The Truth About Human Nature: We Aren’t So Truthful
July 23, 2012
After watching the recent cinematic version of Gulliver’s Travels with my thirteen-year-old son, I asked him what he thought the moral of the story was. He replied, “Don’t lie.” That’s not a bad answer: both the original book and the new adaptation, starring Jack Black as a modern-day Gulliver, have at their core the issues of truth-telling and lying, authenticity and hypocrisy, and illusion and reality. But while the new film shows Gulliver on a clear journey from self-deception to straightforwardly depicted authenticity, in his original version, Jonathan Swift presents a much more complex understanding of how lying and honesty fit into human nature.
There is a long heritage to the idea that literature is not only an image but a lie. The ancient Greek poet Hesiod tells us that it is the special gift of the muses to “speak many false things as though they were true.” Plato famously banishes the poets from his ideal city, considering it anathema to true philosophy. Modern philosophy and science have advanced a notion of truth as pure and simple factuality that is opposed to the rich contextuality and ambiguity found in literature. Thomas Hobbes condemns metaphor as illusion, arguing that true statements are constructed of exact definitions and “perspicuous words.” John Locke attacks “all the artificial and figurative application of Words [that] Eloquence hath invented.” The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham claims that “between poetry and truth there is a natural opposition.”
The truth about truth is rather more complicated. Plato’s claim that “there is an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” for example, is belied by his use of the literary form of the dialogue, which attests to the more common recognition by the ancients of the power of literature — through images and indeed through lies — to lead us to the truth. Swift would surely not have disagreed that literature holds the power to deceive viciously. Yet he was on to a much more subtle understanding of how we can best find and communicate the truth — an issue whose difficulty is pointed to not only by the subject matter of his satirical masterpiece Gulliver’s Travels (1726) but by its very form as a satire. Satire purports to tear off the falsehoods that paper over our awareness; so why does it take the form of fiction — a lie?
Swift upheld the belief shared by most of the ancients that, properly guided, the lying muses have the power to lead us to the truth. Satire is one very particular form of this lying — ancient in origin but especially prominent in the modern age. More than other literary forms, satire uses carefully crafted lies to convey truths that would be harder to accept or even recognize if presented simply as “fact.” Gulliver’s name may itself reflect this idea: Dr. Johnson’s dictionary tells us that a “gull” is someone who is easily tricked or deceived, yet the “ver” suggests veritas, the Latin word for truth. Gulliver’s journey then, as ours, is one of being deceived into the truth. At its best, satire — like philosophy — is able to make the familiar strange, revealing to us what has been in front of us all along.
In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift challenges the idea — advanced by his Enlightenment contemporaries — that truth, including the truth about human nature, is best understood as a matter of simple factual claims. Swift’s view, as we shall see, was that dedication to this rising scientific view of truth as synonymous with fact precisely misses the very essence of human nature. But Swift’s recognition of the subtle relationship between our capacity for lying and the essential truth about human nature also sets him apart from another modern opponent of the Enlightenment, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche picked up as a kind of motto a mistranslated line from the Second Pythian Ode, a work by the Ancient Greek poet Pindar: “Become what you are.” In Nietzsche’s existentialist understanding (later appropriated in a similar fashion by Martin Heidegger), the phrase is an injunction to drop the delusion of an ideal you, along with any moral overlay it implies, and simply to identify fully with yourself as a bundle of drives. “Become what you are” means for him “Become what you happen to be, not what you think you should be.” That is, amor fati: love your fate!
There is another way to interpret Pindar’s injunction: the essentialist, or classical understanding. This better adheres to a more accurate translation of the poem, which would read something like, “Become such as you are, having learned what that is.” Plato and Aristotle held that we have a telos — an end toward which we are pointed. This end is our true self, and the best life is spent trying to understand what that self is, and to become it. For an essentialist, “Become what you are” means “Become who you truly are, and stop being sidetracked by partial lower drives.”
Although they are in a strict sense opposed to one another, the essentialist and existentialist positions share one crucial insight into the human condition: whatever we are, we are in some sense not what we are. We must choose between identifying with different versions of ourselves; because we act and shape ourselves according to our self-understanding, identifying with the wrong version makes our lives something false, incapable of fulfilling their end. Yet even a correct identification does not accomplish full “genuineness” because we are always in the process of becoming fully ourselves, and thus are always in part “not what we are.”
Since Nietzsche, the choice of which version of ourselves we identify with has been widely understood as a choice between lying and truth-telling — to ourselves as much as to others. The moral ideal has become authenticity — a particular kind of honesty. Of course, just about any philosophical ideal is grounded in some sort of honesty: the search for Truth requires truth. Yet Aristotle describes honesty as a virtue only of self-presentation — the balance between self-deprecation and boastfulness. And Plato never lists honesty as a virtue at all, and even distinguishes between “true lies” and useful or noble lies. From the modern to the post-modern era, honesty and authenticity shifted to become much of the telos of life, where before they had been but means in our progress toward that end…