So begins one of the (if this is not a contradiction in terms) better known occult treatises: the Emerald Tablet, attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, thrice great Hermes.
The tablet supposedly originates from Thoth and Hermes: giving humans vital information about how things work, about what reality is all about.
The reality of the Emerald Tablet seems to be closer to our own day than to that of the wing-footed god (estimates range from the early 600s CE and forwards) . The reality is also that the tablet has been remarkably important for the development of “the occult sciences” in the West – even before they were occult, that is, hidden. The tablet sums up the “microcosm/macrocosm” principle which is at the foundation of so much in those sciences: that what happens outside of us is a parallel to what happens inside, and that the one can affect the other. Thus, of course, astrology arises from astronomy. The principle is summed up within the tablet as, “That wch is below is like that wch is above & that wch is above is like yt wch is below to do ye miracles of one only thing”*.
Reams of words can and have been written about this principle, and the other ideas expressed in the table. At the moment, I’d like to concentrate on the phrase set out above, “Tis true without lying, certain and most true”.
We use this phrase, or some variant thereof, such as, “It’s true, honest!” fairly frequently, often as a means of validation for what we’ve just said.
It’s interesting, in one way, that we feel a need to use this phrase – why do we expect our hearers to believe us when we proclaim our veracity, if they did not do so before? Does our proclamation of truth somehow change what we’ve said? Or is it a tacit admission that statements we make without the rider are not true?
However, the most interesting question for me is not why we would use such a phrase, but what we mean by it, when we do use it. Do we even think about what it means, and if we do, do we all mean the same thing(s)?
Truth is, in fact, a very difficult quality, quantity or indeed, entity to define. Many people’s reaction when asked to define “truth”, is to say, “well, it’s what is true”, or a bit further away from a circular definition, “It’s what is real”.
This is only a bit further away from a circular argument, however, because it begs the question of “what is real” or “what is the real – what is reality?” This usually closes the circle by achieving the answers, in succession, “Reality is about what’s really there”, and then, “We know what reality is because it’s what is true”.
This leaves us just a bit further on than where we were before in terms of inability to define “truth”, because we’re left with more than the suspicion of connection between truth and reality.
It seems to me that this question can be answered in one of three modes: that of the “man of sense”, that of the modern philosopher, and that of the mystic.
The man of common sense is perhaps best described as “a bloke down the pub”. This is not a disparaging typification: after all, one gets on well enough with this person to listen to what he’s saying… He often sees straight through the conundrums of the philosophers, to the nub within. In this case, he’s likely to say, “truth is what’s true – where’s the problem?” and, if you are lucky, go off to buy the next round to stem the unwonted outbreak of philosophy.
There is much to be said for this approach, (particularly if it ends with the production of a brimming pint glass). It is clear, concise and easy to understand. Circular arguments generally are easy to understand, which accounts for at least half of the reason for their use. (The other half, of course, is because they are easy to produce). The fly in the ointment (or the dregs in the pint) here is that its almost entirely useless as a definition: we know nothing now that we did not know before.
The modern philosopher may be of even less help, for one of two reasons. A particular type of philosopher would be unable to even attempt an answer without access to at least paper and pencil, but preferably a white board and a selection of excitingly coloured markers. Once in possession of same, this type of thinker is entirely likely to wax incomprehensible and to illustrate his incomprehensibility with enough quasi-mathematical formulae ti sink the average physics student. Should you have the grave misfortune to find yourself in a discussion with such a philosopher, I advise you to immediately find an excuse (of whatever level of truth you like) to go and joint the man of common sense in the pub.
The second modern philosopher, on the other hand, will eschew the use of mathematical formulae, and will approach the answer to the question by denying the major premise. In other words, he will assure you that the question can’t be answered, because we can’t interact with reality at all. All we can ever know is our perception of reality. To put it another way, the reality I interact with (and therefore the truth I know) is that of a middle class, middle aged woman, and can’t be anything else (at least until I slide gently over the barrier between middle and old age). This means that the reality with which I interact will, at least on some points, be significantly different from that of a young, upper class man, for instance. Neither is “true” or “real” because both are perceptions, as it were, of our interface with reality, rather than being reality itself.
Should you encounter this type of philosopher, I am again tempted to recommend joining the man of sense in the bar: possibly not quite so quickly (because at least this type of philosopher tends to speak in recognisable words, even if they are less than clear in the way they relate to each other) but eventually. I’ve seen strong graduate students crumble under the onslaught of this particular type of reasoning… be warned.
That, at length, leads us to the answer supplied by the mystic.
The mystic will (generally at least) break neither into mathematical formulae nor into a deconstruction of other people’s world views. Instead he – or indeed, she, for there is a venerable tradition of female mystics across many faiths and paths – is very likely to give you an answer based on her interaction with the Divine. In other words, rather than attempting to prove her answer by complex figures or denying the validity of the question, the mystic is likely to given you an answer which distils down, more or less, to “God told me so”, for some value of “God”.
This has always been the unanswerable authority of the mystic – that of direct communication from and with the Divine.
Societies have often struggled to deal with such claims – is the person making them truly in contact with Zeus, with the Morrigan, with the Christian God? Or are then, as perhaps the majority of Western society would assert, merely harmless lunatics who should be kept in comfort and away from sharp objects?
Assuming –for the sake of argument – that the mystic if no more insane that the rest of the population, what are we to make of any pronouncements they make on the behalf of the divine?
The answer is, I would suggest, a purely personal one. If, personally, you deny the reality of the divine, then there is clearly no need to take notice of any pronouncements this non-existent entity might be said to make.
Even if you do admit the possibility of the divine, there might still be judgements to be made. One might, for instance, feel justified in taking a fairly wary view of any dictate which is said to emanate from any of the various trickster gods – polite caution would seem to be the order of the day.
Pronouncements as from a god that one acknowledges would obviously require more attention. However, those who acknowledge/work with/worship Pan, for instance, might be reasonably sceptical of someone claiming direction communication from the god footed god to say that he had taken to wearing pin stripe suites, procured a job in the city that required him to be active all day and had abandoned Arcadia for good. These things are so far removed from what has been previously believed of this entity that scepticism would seem the only possible reaction.
Which returns us to our original point about what it is that may be said to be true. In the course of our wanderings, we have acquired a few criteria: from the group now happily ensconced in the pub we have the criteria of common sense; from the first philosopher, the criteria of symbolic logic; and from our reactions to the meanderings of the mystics, the coherence of new truth with old. (The reactions of the second type of philosopher we can discard on the grounds that it denies the question rather than attempting to answer it).
In fact, we have one answer, from three different angles. The symbolic logic of the philosopher seeks coherence; what (in essence) matches, balances, with what? Our reaction to the mystic is similar: does what we are being told now jibe with what we have known in the past? And our friend in the hostelry is in essence asking us to balance new information against what we already know and believe: what else is common sense?
And so we have a standard of what might be called, “certain and most true”: it’s what fits.
One might object (and indeed, many have) that this negates the possibility of new knowledge, of finding out new things, of new views, ideas, and frameworks. And of course this objection has some substance to it, as Kuhn pointed out, old paradigms die hard.
But as he also pointed out, they do die: eventually the weight of the new supersedes the inertia of the old, and paradigms shift and change.
Such changes do not completely change knowledge, however: or history would be impossible. We change paradigms when the explanation of what we know to be true no longer suffices – yet that second part of the equation, “what we know to be true” has not changed.
Short of some obvious, accessible and incontrovertible standard of truth, the best we can do in any search for same is to acknowledge what we know and believe to be “certain and most true” and judge new truths f – from whatever source – in accord with that. As Roy Porter said, “Celebrating the triumph of truth has given way to analysing the structures of belief .
*This 17th century wording is that given by Isaac Newton. This wording was chosen not for the twee, “olde Englishe” value of an old spelling, but rather to highlight the involvement of men such as Newton in the field.
© Diotima 2004