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What Is Truth?

An address given on Sunday, 30 January, 2022, in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.


AT THE TRIAL of Jesus, it is reported that the following conversation took place: Jesus said, ‘To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.’ And Pilate replied: ‘What is truth?’ and did not wait for a reply.

The very existence of ‘truth’ or ‘the truth’ seems very precarious in this age of…racing new technologies, and the evaporation of old certainties…

There are many reasons why Pilate’s question should particularly strike us now. The very existence of ‘truth’ or ‘the truth’ seems very precarious in this age of social media, quantum physics, post modernism, racing new technologies, evaporation of old certainties, the rise of the East, covid and many other things. A century and a half ago, George Meredith lamented ‘Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul / When hot for certainties in this our life!’ and this is even more so today. I will try to explain, why and how, particularly during Covid lockdown, I have found a path towards what I consider a deeper form of truth. I will illustrate this from where we are now, in one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.

FOR THE FIRST twenty-five years of my life, I moved gradually from an enchanted childhood and adolescence, parts of it lived in Wordsworth’s childhood valley in the Lake District, with certainties, magic and meaning, to a ‘grown up’ world where I had separated my life into spheres – my economic, political, social and religious lives were in water-tight compartments. I was rational, efficient, and balanced – but there was no longer any God or other certainty. I accepted this as inevitable, the process Wordsworth described thus: ‘Heaven lies about us in our infancy! Shades of the prison-house close begin to close Upon the Growing Boy.’ This was brilliantly analysed by Max Weber in his discussion of the ‘disenchantment of the world’ and the fact that increasing rationality is creating an ‘iron cage’ around us. I came to live in a grey world, of ambiguities, contradictions and half-truths.

Then I started to explore the planet. In many trips as an anthropologist with Sarah my wife, we explored alternative worlds. The first was a shamanic society high up in the Annapurna mountains of central Nepal. Then I began to discover the hidden world of ancient, shamanic, Japan. More recently, we have investigated the mixture of ancestor respect, Daoism, Chan (Zen) Buddhism and animism in China. I found that more than three-quarters of the world lives outside the modern Western world view and does not accept our divisions. People have different concepts of truth and reality. They do not conceive of the physical world as dead, as a machine. There is no ‘prison house’ or ‘iron cage’. This majority world is in many ways a ‘quantum’ world, with Schrödinger’s cat, both alive and dead, where people believe in the inter blending of yin and yang, both/and thought rather than either/or oppositions, and thus highly tolerant of apparently plural and conflicting ‘truths’. Yet within this logic so unfamiliar to most of us, there were certainties of another kind.

When I returned from these ‘magical gardens’, as Weber called China, I looked at my own life here in the West in a new light. During lockdown, I suddenly realized that we also live in an enchanted world, but it is a different form of enchantment — something I call ‘oasis’ enchantment.

The idea came partly from Shelley – ‘Many a green isle needs must be / In the deep wide sea of Misery, / Or the mariner, worn and wan, /  Never thus could voyage on…’ Shelley realized that we cannot live in the dry desert of hyper-rationality; we need green isles. And I found that through my education I had been trained to create two kinds of oasis.

One was through the human love of ‘play’, we are homo ludens as Johan Huizinga names us. When we say ‘let’s pretend’ or ‘let’s play’, whether as children or in a game of football, we set up a parallel world which contains its own truths and certainties. On examination, more than half our waking life is filled with play, as are our dreams.

The other technology of enchantment is through the arts. My theme is summed up in Keats’ answer to the question of what is truth? He answered ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ With this formula, we find that the apparent contradictions of head and heart, mind and body, spirit and matter are eliminated by the human imagination and its ability to create and appreciate beauty.

In this Chapel, there is the beauty that comes through the eye. Gazing up at one of the wonders of the world, the finest fan-vaulted ceiling in existence and the delicate tracery of the walls, we are taken out of ourselves into a higher realm. That joins with the painting, in this case on glass, which in Shelley’s words ‘stains the white radiance of eternity’. The eyes are filled with something both true and beautiful. Indeed, the opposition fades – it seems absurd to ask ‘is King’s Chapel true?’.

Then there is music. Not only the wonderful organ and the superb acoustics and the world-renowned choir, but the preservation of a tradition of glorious music form medieval times. Music reaches a level of feeling and inchoate ideas which is beyond sense and reason thoughts that ‘lie too deep for tears’, as Wordsworth put it. Then there is great literature. Whenever we read a novel or a travel book, a children’s story or a work of history, it can take us into parallel worlds, as ‘true’, through ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’, as the humdrum and practical world of daily existence. The power is more than doubled with poetry. Three-quarters of the greatest poets writing in the English language were associated with Cambridge and came to this Chapel. Their words evoke more powerfully than I possibly can the kind of beauty I am trying to describe. I will quote just three examples of poems written about the Chapel.

But let my due feet never fail
To walk the studious Cloysters pale,
And love the high embowèd Roof,
With antick Pillars massy proof,
And storied Windows richly dight,
Casting a dimm religious light.

—John Milton


But, from the arms of silence – list! O list!
The music bursteth into second life; –
The notes luxuriate – every stone is kissed
By sound, or ghost of sound, in mazy strife;
Hearth-thrilling strains, that cast before the eye
Of the Devout, a veil of ecstasy!

—William Wordsworth


File into yellow candlelight, fair choristers of King’s
Lost in shadowy silence of canopied Renaissance stalls:
In blazing glass above the dark glow skies and thrones and wings
Blue, ruby, gold and green between the whiteness of the walls
And with what rich precision the stonework soars and springs
To fountain out a spreading vault, a shower that never falls.

—John Betjeman

The ‘rituals’ we see in the Chapel, both in its services and at its special college occasions give us a sense of something important which is beyond the material world around us.

Finally, all of these forms of beauty are integrated into action through ritual. Ritual was defined by a former Provost of King’s, the anthropologist Sir Edmund Leach, as repetitive, formalized and standardized, communicative action. This covers much of the world, from shaking hands or saluting onwards, so I would add the use of such action (and words) to try to communicate with some parallel set of forces. The ‘rituals’ we see in the Chapel, both in its services and at its special college occasions give us a sense of something important which is beyond the material world around us. The very service we are engaged in now takes us on a path beyond the here and now to where spirits or Spirit dwells.

So the ‘text’ of my talk is King’s College Chapel, which I have known and loved since I first became a Fellow in 1971. Wherever I have explored in far-way magical gardens and mountains, I have carried this Chapel with its music with me.

And what is the upshot of all this? It is that, while we know that there is no final and absolute ‘truth, whole truth and nothing but truth’, yet we also know that we can still pursue deeper meanings, and thereby find rest, resolution and certainty. There is no need for despair or cynicism. If we open our eyes and ears to the wonder it is all around us; if we open a book, read a poem, listen to our favourite music, dance, play a game, spend time with children, fish or walk or pursue many sports and hobbies; if we engage in conversation with friends, fall in love, explore new places, have a great meal or special drink, we can encounter moments which lie outside the ‘iron cage’ and ‘prison walls’. We can escape into something more meaningful and true, even if, from time to time, we have to come back to pay the bills and face pain, sadness and loss.

Beauty is indeed truth, truth beauty.

And that is all we need to know. And when the wild flowers come out on the great Back Lawn of King’s again, and this present shadow of Covid passes, I believe we will emerge stronger and more appreciative of the wonder around us. And of deeper Truth and Beauty.

amacfarlane_lect150ALAN MACFARLANE FBA, FRHistS, is Professor Emeritus of Anthropological Science and Life Fellow of King’s College at the University of Cambridge and co-editor of The Fortnightly Review.

Prof Macfarlane is the author of more than twenty books and numerous articles covering English social history, demography in Nepal and the industrial history of England, China and Japan. His survey text, The Invention of the Modern World, is published by Odd Volumes for subscribers to the Fortnightly. He established Cam Rivers Publishing in 2015 as a branch of the Vanishing Worlds Foundation, with an intent to use ‘new desktop publishing potentials and the Internet to make available books related to education, anthropology and in particular the links between China and the West.’ Cam Rivers will publish China, Japan, Europe and the Anglosphere: A Comparative Analysis in late 2018 or early 2019.

This address is based on Prof Macfarlane’s forthcoming book: Enchantment and Modernity.

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