Richard Nisley

Two Theories of Truth
History - World Released - Jan 10, 2013

You remember Pol Pot, orchestrator of Cambodia’s killing fields?

In the 1970s he tried to hack his country into the communist utopia he worked out in his head during the discussions groups he participated in as a student in Paris. His dream proved to be a nightmare for his fellow countrymen, especially the 21 percent of Cambodia’s population that perished as a direct result of his policies.

At the heart of the issue with monsters like Pol Pot, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong--who collectively are responsible for the death of over 50 million people--is their perception of truth and how it is gained.

According to Alexander Kronemer, an economist in the U.S. Department of Labor under President Clinton and who holds a degree in theological studies from Harvard University, there are two theories of how truth is gained. One is Bible-based and essentially democratic in which truth is embedded in the experience of the many; and the other is Socratic, in which truth exists as abstract principles and immutable laws that only a select few are capable of obtaining. One requires humility and compromise, the other requires strict adherence to a set of prescribed principles in which compromise is not an option.

Kronemer partook in a group of scholars and writers who gathered for ten evenings to talk to Bill Moyers about the book of Genesis. The program was televised on PBS. They concluded that what Genesis and the entire Old Testament is saying is that truth about divine and human affairs is too big to be contained in a single line of reasoning. It is not reducible to pithy slogans or easy generalizations. The premise is that knowledge about truth comes from living, and that it is ultimately beyond the full grasp of any human being.

Such a view demands humility from those trying to find the truth. Abraham must give up his son Ishmael and send Hagar into the desert. Joseph is put in prison. In fact, these setbacks are often important steps in journeys to enlightenment. Such humbling experiences are what ultimately humanizes many of Genesis’s soldiers, sages, and nation-builders.

Writes Kronemer: “This model of how truth is gained is quite different from the course commonly accepted in the West, which is the Socratic model. In the latter, truth is ahistorical. It is not embedded in the many experiences of the living but exists as abstract principles and immutable laws. In this view, knowledge of truth comes through reason and argument, not out of the collective wisdom of diverse experience.

“This premise is that those with the best minds, the best education, and in some cases the highest moral characters are most likely to find the truth.

“In politics, as I. F. Stone argued in his book ‘The Trial of Socrates,’ this view is inherently autocratic, and often ruthless. It posits that truth can be found by only a few and that, by definition, people’s opinions are not of equal merit. It is further assumed that, not possessing the advantages of the highest intellects and education, most people would not live by the highest principles. Therefore, to make a good society people must be forcibly hoisted to the higher principles.”

In essence, this is the premise underlying Bolshevik thinking and characterized the cruel logic that justified fratricidal policies on such a grand scale, by the likes of Pol Pot, Stalin and Mao.

The premise for democracy, on the other hand, is based on the Biblical model. Continues Kronemer: “At the heart of democracy is the idea that the good society evolves through time, and that it requires the input of many voices and points of view to bring it to maturity.”

The best example of this is seen in our nation’s founding, in which the Founding Fathers drew heavily on the wisdom and ideas of those who had come before, from the Bible (the book most quoted at the Constitutional Convention) to Enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume, John Locke, and Adam Smith. The Founders debated ideas, voted on the best course to take, and often compromised to achieve a majority vote. Without compromise, the Declaration of Independence would have never been signed, the U.S. Constitution never ratified, and Hamilton’s Report on Public Credit never passed by Congress.

One of the things that makes Shakespeare so relevant is that the villains of his plays are those who refuse to compromise and won’t listen and thus wreak havoc, while the heros are those who will compromise, will listen, and in the end restore order.
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