Are we all Entitled to our own Truth? Plato’s Myth of the Cave

Y
ou may have noticed lately that the popular slogan “everyone is entitled to their own opinion” has slowly evolved to “everyone is entitled to their own truth.” This is particularly evident among the very young, the millennials, so called, but it is not something brand new. In philosophy goes it goes by the name of Relativism or Humian empiricism and utilitarianism, as opposed to Kantian deontological universalism. Those two strands of epistemology and ethics within philosophy have a long and respectable history.

Be that as it may, somehow, in our troubled times, the word “opinion” has come to substitute the word “truth.” It even substitutes the word “interpretation.” Meaning, ultimately, that everyone is entitled to create and hold on to one’s facts interpreted according to one’s mind-set and beliefs, no matter how they are arrived at or on what foundations those facts may rest. That is to say, we are all entitled to our own ignorance of the facts; that too is guaranteed by the Constitution and democratic principles. It’s part of being free. One may try knowledge, but one remains free to try ignorance, as he chooses. The right to choose seems to be the only absolute truth.

We now have people’s representatives who, with a straight face, will flatly deny that there is such a thing as climate change. When challenged about their naive assertion (usually tied to their economic ideology) with purely scientific facts, they will declare that scientists are entitled to their own opinion on the facts, while they are entitled to theirs. In any case, vote for me and follow me, and don’t pay too much attention to scientists and their findings. What do they know!

Indeed, when the blind lead the blind, can the demise of democracy be far behind? De Tocqueville had a few things to say on that aspect of democracy, so did Plato, more than two thousand years ago. Plato has been accused of demagoguery based on his theory of the philosopher king in his Republic, but all he was saying is that democracy based on falsehood and ignorance was doomed from the very start.

Science seems to have been degraded to the subjective while truth seems to have been reduced to the sphere of the private, the subjective and the personal. In psychology this stance toward objective truth goes by the name of narcissism and it is considered an anomaly.

The argument goes something like this: my truth is sacred to myself and so much the worse for the scientific evidence of the facts. The facts are what I say they are, and in any case I am entitled even to my own ignorance; my ignorance is just a important as your alleged knowledge. If the CIA gives me facts I determine if they are true or false, depending on how convenient to me those facts are. After all, we live in a free country and nobody can impose his views on anybody else. I own my own truth, whatever it may turn out to be. If I don’t own it, then how can I speak truth to power, how can I stand up for my beliefs and confront those who have different beliefs? It’s all a matter of what one believes in.

At first blush, the above rationalizations seem rather reasonable and in defense of individual rights. But make no mistake about it, this is a very dangerous operation as Plato’s “Myth of the Cave” (found in his Republic) has powerfully been intimating for the last 24 hundred years. That myth continues to appeal to our imagination because it points to a crucial distinction between appearances or taken for granted misleading assumptions and the truth of an issue, which lies not in the dark cave but outside the cave where the sun (an allegory of truth) shines in all its splendor.

Leaving epistemological controversies and Plato’s myth of the cave aside for the moment, let’s briefly reflect and analyze this ominous modern understanding of the nature of truth. The first question that arises here is this: Has truth become a fad like any other? Obviously, “my truth” and “your truth” are on the rise.

Could it be that we are going back to a more ancient definition of truth understood as fidelity? Fidelity to what? Surely not to the facts, not to reality as it is, a concept which only appears with the 16th century, the century of Galileo, Francis Bacon and later on with David Hume. Before them, so the argument goes, “living one’s truth” was understood as “being faithful” to one’s Self or perhaps something outside one’s personality. So we end up with “my truth” and “your truth” and the two may never agree. After all, did not Shakespeare himself, a consummate humanist, advice “to thine own self be true?”

So, consciously or unconsciously, we end up with owning our own brand of truth. That could mean the truth according to my own state of mind at the moment, or according to the human condition differently interpreted (the social Darwinist certainly have a different understanding of human nature than the Platonists), or what is simply convenient or inconvenient for me personally at the moment. After all, there are plenty of inconvenient truths that I’d rather not dwell upon and simply disown.

However, could it be that Shakespeare’s advice was ultimately meant as a warning against self-deception rather than an advice to consider one’s state of mind objective and self-justifying? Could it really be that “owning one’s truth” simply means stubbornly sticking to my own opinion regardless of the evidence of the objective scientific facts? Is every opinion really as good as any other opinion? How does that lead to a meeting of minds and any kind of union?

More to the point, could it be that such a state of mind leads to inevitable disaster? Could it be that this owning of the truth as a personal possession of sort, reduced to the private sphere, the sphere of the private interest and aggrandizement, not only will not redeem or free us from the chains of the dark cave, but, to the contrary, will further divide us from one another, destroy our democracy, make us lose sight of the common good, and thus lead to our ultimate perdition as a civilization and perhaps even as a species? Could it be that our real dilemma that will determine the fate of Western Civilization will turn out to be our interpretation of Plato’s myth of the cave and how it shapes our conception of truth? Pilate’s question to Jesus Christ seems to have returned with all its vehemence and urgency: What is truth?  

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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