Pre-Modern Post-Truth

By Rhodri Lewis

At the end of 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary declared “post-truth” its Word of the Year, and offered a fine working definition of what the term can be said to mean: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping political debate or public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” “The concept of post-truth has been in existence for the past decade,” the OED declared on its blog, but they had lately “seen a spike in frequency … in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States.” Few would attempt to deny that the political culture embraced and advanced by the Trump administration and the champions of Brexit fits the OED’s description perfectly.

But how new is post-truth culture? Is it a uniquely postmodern malady: the product of the internet, or dollar store totalitarianism, or critical theory as taught on college campuses in the 1980s and ’90s? There’s no question that it can be tempting to insist that things are unprecedentedly bleak. Doing so offers an objective (well, a putatively historical) correlative for the anger, bewilderment, and frustration that so many of us currently feel. Even so, the temptation should be resisted: our post-truth moment has a history that is longer, deeper, and more complex by far. It’s a history that runs through many of the West’s most cherished cultural monuments, and in which all of us are deeply implicated.

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“What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.” So begins Francis Bacon’s essay “Of truth,” first published in 1625. In the account of the gospels, Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judaea, is called on to judge the allegedly seditious conduct of a young Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. Pilate interviews Jesus in the attempt to determine his guilt, and Jesus claims to have borne witness to the truth. Pilate is nonplussed, and rather than allowing himself to get tangled up in the political or theological implications of Jesus’s words, cedes his prisoner’s fate to the will of the Jerusalem mob. The moment is a justly famous one, and in addition to Bacon, has fired the imaginations of writers as diverse as Friedrich Nietzsche, Mikhail Bulgakov, and the Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin. The last of these saw Pilate as someone “in advance of his time” for understanding that “truth” is no more than “an abstract noun, a camel … of a logical construction, which cannot get past the eye even of a grammarian.”

Pilate, though, was not in advance of his time at all. He was instead, as Bacon well understood, the embodiment of a Roman rhetorical culture that valued civic order and the persuasive (rather than the representative) qualities of language above everything else. For the Romans, the stubborn determination to strain at abstract truth was one of the pathologies that had led to the decline of Greek civilization. They inoculated themselves against it with pragmatc vim: conquer, then pacify, and then — perhaps — try to figure out what any of it means. Repeat as necessary. If the Jews are determined to kill one of their own in a fit of unfathomably superstitious rage, Pilate will not risk an uprising in his province by standing in their way. He shrugs, and washes his hands.

Pilate gives us much to go on here, not least because versions of his Roman-ness would frame so much of the world inhabited by Bacon and his near contemporary William Shakespeare. But before exploring this world in the detail it demands, I should offer a word or two of scene-setting. When, towards the end of the middle ages, a group of writers and artists began to feel exasperated with what they took to be the useless knowledge generated by the monasteries and universities, they looked to the muscular publicity of an earlier age. The humanists, as they would become known, sought to establish the precedence of a rhetorical and cultural framework that was self-consciously Roman. In so doing, they hoped to reconfigure learning in support of the active rather than the contemplative life; students should be taught about the efficient conduct of human affairs, not the number of angels that might or might not be able to dance on a pinhead. By the end of the 15th century (slightly later in England), their ideas about imitative-emulative engagement with the ancients had become the standard in education, literature, and the arts.

The goal of Roman rhetoric was to persuade an audience to do what the speaker wanted. It did so not, or not necessarily, through the appeal to truth, but by identifying the emotions of its audiences and playing on them with finely honed verbal art. At the same time, the rhetorical handbooks stressed that only the virtuous man, with truth and right on his side, could hope to master the strenuous demands of eloquence. We cannot say for sure how seriously the authors of these works meant their claims about the inherent virtuosity of eloquent speech, but their Christian humanist followers were glad to accept such claims at face value: Pilate was a bad man, and that is why he could not sway the mob in favor of Jesus.

It would take that penetrating student of Roman history and mores, Niccolò Machiavelli, to demonstrate the obvious. His insights would in due course be both amplified and codified by the French educational reformer, Petrus Ramus. Together, they redefined rhetoric as an instrumental art whose goal was victory, not veracity; once its techniques had been mastered, they could be put to use for good or ill, truth or falsity, peace or war. All the more reason to study them closely. Not to do so would be to abandon political and civic life to the eloquently armed malice of the wicked. Speaking the unadorned truth is never enough if your opponents have the skills with which to flatter, frighten, impress, or otherwise cajole your intended audience. You are deluding yourself if you believe otherwise.

Shakespeare wove these debates about the place and nature of rhetoric into the fabric of his writing. Take Julius Caesar, a play that has recently loomed large in contemporary political discourse thanks to the controversy over the Public Theater’s ill-starred summer production. Brutus tries to speak plainly and honestly to the Roman crowd about his decision to assassinate Caesar, but Mark Antony prevails by artfully deploying the entire toolkit of rhetorical persuasiveness to move the Romans against those who had sought to defend their republic. Feeling and appetite overwhelm the quieter claims of reason, and one set of facts proves just as valid as another: people “construe things after their own fashion / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.” Likewise, in Shakespeare’s bleakest and arguably most demanding play, Troilus and Cressida, one character wonders “what’s aught but as ’tis valued?” Someone else counters that “value dwells not in particular will,” and that an object or idea is valuable to the extent that it is “precious of itself.” But the logic of the play explodes all such claims: truth and value are whatever an audience can be persuaded to believe, whether their subject is romantic love or the Trojan war. Nobody really knows what they’re doing, or why they’re doing it, and nobody is greatly troubled by the fact. Just as in speaking to others you say whatever you need to say in order to prevail, so when speaking to yourself you say whatever appeals most to your vanity, pride, or self-righteousness.

Returning to Julius Caesar, Brutus offers a fine illustration of what happens when the value of words is defined by their impact, and not with their resonance or veracity. The consequences are political, of course, but also profoundly personal. Brutus allows himself to be convinced that he and his fellow conspirators should kill Caesar in the name of republican virtue. But in reality, they do so in order to perpetuate the power and privilege of their class. As the drama progresses, Brutus’ lack of self-knowledge — reinforced by his tendency to flatter himself a model of Stoic constancy — will seal his fate. Constrained by delusion to a part that he can only play inflexibly, he cannot compete with the opportunism or dexterity of his rivals. And yet as Brutus contemplates his death, haunted by Caesar’s ghost and cut off even from the terminal dignity of suicide, he cannot shield himself from the consequences of his actions. He has not only caused the republic and his patrician class to be overthrown, but loses any claim to a self-image that is either honorable or fixed.

In the play that he wrote immediately after Julius Caesar, Shakespeare returned to his exploration of the consequences — political, moral, familial, personal — of a culture in which truth is just a word. In Claudius, Polonius, and their various underlings, Hamlet has no shortage of Pilate-like political figures who pay no heed to the immediate truthfulness of their utterances in the attempt to gain and retain the levers of power. What’s more, in its title character it presents us with one of the most forthright critics of post-truth discourse, someone opposed to “seeming” in all its manifestations. The rub is that Hamlet is no better than Brutus at understanding himself or the world around him: from his suit of black to the way he talks, he emerges as inescapably bound up within the culture of superficiality and display that he so outspokenly disdains.

The immediate cause of Hamlet’s problems lies in his reason for being so angry and resentful as the play begins. Not because his father is dead, but because his father has died and his mother and uncle (with the enthusiastic connivance of the court) have seized the throne that he covets as his own. The pursuit of revenge against Claudius offers an outlet for the expression of these feelings, but from the instant that the Ghost completes its testimony, Hamlet finds that he can only play the part of the revenger. And, as playing the revenger like an actor would be to admit that he lacks the feelings of vindictive intensity that he believes should be his by “nature,” he does nothing. Or, rather, he distracts himself from his lack of condign rage by masquerading in the roles of the philosopher, historian, moralist, lover, poet, stage-director, and theologian. In each case, he does so as one trained in humanist rhetoric was supposed to: by taking phrases from his reading and education, and recombining them into an eloquent and affective whole. He may not do a very good job of this (his soliloquies sound great, but collapse into incoherence), but it doesn’t matter. His words suffice to satisfy the emotional demands of their principal audience: that is, Hamlet himself, working hard to obscure the dynamics of his inward existence, and to set himself apart from the compromised realities of life in Elsinore.

But Hamlet does not think or exist in the isolation to which he pretends. His energies may be tied up in the effort to hold his self-image together, but maintaining that self-image depends on being able to see it reflected in others: by Horatio, with politic and quite possibly disingenuous sympathy; by everyone else, with distress or anger or unease or irritation. Ultimately, his tragedy is shared by Denmark as a whole. He causes the obliteration of his family and of the Danish ruling class, and betrays his father’s legacy by handing his country over to Norwegian control. Manifestly, something is rotten in the state of Shakespeare’s Denmark, and will remain so long after the play is over. Hamlet stands as a victim, a symbol, and an agent of this decay.

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The moral of the story? Unpleasant though it is to contemplate, we are products of the same attitudinizing culture as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and the rest of their motley cohort. One in which we have grown used to speaking through languages that we know will appeal to the cultural and/or political tribes with which we identify. One in which, on left and right alike, cant and militant sentimentality do duty for sustained thought and engagement, and in which rhetorical call-and-response supplants any serious attempt at debate. Perhaps I pay too much attention to my Twitter timeline. But when the gurning inanity of playing Caesar as a Trumpalike qualifies as political critique, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that, for a while at least, the capacity to judge truth or authenticity or pertinence has left all parts of the building. The irony is that Julius Caesar is a study of what happens when that capacity goes into abeyance — when self-regard beards appetite and anxiety alike, and dispassionately thoughtful analysis is pushed aside. As such, it testifies to the power of Shakespeare’s drama to hold the mirror up to a cultural world characterized by self-deceit, illusion, and pretense.

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