Since at least 1189, and to this day in Anglo-American courts of law, a witness formally promises, by oath or affirmation, to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Nevertheless, courts, and society at large, have often not been content to rely on such promises.
The concern with truth-telling, the anxiety over lying witnesses, goes back much further than 1189, of course. Slaves in the Roman Empire were routinely tortured as witnesses; we have all seen dramatic reenactments of trial by combat and trial by ordeal; and on the Continent, as late as the eighteenth century, judges followed an elaborate process of judicial torture in an effort to guarantee that truth would be told. As with later instances of torture by police, or in times of war, those efforts to achieve truth and real justice were a failure overall.
Our time is not unique in being awash in lies, then. Disinformation is nothing new, as the historic efforts to assure truth telling attest. We may feel exceptionally buried in untruth and fake news, but we’ve been grappling with this problem “since the memory of man runneth not to the contrary.”
I’ve been thinking of the struggle to see truth on many levels of life. The topic is a hard one, vast and difficult to pin down.
I do have one observation: the more I seek my own inner truth, the more I am able to discriminate, mark and recognize truth in others. The work to seek our own reality has no end, really. But on the way it can open us to what is real and true around us. I may never definitively find my true North; but I am convinced that the effort I am making on my inner journey, taking me closer to my true self, will enable me to perceive truth in the world around me. If each of us makes the sincere effort to achieve our own truth, we can contribute to clarity in our common weal.