Truth, justice, silence

The distinction between truth and justice collapses when examined subjectively. Truth is every mind’s formal pursuit until the project becomes less defined, more vague, more mysterious and unfathomable — and when it is shattered by the circumstances of existence.

The notion of truth is not easily given up: the possibility, the tangible, tactile presence that eludes definition. It is the project of consciousness. According to one’s socialization and culture, truth varies in contour and detail, but seen from a universal perspective, emerges from the culturally dependent and seems to transcend any given society or set of seekers. And yet, it eludes even the generously open frame of mind.

Can this be because what the animal instinct embedded within the human psyche really wants is not the abstraction of truth but the concrete situational condition of justice? Not the institutional interpretation of justice today but the overarching virtue envisioned by philosophers — even when it is not seen in practice. Justice seems more tangible, more concrete, more susceptible to codification and reason, more quantitative, more accountable, more available for knowing and implementing. Justice ought to be a facet of truth. Indeed, if we suspend using the word truth but keep the connotations, we come closer to identifying facets and factors to take into account when defining justice. Justice in this classic sense of harmony is a relational concept that becomes more tangible than truth.

Justice sounds legal and political, dependent on society and circumstance — far more than “truth.” In psychological terms, justice is that balance sought by the mind between the deepest and the more practical aspects of the psyche. Justice is capable of extending the concept of balance and harmony beyond self, self-and-others, and to nature. Justice is practical and flexible, yet as robust a concept as if we are naming something inchoate in nature and not human self-discovery.

But the cry for justice is more fundamental than the need for truth.

In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche writes that “There is no built-in harmony between the furtherance of truth and the well-being of humanity.” And this is so because both the pursuit of truth and the well-being of people is always bound by society’s norms, which in turn are defined by society’s elites, by those enjoying power and authority. The outward norms are relative to the culture — relative to those who have defined the culture.

And there is no naturally ordained harmony within these norms because human beings are not “natural.” Aggregate behavior and the pooling of power is never benign. To seek well-being, it is necessary to seek justice, not truth. To seek justice means to seek a harmony not granted by either society nor nature, not the later as “nature doing what we want it to.”

We do not create but discover harmony. We shape our consciousness to this harmony. Justice becomes a useful metaphor for harmony — though the former word is laden with political and social connotations. Legendary and historical presentations of human suffering and plight always point out that “justice” is more urgent, more pressing, than “truth.”

In the Buddhist Jataka tales of the Buddha’s past lives, with their distinctly Hindu social settings, are many representative stories, especially that of the “Gem Thief.” An attractive young couple are riding a horse-drawn cart into the city from the country. The king gets a glimpse of the young woman (her name is Sujata) and desires her at any cost. He orders one of his soldiers to hide a gem in the cart. Then the king announces that someone has stolen his gem, orders the gates closed and everyone searched. The gem is found in the cart. The husband is sentenced to death, while the distraught young woman is led to the palace. She cries out:

There are no gods! Surely they dwell afar!
Surely there are no world-warder here!
Those men who hurriedly work lawless deeds,
Are there none here to bid them stop?

This is a strongly expressed argument for such an ancient document, for it identifies the source of suffering squarely within human society and power. The logical conclusion is that not truth but justice saves, with justice being a maintenance of balance and harmony within any “system.” The story has a happy ending, as do all fairy tales that teach a moral, but we know that this sort of behavior has been universal in all societies, and continues today unrelentingly.

The “Gem Thief” is reminiscent of the Jewish scriptural recounting of King David’s similar actions (2 Samuel: 11). A woman is bathing, and from the rooftop of his palace, the king sees her and wants her at any cost. He arranges the death of her husband, a military officer, by having his forces abandon him to death from the enemy in the heat of battle. Nowhere are Bathsheba’s views recorded, but she too may have wondered if “there are no gods” to thwart the lawless deeds of the powerful.

Another example from Greco-Jewish tradition is the story of Job, about which Jung has elaborated in his essay, “Response to Job.” Here again a representative human being is struck down by authority and power — except that the nature of the crime springs from the conspiracy of God and Satan. The story of Job is probably the best exemplar of this genre of questioning tale, wherein even the happy ending is so unconvincing that it is hard to escape the critique of theology.

In the Christian Gospel’s presentation of Jesus on the cross, he laments: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Though the incident is often glossed over as interpolation or literary device, the Gospel compilers permit a genuine sentiment to appear without mitigation. The words of lament can apply to any number of existential circumstances. The obvious silence of God is ignored in unswerving acceptance of tenets, creeds, and beliefs. Only the attentiveness of conscience to the circumstances of humanity’s situation provides the insight into the contrast of justice and truth. Only the universalizing of moral vision prepares the self for the beginning of truth and the necessity of justice, here understood as not merely an ethical necessity but a metaphysical one.

Martin Buber wondered “whether it not be literally true that God formerly spoke to us and is now silent.” But perhaps silence is the expected response given the record of ethical silence all along in the scriptural narratives. This is the believer’s dilemma, poignantly expressed in Eli Wiesel’s allegorical play, “The Trial of God.” Jewish tradition has historically had to deal with the silence of God more literally because of its lack of power in the societies in which Jews found themselves. But individuals in all times, places, and circumstances have had to deal with what can be called the silence of truth.

Kierkegaard had a different solution to the same realization. He does not refocus on justice and balance but offers, in effect, a response to Job. But Kierkegaard, like the Job author, fails to resolve the dilemma and transfers it to the supposed inadequacy of the human heart:

The present state of the world and the whole of life is diseased. If I were a doctor and were asked for my advice, I should reply: Create silence! Bring men to silence. The Word of God cannot be heard in the noisy world of today. And even if it were blazoned forth with all the panoply of noise so that it could be heard in the midst of all the other noise, then it would no longer be the Word of God. Therefore create silence.

If silence means shutting down power, authority and will in order to allow the voice of conscience and harmony to be heard, then Kierkegaard’s sentiment would inch closer to insight.

But in the end, the lament of the ages is bluntly understood not by the believers but by Nietzsche, no friend of piety, impatient both with nature and a tragic sense of life. The triumph of harmony can only come from within. Inner strength only works for one person at a time. Aspirations to harmony cannot change the “disease” of the world Kierkegaard refers to, nor can it assuage the pain of life.

No wonder Buddhism is dismissively seen by Westerners as a palliative to suffering. Some celebrate its abandoning the quest for metaphysical truth, others its counsel for shaping a mind that harmonizes with the mysterious flow of nature. But the West’s abandonment of the search for truth has not offered the modern world justice nor even pointed to it in abstract. In the West, neither advocates for or against truth have understood what people want.

Only silence is left, the silence of Sujata, Bathsheba, Job, Jesus. Yet they are not silent when we identify with their plight. Rather, the only silence is the silence heard in response to their questions.