding era until the 20th Century. That Christianity and republicanism were perfectly compatible and that men like George Washington were pious Christians was a "noble lie" that much of the American public for many years believed. I'd remind folks the record clearly shows inveterate noble liars like Parson Weems making things up out of whole cloth about George Washington's Christianity. Liars like Mason Weems had a better public reputation than did truth tellers like Washington's own minister Rev. Abercrombie who had to request anonymity when he wrote of Washington's systematic avoidance of communion:

I cannot consider any man as a real Christian who uniformly disregards an ordinance so solemnly enjoined by the divine Author of our holy religion, and considered as a channel of divine grace. This, Sir, is all that I think it proper to state on paper. In a conversation, more latitude being allowed, more light might, perhaps, be thrown upon it. I trust, however, Sir, you will not introduce my name in print.

The uber-orthodox Christian Rev. James Renwick Willson was burned in effigy (presumably by other orthodox Christians) in 1832 when he told the truth that according to orthodox standards the early American Founders/Presidents weren't "Christians" but "unitarians" and "infidels."

Often public perception is based on a noble lie and the truth tellers are "tabloid deconstructionists." Most of America, for instance, at one time believed Rock Hudson was straight. But we now know the "secret minority," not mass consensus was right on Hudson's sexuality. We could easily imagine one of Mr. Hudson's family members or close friends, back in the 1950s, lying to protect his reputation. Keep in mind when Nelly Custis testified to her adopted father's Christianity, it was in the context of protecting his public reputation when the tabloids of the day were chattering:

It was his custom to retire to his library at nine or ten o'clock where he remained an hour before he went to his chamber. He always rose before the sun and remained in his library until called to breakfast. I never witnessed his private devotions. I never inquired about them. I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity. His life, his writings, prove that he was a Christian. He was not one of those who act or pray, "that they may be seen of men." He communed with his God in secret.

Now, if she believed Washington was privately what the orthodox would have termed a "heretic," an "infidel," or otherwise not a "real Christian" would she have answered any differently?

Finally, there are things I believe that I don't personally feel comfortable writing on a public website. What are they? I won't say. But future generations may regard them, like Darwinism or America's non-authentically Christian Founding, as certain taboos that aren't taboo anymore, relics of a generation past. But that generation likewise will have its own taboos and noble lies.


Palmer said...

You have to tell us those things which you don't feel comfortable writing about in public now. ;)

Hope you're well.


Jonathan Rowe said...

Heh. Thanks for checking in.