Monday, April 11, 2011
On Opinions and Other Worthless Things
“Senor, I speet upon your opinion” –imaginary character in an imaginary story.
Since I started teaching writing (1961), I have assigned essays and heard students ask, as if taught by some mythical parrot in the student subconscious, “you just want our opinions, right?”
Well, no, it is the last thing I want. Why would I? Opinions are worthless, including my own. Each of us can manufacture opinions by the second on any topic whatsoever. What, for example, is my opinion of aliens in outer space or of the latest ramblings of a demented movie star? My opinions of most things in physics, other than the verifiable pull of gravity on my body, are worthless. Endless coffee chats on such topics may be entertaining, but we know, we do know, do we not, that we are blowing air?
At present in class, we are considering one kind of truth, moral truth, the kind of truth we speak of when we are thinking about things as just or unjust, good or evil, right and wrong; in short, on all those things that have to do with moral choice, or the way we live. On the very foundations of civilization, in fact. Hammurabi, Moses, Muhammed, Confucius, Charlemagne, Lycurgus, Solomon, Sequoyah, and our own founding fathers—all were moral absolutists who handed down moral laws by which peoples live in societies.
Truth. Generations of teachers have now mocked the word, just as did the sophist philosophers in the streets of ancient Athens. “What is truth?” asked Pontius Pilate. And as Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “what is truth, asked jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” The answer was, of course, standing right in front of him, and he sent Him off to be whipped.
One can, a bit, sympathize with Pilate. He had seen the streets of Jerusalem and Rome jammed with teachers from a hundred nations, each claiming to have the truth. And when a starry-eyed or drug-glazed neighbor or friend shows up in our kitchen late at night with the breathless announcement that he or she has found “the truth,” we want to run for the hills.
Our response to that neighbor, under our breaths, may be like that of Ecclesiastes, “all is vanity,” or as one translation has it, “all is breath.” And we try to talk them into coffee or sports talk.
Fact is, the greatest philosophers spent most of their thinking in knocking down falsehoods. And false definitions. The great philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas followed the path of via negativa, that is, he was busy defining away things that were not true. Philosophically he knew that we could not say that we know God, we could only be intellectually sure of what is not God, which is a very useful thing indeed.
Earlier, the father of philosophy, Plato, created the myth of the cave, in which opinions are shadows on the wall, vague and erroneous copies of copies of the real truths, which we can know only by long study and ascetical lives. Those who live in the cave are prisoners and slaves to these false images, these mere opinions. In his other dialogues, such as the Meno, Plato distinguished radically and sharply between opinion and knowledge. Opinion is also shifting and false, real knowledge gives us certainty.
“Opinio” comes ultimately from Latin, but in English via a medieval French version of that word which means “believe.” In this sense of the word, we “opine” that something is true, possibly because it accords with our wishes or desires. (“An opinion is a subjective belief, and is the result of emotion or interpretation of facts. “–Wikipedia article on “opinion.”)
This purely subjective element may therefore run exactly counter to truth, for the latter may be experienced as limiting, constricting, unfair, harsh. A prisoner sitting in a prison may be there for a lifetime of theft, and may now be reluctantly coming to the conviction that thievery is wrong. As Plato saw it, if the prisoners of the cave are led into the bright light of the sun, they will experience shock and pain. Only later may they come to delight in the truth.
There is such a thing as the experience of truth. One may compare the kind of certitude delight in absolute “rightness” that one gets from learning the axioms of Euclidean geometry, as in “Two planes perpendicular to the same line must be parallel to each other.” There is no disputing these truths.
Dr. Samuel Johnson, the great 18th century English writer, loved certain truths. As the author of the first English dictionary, on which all subsequent dictionaries have been based, he also loved precise definitions. Like the philosopher discussed above, he knew the importance of knocking down false definitions in order to get at the solidity of truth. Listen to him:
“. . .to see things as they are. . . .the consolation which is drawn from truth, if any there be, is solid and durable; that which may be derived from errour, must be, like its original, fallacious and fugitive.” --Samuel Johnson, in a letter to his friend, Bennet Langton, 1758.
“The irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight awhile, by that novelty of which the common satiety of life sends us all in quest; but the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth.” –Samuel Johnson, Preface to Shakespeare, 1765
“The mind can only repose on the stability of truth,” he says. This great moral philosopher (read his short novel Rasselas) did not speak lightly.
I would suggest that you test your thinking in Essay # 6 against his standards: is the absolute truth you are defending one that gives you a sense of stability, solidity, durability? Is it universal, for all time?
Otherwise you will not be able to write about it with conviction, sincerity, and logic.