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286. Revolution (V)

The West is based on two men: Jesus and Socrates. These two men promoted two, almost identical, ideas: truth and love. So we could say, put in simple terms, that the West is based on the pursuit of love and truth—and love of truth. For Socrates, love is associated with conviviality and friendship—exclusively male friendship—that is orientated towards beauty, and this includes the beauty found in the human body, particularly a young man’s body; if not, indeed, an adolescent boy’s body. As an ugly man, his beauty is detached from the particular; there is, naturally, a Platonic ideal of beauty to which we can all aspire.

As for truth, Socrates offers us a method that he claims can attain truth: a dialectical movement, truth pursued through conversation, that will reveal that we do not really know what we think we know; further, through excavation, we will discover that there are certain truths buried within us—we have merely forgotten. Socrates offers us truth pursued through doubt and uncertainty. Jesus also advocates truth and love, although in a slightly different mode. The love Jesus offers is the all-embracing—perhaps all-destroying—love of the Father; as with Socrates, it is a love that involves the soul; it is for everyone: ugly or beautiful, rich or poor. Yet it is less concerned with particular beauty than Socrates.

Jesus does not offer Socrates’s insistence on rhythmic beauty and harmony; his is a more general love, the love of the great family in Heaven. It is not pursued intellectually; rather it is an act of faith, as you would expect. It is not sought through dialectic, rather it is commanded—we should love our neighbour as ourself. Jesus also offers truth: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no one cometh unto the Father, but by me.” Unlike Socrates, who offers a method based on his reputation as the wisest man, Jesus offers himself as embodied truth; to accept Jesus is to accept the truth—both Socrates and Jesus agree that there is one truth.

Pilate offers the aristocratic counterpoint: “What is truth,” he says; and then he washes his hands. His point is an aristocratic savoir-faire and we can imagine, perhaps, that he was schooled by Socrates’s foes, the sophists. He was schooled by those men who taught Roman magistrates that for philosophers all religions are equally false, for the masses all religions are equally true and believable, and for magistrates all religions are equally useful. An obsession with “the truth” is not particularly useful if a man is to make his way through life, hence the sophists did not teach anything so complete; they offered know-how, the art of self-control. The truth Jesus brings is, unlike Socratic doubt, absolute; it will force all to bow before it—it is the irresistible, it will overturn the Roman Empire itself.

For twenty-four centuries or so, the West has been dominated and formed by these two men—and by the tension between them. The tension is between the pursuit of truth as doubt in Socrates and the absolute certainty in truth offered by Jesus; and in love, the contrast is between the beautiful friendship offered by Socrates and the absolute paternal love offered by Jesus.

This is why the West and Westerners are always slightly doubtful; we can never have the absolute certainty found in Muslims; we always have Socrates on our shoulder reminding us to doubt and undermine through dialectic. Nor can we be as tolerant and easy-going as the Indians, we always have Jesus on our shoulder to tell us that the truth is absolute and must make all bend before it. We cannot easily say, “That’s your god, your truth. That’s fine!” So it is this dialectic, this on-going conversation between two slightly different iterations of the same concepts—truth and love—that has given us the scientific method, advanced technology, and much else besides; perhaps even totalitarianism, absolute embodied truth and love.


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