For some bizarre reason I decided to use the end of summer to brush up on my philosophy reading. Don’t ask why! I haven’t wanted to work outside because the temperature has been uncomfortably high. Then we had smoke filled skies for a week—forest fires burning out of control in other parts of the province but a weather system that sent the smoke our way and kept it low to the ground. In this atmosphere I picked up The Consequences of Ideas, Understanding concepts that shaped our world, by R.C. Sproul. The book had been on my TBR list for a while. I guess I thought some difficult reading would prove an antidote to bad air.
I vaguely remember the Locke-Descarte theory from philosophy 101, a required course for general arts students in my university days, but Sproul goes back centuries before those two great thinkers. In the 5th and 6th Centuries B.C., Pythagoras, the mathematician, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Zeno of Elea, Anaxagoras, were all creating systems of thought to explain reality, the universe, cosmos, man’s purpose, and God, among other concepts.
I didn’t recognize most of these names, but it was interesting to read of ideas we now take for granted, universe, for example, before they were universally accepted. That, of course is the point of the whole book—to show how one idea, or philosophy, leads to another and how each is built on the ideas of those who came before.
By the time I reached the chapter on Socrates, I felt I was coming into familiar territory. We’ve all heard of the Socratic method of teaching. However, before I could read about good old Socrates, the author introduced me to Gorgias, a radical skeptic. If you thought skepticism was a modern concept, remember that Gorgias was born 500 years before Christ. Gorgias declared that there is no truth. He practiced rhetoric, the art of persuasion in public discourse. Rhetoric was not to proclaim truth, but to use persuasion to achieve practical ends, regardless of truth. To some degree, he could be seen as the forerunner to advertising.
Enter Socrates. He abhorred Gorgias theory. Truth could not, should not, would not be denied. The death of truth, said Socrates, would mean the death of virtue, and the death of virtue would spell the death of civilization. Without truth and virtue the only possible outcome is barbarianism.
Aha! This is why I took up a philosophy book decades after it was required reading.
We cannot live in a civil society, with all its benefits, if we do not acknowledge truth. As writers, I believe, we must speak truth. Even if we write fiction, we must acknowledge the underlying truths of the world we build. In my fiction, the laws of gravity exist, time exists, history exists, two plus two equals four. For writers of fantasy, those things may be different, but once the fantasy world is set, it too operates by its truth.
Some fiction writers like to joke that they tell lies for a living, but a falsehood is not the same as fiction. When we write creatively, the reader knows the story is an invention. She has agreed to suspend disbelief for the duration of the narrative. There is no attempt to hoodwink the reader into believing what she reads is factual.
A falsehood on the other hand, is a deliberate attempt to mislead, to convince the audience that something that is not true, is true.
For the skeptics and cynics among us, Gorgias may be hailed as a hero. For me, I’ll stick with Socrates. We dare not deny truth.