"Truth" Examined

07/02/2013 02:22 pm ET | Updated Sep 01, 2013

Truth. It's the only thing that really counts for philosophers, of course, but also for painters and other artists. For the two and a half millennia that the issue of truth has been around, three major hypotheses -- or rather three plus one more, a newer arrival -- have vied for control of the territory and the minds that inhabit it.

There is, first, the Platonic hypothesis, or, what amounts to the same thing, the Heideggerian. There is one truth. More precisely, truth is one. Like the Good and the Beautiful, the True has just one sense, one meaning. Superior are those who grasp that meaning; happy they who draw back the veil that, whether it covers our eyes or the things we see, has concealed the true from our gaze and who, in drawing back the veil, crack the code of that enigmatic unity, murky and obscure. Woe to those who not only fail to pierce the veil but who rebel, buck, reject the sublime illumination, dawdle, hesitate, grumble that it's not that simple or clear, who assert that they have their own truth and have no intention of giving it up even if it's not the same as their neighbor's. Woe indeed, because you don't play games with the truth. Real woe, because the truth is delivered with a club. The Platonic hypothesis is the source of fanaticism, a hotbed of despotisms, not only as revealed (I hold the truth) but as accepted (why resist if the truth is so obvious, so certain, so clear?).

Next is the Nietzschean hypothesis -- or the Sophistic, which comes to the same thing. At bottom, what is a Sophist, or, in modern terms, a Nietzschean? He is someone whose first article of faith is that the truth is multiple, that it has several meanings and that each one of us possesses his own truth. My truth, your truth: as many truths, in truth, as there are thinking beings. And an equal distance separates each of these truths. That is not to say that they are equivalent, because equivalence would imply a lack of difference. But wait, is this principle of multiple truths valid in the case of a bad person? A pervert? A barbarian? Does it hold for Callicles, who claimed that his personal truth consisted of denying and annihilating that of his neighbor? Of course. Not that I have any special affection for Callicles. But we are now deprived of any way of distinguishing him from Socrates. Or between those whose truth lies in justifying criminal behavior versus those who try to resist it. This is the breeding ground of all forms of cynicism--or better, of all forms of perspectivism and relativism, including cultural relativism. It provides the justification for the useful lie, the well-meaning murder. It is the eternal confusion between law and strength. It says to the talking being that is man not "duty and justice are one" but "might makes right." In its consequences, it is no better than the hypothesis of a single truth.

Then there is Hegelianism. Or, what amounts to the same thing, the historical progressivism incarnated, for example, in Marxism. As with Plato, truth of the Hegelian variety is entire and exclusive. But, as with Nietzsche, it has several senses, except that these succeed each other slowly, are asserted and then contradicted, not in accord with the whim and caprice of each subjective individual but over time and in obedience to a dialectical logic that determines the movements of the ball in which we all dance. Gropings, trials and errors, blossomings. Tactics and stratagems followed finally by triumph. This is a third tragic hypothesis, a third way of rejecting, disowning, and -- why not? -- eliminating those speaking subjects who make the mistake of dallying at one stage or another of the unfolding of the true. Truth consists of moments. And the despot returns when, in the name of that ultimate truth whose itinerary he claims to know, he says to the laggards, that is, to those of us who commit the fatal error of clinging to what has just gone out of date: "Silence! Heed me and obey," or simply "Get moving!" Isn't that the story of the various forms of totalitarianism that littered the 20th century?

There is a fourth and final hypothesis, one that I have spent my life exploring and to which, 35 years after my Testament of God (1980), a book written in the long shadow of Emmanuel Levinas and René Girard, I am returning through a meditation on and inquiry into art. The first stage in that meditation recently appeared in French under the title Les Aventures de la vérité -- Peinture et philosophy: un récit (The Adventures of Truth: A Narrative of Painting and Philosophy, Fondation Maeght / Grasset 2013). I call it the messianic hypothesis. It is consistent with Platonism on the key point of the desire for the true, the will to truth. It agrees, too, with the Platonic idea that life is not worth living unless it values the true more than it does illusion and imitation. It shares something with Nietzscheanism in that, the heavens having been emptied of their divine ideas, the true is uncertain, never completely assured, since nowhere and in no language is it recorded in indisputable words. It is up to each of us, at our own expense, in our own more or less reliable words, to venture out in perilous pursuit of that truth. The reference to adventure, which implies history -- or, at any rate, the unfolding of time as the field on which this great game must play out -- means that the fourth way also shares something with Hegelianism and its doctrine of reserving to each time, to each moment in time, a shard of the truth. Except -- and here lies the essence of messianism -- that the shards remain just that, pieces; the vases remain broken, and we confront, this time around, a history without end, an odyssey with no point of return, an elevation with no epiphany or second coming, no denouement, let alone a happy ending -- only a horizon that recedes as fast as we approach it.

That's where I stand. And that, truly, is what lies behind the adventures of the truth.

Bernard-Henri Lévy's latest book, Les aventures de la vérité--Peinture et philosophy: un récit (Fondation Maeght / Grasset 2013) traces the epic struggle between philosophy and art, word and image, over the centuries. In parallel with the book, Lévy has curated a show with the same title at the Fondation Maeght in St. Paul de Vence. The show, which opened June 29, runs through November 11. http://www.fondation-maeght.com/index.php/en/exhibitions

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy