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What is truth?” shrugged the ambitious official, stuck for the moment in flyover country but with ambitions to return to Rome and higher office.
He never made it, at least not to that office. Pilate was sacked from his job for incompetence after his patron back in the capitol died.
You could almost—almost—feel sorry for him, stuck as he was with a howling mob, an accused he likely disliked, and no evidence that really supported an indictment. So he washed his hands of the matter. Given his overall disdain for those he ruled, we’re not surprised.
But it is for his casual disdain even for the idea of truth—or for its importance—that he’s remembered today.
Perhaps Pilate was too practical a Roman to pay much attention to philosophy. But if he had done so, he might have known that truth and meaning are intimately connected.
Had he paid attention to his tutors, Pilate would have remembered what the ancient Greeks called logos. The term meant “word” and the meaning conveyed by words, and hence our capacity to reason. Western philosophy started, centuries before the Roman Empire solidified, with the desire to apply logos to understand our world. We see its offspring in words like “biology” and “archaeology,” disciplines that seek to find the orderly patterns in complex phenomena.
The Greeks had a third meaning to logos that is both intriguing and applicable to what is happening around us today. It comes from Euclid’s mathematics, where it referred to the ability of an equation to bring otherwise incompatible things—things so different from one another that there is no common yardstick with which to measure them into meaningful relationship with one another.
Boy, could we use some of that today. Because all around us, meaning itself is under attack. And not just with skeptical questioning or deep exploration, but with fury-fed flames that seek to destroy.
For more than 2,000 years, Western civilization honored logos. It peaked in the Enlightenment, when the emerging success of science led many to believe, not only that there is meaningful order in the world, but that humankind fully could grasp and articulate it. Some saw this as proof of the existence of a God who was the source of logos and order. Some saw it as proof that humankind had outgrown religious belief.
The assumption that humans could understand the whole complex world gradually morphed from wonder to confidence to hubris. And where hubris arises, a fall is sure to come.
It started innocuously enough, back with the discovery that in mathematics there can be multiple versions of, say, geometry that can contradict one another and yet each appear to be internally consistent. With that discovery, the assumption that what is logically consistent to our eyes is by its very nature true crumbled. Soon physicists were finding non-Euclidean math, math that doesn’t match our sensory experience, that was useful in explaining the very small and very large elements of the universe. By the time we got to 20th-century quantum theory, the universe seemed very, very odd to us indeed.
Where math led, philosophy and the humanities followed until postmodern critical theory asserted not only that our knowledge has limits but that all meaning is arbitrary, culturally shaped, and ultimately personal.
Losing confidence in logos did not, however, get in the way of industry. Engineering continued to produce increasingly powerful tech. And soon a mindset evolved that replaces belief in logos with belief in our ability to engineer solutions to every problem, and ultimately to engineer control of our entire world and society.
How tempting, then, when you wield political power and have an army (the old media, Big Tech) behind you, to want to create a narrative in lieu of a logos-based dialogue.
Left-wing journalist Matthew Yglesias tweeted ahead of Tax Day that “progressive groups did a really good job of convincing people that Trump raised their taxes when the facts say a clear majority got a tax cut.”
He was unapologetically celebrating a lie that he considered to be a win.
If you’re a leftist undergrad with helicopter parents, you demand courses that cater to your sensibilities and do not challenge you with difficult facts. You demand the removal of art, statues, speakers that do not fit your assumptions. Because if there is no real truth, if meaning is not based on anything outside of yourself, then those who disagree with you can only be seen as the enemy.
If you’re an Antifa type you ramp it up. You physically threaten and attack those whose opinions you dislike. You smash windows and cars when the person you despise is due to be inaugurated into office.
Is it any surprise, then, that we saw just this week hard leftists celebrating the destruction at the Cathedral of Notre Dame?
And if you’re neither of those but rather a hard-nosed, practical law man—one with a track record of “doing what it takes”—and you’ve got to deal with flyover country types who lack your Roman gentry discipline? Suppose you can’t quite find a basis for indictment. No worries. You can always wash your hands of the matter and let someone else take responsibility for the No Obstruction conclusion.
And let the mob continue to howl for the destruction after which it lusts.
The search for truth is hard. That is why we have laws and principles to guide judgment. It’s why in this country an accused is deemed innocent until and unless there is evidence sufficient to convict of a clear crime.
Give Pilate his due on this, however: although the Roman aristocracy was already starting to descend towards late-stage public degeneracy, many still prided themselves on hard-nosed self-discipline and an unflinching willingness to confront reality. Pilate could not bring himself falsely to indict a man for whom there was no evidence under Roman law of criminal behavior.
There were two areas, according to Attorney General William Barr, where Russia tried hard to insert influence into the 2016 election: attempts through the Internet Research Agency to sow discord among American voters through disinformation and social media, and the successful hacking of Hillary’s emails by Russian military officers with the intent to publicize them.
However, Robert Mueller’s report also states unequivocally that there was no collusion in these attempts with anyone associated with the Trump campaign. Nor did the investigation find any conspiracy to violate U.S. law involving Russia-linked persons and any persons associated with the Trump campaign. The mob is unappeased and howls “Obstruction!” But most will agree, I think, that this president will not go willingly to Golgotha.
This has not ended. Only the first phase is complete. What comes next will hinge, critically, on the willingness of leaders on the Left once again to embrace shared meaning of words and of the law. But the mob has been whipped into blood frenzy and it will not quiet easily.
Photo Credit: Antonio Quattrone/Electa/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images