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Posted by on Sep 17, 2011 in Essays | 0 comments

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty , that is all you know on earth,

 and all you need to know.”


Truth is important because it forms a glue that holds society together. As social “animals” truth lies at the centre of how we relate, participate in and understand  the society we live in and  the world around us.

In “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, these last lines are criticized for being lame or brilliant in equal measure. Inspired by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Keats announces his own reflections as those of a child of the enlightenment, while paradoxically engaging in the romanticist movement whose purpose in great part was to define the “perfect” in aesthetics of all disciplines.

By acknowledging his philosophical roots, he was also demonstrating that his feet were firmly planted on the ground, and not (entirely) walking among blissful clouds of romantic beauty.

He in fact articulates clearly the subjectivism of both  truth and beauty  and in doing so leaves himself wide open to criticism from the doctrinally faithful.

The enlightenment was the ultimate consequence of the renaissance, symbolized by Da Vinci as a man centred and not God centred universe.

These lines mark the fundamental shift between received and absolute truth, to the idea of relative truth, and the birth of real pluralism in moral thought.

We see the shift between “God centred” truth, and individual truth, mirrored in a notion of beauty which has only ever been in the eye of the beholder.

In our increasingly individualist society, we instinctively search for the “truth” that allows us to understand our impulsions, ideals and fundamentally our “place” in civilization.

“Truth” helps individuals, social groups, political movements to define themselves. There are excesses:

–          Hitler’s “Final Solution”, galvanized a nation for a decade or more

–          Pol Pots’ Cambodia

–          Stalin’s Russia



Truth in Science.

Newtonian physics sufficed until Einstein came along…

And we discovered that scientific truth was, well… relative.

Darwin’s theory of evolution is now “received truth”, but in sustaining this received truth, some dubious science has been involved, and contradictory evidence put to one side. Other truths, received or not exist.

Truth in Religion.

Catholicism sufficed until the Reformation, which sufficed until Charles and John Wesley, which sufficed until the Asuza Street Revival, and countless other reforming or reviving Christian movements.

And we learned that there are many pathways to God, EVEN in the Christian tradition alone.

Truth in art.

In art, we can think about truth too. When asked why his composition of violin and grapes looked like neither, Picasso sent the critic to a grocery store to look at grapes and a luthier to look at a violin. When the man came back, he said “this is a composition of violin and grapes”.

We all know grass is green in Spring, but at dawn or dusk under an orange sun we refer to our mind’s eye for truth rather than what we see before us. Green grass can be as brown as dead grass or black  or any shade in between, but our perception of grass is anchored in the received truth that “grass is green”… always has been always will be forever and ever, Amen!     


Truth and History.


The adage says “history is written by the victors”. This is a received “truth”. We all get emotive now when we read “Arbeit macht frei”, but who really cares about the rights or wrongs of the Greek – Trojan squabble or the disgraces perpetuated by our Greek or Roman predecessors, unless in order to affirm with a certain smugness our particular superiority?

“Truth” is an upright pole by which we (increasingly) individually measure the yawing and pitching of the social clamour around us. We look for consensus, so we can belong and hope and expect everyone else is looking at the same pole.

Truth whatever it is, keeps us collectively ploughing forwards in the belief that our children will be “better“than us. It is an instinctive human preoccupation. We persist even as individuals at looking around us for affirmation of what truth is. It makes us talk, debate, and more often than not conform.

Most of all though, in an increasingly global village, truth should make us more humble.

No one has the monopoly: Obama’ response to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad s speech is a case in point. The global village is not middle American.


Truth keeps us sane, makes us into bigots and sometimes tyrants, and occasionally even helps us to have empathy with the sea of humanity around us.  This latter idea is our salvation, our future, and our best nature.

It is also why truth matters. We just need to keep looking and remember. To quote a contemporary poet

“History repeats itself,

Nobody listens”.



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