Saturday, January 26, 2013

Truth is Beauty

“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator, asked Jesus.  The Bible [John 18:38] does not quote Jesus’ answer.  We don’t know whether Jesus chose to remain silent or Pilate had no patience to listen.

Nineteen centuries later, the Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov extracted an answer from Jesus.  “The truth is,” tells Jesus to Pilate, “first of all, that your head aches, and aches so badly that you’re having faint-hearted thoughts of death.  You’re not only unable to speak to me, but it is even hard for you to look at me.  And I am now your unwilling torturer, which upsets me.  You can’t even think about anything and only dream that your dog should come, apparently the one being you are attached to.  But your suffering will soon be over, your headache will go away.” [The Master and Margarita, Penguin Classics, 2007, p.24]

Bulgakov’s Jesus goes on to advise Pilate that he would do well to go for a stroll, maybe in the gardens on the Mount of Olives.  “The trouble is,” says Jesus, “that you are too closed off and have definitely lost faith in people.  You must agree, one can’t place all one’s affection in a dog.  Your life is impoverished....” [p.25, emphasis added]

For Bulgakov’s Jesus, truth is an imaginative and compassionate understanding of reality.  It is not a philosophical or scientific understanding.  It is an understanding that leads to trust in people and compassion for them.

A century before Bulgakov, one of the British Romantic poets wrote: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” [John Keats (1795-1821), Ode on a Grecian Urn]
What Keats meant to say, according to many interpreters, is that the truth or the ultimate reality is not known by the reasoning mind but by imagination.  Such knowledge of the reality opens up a world of beauty to the perceiver.

It is a beauty perceived by one who understands the deeper meaning of reality.  The beauty that transcends appearances.  Beauty that lies beyond costumes and cosmetics.  Beyond opulence and copulation.  Beyond economics and technology...

Of course, beyond mere discipline and order.  Beyond spirituality and mortifications.

It is the beauty of a profound understanding of life.  The kind of understanding that Bulgakov’s Jesus reveals.  The kind of understanding that the great visionaries possessed.  An understanding of the essential interrelatedness of all beings.

An understanding that fosters trust in one’s fellow beings. Fosters compassion.

Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer survey shows that people are increasingly losing trust in other people, especially the politicians and the business people.  “...only 18% trusted business leaders, whilst government leaders scored a yet more miserable 13%,” says the report, as quoted by an article in the latest issue of the Economist. Technology is the most trusted industry, say the report, with 77% approval, 8% ahead of the car industry. 

Perhaps, we need to remind ourselves once again a la Bulgakov’s Jesus that one can’t place all one’s affection in a gadget or a car or even a dog. Perhaps, we can reclaim our potential to dig deep...

Note: Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) completed the manuscript of The Master and Margarita in 1938.   But the novel was published only in 1966.  It is a merciless satire on the novelist’s contemporary Russia ruled by Stalin.  The devil and his henchmen are the major characters. 


  1. Matheikal, I thought that Pilate was verbally, orally dyslexic! (if that made any sense). I think I will respond to this post with a separate post wherein I will make my continuing argument, science is NOT truth, will not know truth even if hit on the head by truth. Science just keeps ontruckin' And, precisely where truth lies, in reaching for it. There is no place where whatever you mean by "deeper meaning" resides.


    1. Raghuram, this blog is a literary approach to truth. Even a religious approach, to some extent. Such truth is quite different from scientific truth which is a posteriori. Most truths of human life (living) are neither a priori nor a posteriori; they are imaginative/intuitive. Literature deals with those truths. Bulgakov and Keats are just two examples.

  2. Matheikal, my problem is simply this ... supposing I write on scientific truth (and I believe there is no such thing as scientific truth), I would not point out that religious or literary truth lacks in that respect. Unless it is a comparative exercise, I do not see scientific truth making any valid appearance in your post. Philosophy is a different matter as it is the fount of both religion and science. I do not understand how scientific truth is a posteriori. The truth is that if I walk off the balcony of my house, I will fall down. This is a priori truth, albeit of a decidedly mundane level. At a higher level, I can say that as the sun has risen everyday for 4 billion years, it will rise again tomorrow at a probability of (4 x 365 billion days) divided by (4 x 365) billion days + 1. This is a priori truth. If the sun blows up suddenly, I will know it only after about 8 minutes. This is a priori truth.

    Literary truths cannot but be at mundane levels, no matter how much spiritual veneer it takes on. If by truths you mean speculation then I would accept that. A J Iyer has argued a lot about what constitutes knowledge, but as far as I know he has not touched truth. I am going to leave it up to him and he is conveniently dead.

    No matter how much any one can discern what you call "deep truths", it cannot be conveyed to anyone else except on authority and that I tag as speculation.

    You have to come down from literary heights to explain to me what is meant by "Most truths of human life are imaginative/intuitive". Just because human beings can imagine/intuit, it does not mean human truths are imaginative.


    1. Really scientific truths are the ones like two molecules of hydrogen and one molecule of oxygen form one molecule of water. A posteriori. Can be verified. Experimental.

      Falling of balcony also can be similarly verified if one needs such verification ;) But I agree one can also deduce it logically; hence a priori. Verifiable, nevertheless; hence scientific! That's what I meant.

      Such experimental verifiability does not exist in the kinds of truth that the literary and religious gurus teach. For example, Keats' words quoted in the blog (Beauty is truth...) would be absurd unless one understands it imaginatively. Tat tvam asi would be absurd similarly. 'The Kingdom of God is with you' would be absurd. And yet people have found much meaning and significance in such (scientifically) absurd statements. Why? That's what interests me. This blog tries to throw some light in that direction.

      Unless there were such imaginative or intuitive truths, there wouldn't have been any literature or art!

  3. Thank you for quoting Bulgakov and Keats -you made my day! I can see an interesting discussion above but I have no heart to be a part of it. To me the truth lies in the nightingale's song that was heard by the queens and emperors before. It lies in the figurines of the Grecian urn that tell about tales of ambition turning to ash one day. The truth lies in a dog's heart and we will never know its intensity till we turn it into a man. And the truth lies in a man's mind but we will never know its rabidness till we turn him into a dog. Scientific truth is like a bullet that puts a hole across one's scull and literary truth is like the air that fills in the aftermath although you can still split the air into molecules.

    1. Uma, you've just put very poetically what I have said rather prosaically. You've understood exactly what I meant to say. I could have brought a lot of science to say the same thing. For example, there are scientists who have studied cognition and consciousness to such an extent as to say: "The world everyone sees is not THE world but A world, which we bring forth with others" (Maturana and Varela, 'The Tree of Knowledge, 1987). Scientist-turned mystic (as I describe him) Fritjof Capra argues that "Sprituality ... is a direct, non-intellectual experience of reality..." ('The Hidden Connections').

      I tend to avoid such scientific approaches simply because I believe that people can understand those things more easily with the help of literature and art, and also religion if people know how to use these things.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


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