Today’s (10 July 2017) Daily Telegraph runs an article by John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN in which he writes:
“Trump got to experience Putin looking him in the eyes and lying to him, denying Russian interference in the election.”
But truth is not an easy concept to pin down. “What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” as Francis Bacon started his 1625 essay ‘Of Truth’, alluding to the Gospel of St. John.
Aristotle defined truth as: ‘to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.’ So ‘truth’ and ‘being’ are solidly linked. But this is more complex than it looks at first glance. The closest Ancient Greek word for truth as we know it is ἀλήθεια (aletheia), meaning ‘unconcealed-ness’: in other words the opposite (denoted by the initial ‘a’) of the word in the middle of aletheia, ‘Lethe’. Lethe being one of the five rivers in the underworld, Hades, and the name of the Greek spirit of forgetfulness and oblivion. So, lying has a suggestion of forgetfulness. Indeed, one medical definition of lying is ‘selective amnesia’. According to Freud, we suppress that which is emotionally difficult for us to accept about the past.
And how about if we ask: “What is the truth about the best way to live, or the best way to govern?” Isaiah Berlin – the late, great Latvian-British philosopher – believed that the search for absolute philosophical and political truths – on which much Western philosophy has been based – led to the ideologies which, once logically applied, caused many of the horrors of the 20th Century. Pluralism, for him, was a far better alternative.
The Chinese, for whom truth tends to be relational, believe there are a million truths.
Russians, for whom the truth might have led to death or the Gulags, could be argued to have come to see lying as the means to survival.
Russians have a concept, vranyo, which means an acceptable white lie. It’s one of those untranslatable words that can take us to the heart of a culture.
Marilyn Murray, in her 2012 article in the Moscow Times ‘Why Lying Has Become a National Pastime’ defines it like this:
“Vranyo is described as when a person knows he is lying and expects the other person to understand that. One of my colleagues said, “He was lying to us, we knew he was lying, he knew we knew he was lying, but he kept lying anyway, and we pretended to believe him.”
Churchill famously described Russia as ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’. Western cultural understanding of Russians is woefully lacking, even by foreign ministries and diplomats. It’s easy to understand why: Russians look like us, dress like us, seem pretty much like us on the surface, but at their core is a very different soul – or dusha in Russian – as much Asian as European. Connect with that, and many problems could be amicably solved.