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Posted May 11, 2005

To Tell the Truth

Thoughts on the Virtue of Truth by Romano Guardini

One virtue above all others is in the limelight of the church these days — truthfulness. Some people who profess to tell it have been crucified, while others who haven’t told it have crucified the church. I think we could profit by listening to Romano Guardini on this needed but complex virtue. Quoted from his book The Virtues.
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A Virtue which has suffered great damage in our day is truthfulness, which taken in its widest interpretation includes also the love of truth, and the will that truth should be recognized and accepted.

First, truthfulness means that the speaker should say what is so, as he sees and understands it, and that he should express what is in his mind. Under certain circumstances this may be difficult, and may even cause annoyance, harm and danger. But our conscience reminds us that truth is an obligation, that it is something absolute and sublime. It is not something of which we say: “You may tell it if it is convenient for you or serves some purpose,” but “When you speak you must tell the truth, not abbreviate it or change it. You must tell it absolutely, simply — unless the situation urges you to be silent or you can evade a question in a decent and proper way.”

But apart from this, our whole existence depends upon truth. We shall say more about this later. The relations of people to each other, social institutions, government — all that we call civilization and man’s work in its countless forms — depends on a respect for truth.

Truthfulness means, then, that man has the instinctive feeling that the truth must be told, absolutely. Of course, we must emphasize this point again, this obligation is based on the assumption that the questioner has the right to be informed. If he does not, then it becomes the task of experience and prudence to find the proper way of avoiding an answer.

We must also note that in regard to truthfulness in daily life it makes a difference if one possesses interior certainty in regard to the various situations, and also if one is a master of the language and quick to define and distinguish. This is a matter of ethical culture with which education should deal. Many a lie arises from shyness and embarrassment, and also from insufficient master of the language.

Special problems arise from circumstances such as we have known in the past and still meet today, when a totalitarian tyranny places all under compulsion and permits no personal convictions. Then man is perpetually on the defensive. Those who exercise violence have no right to demand the truth, and they know that they cannot expect it. Violence causes speech to lose its meaning. It becomes a means of self-protection for the one who is violated, unless the situation is such that it demands a testimony by which the speaker risks property and life. To determine this is the affair of conscience and he who lives in secure freedom may well consider whether he has a right to pass judgment in such a case.

At any rate, truthfulness means that one tells the truth, not only once but again and again, so that it becomes a habit. It brings to the whole man, his being and is action, something clear and firm.

And one should not only speak the truth but do it, for one can lie also through actions, attitudes and gestures, if these seem to express something which is not so.

But truthfulness is something more. We have already spoken of the fact that virtue is never isolated. Surely we have already observed that nature does not know the absolutely “pure” tone, that there are always overtones and undertones forming a chord. A pure color also does not occur, only a mixture of colors. Similarly, “bare” truthfulness cannot exist. It would be hard and unjust. What exists is living truthfulness which other elements of the good penetrate and affect.

There are persons who are truthful by nature. They are too orderly to be able to lie, too much in harmony with themselves — sometimes we may even say, too proud to lie. This is a splendid thing in itself. But such a person is often in danger of saying things at the wrong time, of offending or hurting others. A truth that is spoken at the wrong moment or in a wrong way may so confuse a person that he has difficulty in getting his bearings again. That would not be a living truthfulness but a one-sided one, damaging and destructive. Of course, there are moments when one must not look to the right or left but state the plain truth. But, as a rule, it holds good that we are in the context of existence, and here consideration for the other person is as important as truth-telling. Therefore truth-telling, in order to attain its full human value, must be accompanied by tact and kindness.

Truth is not spoken into a vacuum but to another person; therefore the speaker must try to understand what its effect will be. St. Paul makes a statement whose full meaning is untranslatable: he says that those whom he is addressing, the Christians of Ephesus, should aletheuein en agape. Here the noun, aletheia is turned into a verb: “to speak, to do, to be truth” — but “in love.” [Eph. 4:15]. In order that truth may come to life, love must accompany it.

On the other hand, there are persons in whom this feeling for others is very strongly developed. They perceive immediately how they feel, understand their nature and situation, are aware of their needs, apprehensions and troubles, and consequently are in danger of giving in to the influence of these conditions. Then they not only show consideration, but adapt themselves; they weaken the truth or overemphasize it, indicate a parity of opinion or meaning where it really does not exist. Indeed, the influence can predispose their own way of thinking, so that not only external independence of speech and action is lost, but even the interior independence of judgement.

Here too the living quality of truth is endangered, for it includes the liberty of spirit to see what is true, the determination of responsibility which upholds its judgment even in the face of sympathy and helpfulness, and the strength of personality which understands that its own dignity stands or falls with its loyalty to truth.

So we have two elements which must accompany the desire for truth if the complete virtue is to develop: consideration for the person addressed and courage when truth-telling becomes difficult.

Other things are also necessary. For instance, one needs experience of life and an understanding of its ways. He who sees life too simply thinks that he is telling the truth when he may actually be doing violence to it. He may say of another: “He is a coward!” Actually, the other man does not have the forthrightness of one who is sure of himself; he is timid and uncertain and does not dare to act. The judgment seems correct, but the one who pronounces it lacks knowledge of life, or he would have understood the signs of inhibition in the other person.

Again, one may judge that another is bold, whereas he is really shy and is trying to overcome his interior inhibitions.

We might add many other examples. They would lead us to see that living truth claims and requires the whole man. A friend of mine once remarked in conversation: “Truthfulness is the most subtle of all virtues. But there are persons who handle it like a club.”

All relations of men with each other, the whole of life of the community, depend on faithfulness to truth.

Many is a mysterious being. If someone stands before me, I see his exterior appearance, hear his voice, grasp his hand; but what is going on within him is hidden from me. The more real and vital it is, the more deeply it is buried. So there arises the disturbing fact that the association of persons with each other — and that means the greater part of life — is a relation which moves from one mystery to another. What forms the bridge? The facial expression and gestures, the bearing and actions, but, above all, the word. Through the word man communicates with man. The more reliable the word, the more secure and fruitful the communication.

Moreover, human relationships are of varying depth and significance. The gradation passes from mere getting along with one another and man’s simple needs to the life of the soul, to the workings of the mind, the question of responsibility, and the relation of person to person. The way leads ever deeper, into the special, individual, profoundly personal into the range of freedom where our calculations fail. So the truth of the word becomes ever more important. This is applicable to every kind of relationship, above all to those upon which life in the proper sense depends: friendship, collaboration, love, marriage, the family. Associations that are to endure, to grow and become fruitful must become ever more pure in the truthfulness of each toward the other; if not, they will disintegrate. Every falsehood destroys the community.

But the mystery goes deeper. It does not consist merely in the fact that every communication passes from the hidden depths of one person to those of another, but everyone also communicates with himself. Here man, so to speak, separates into two beings and confronts himself. I consider myself, test and judge myself, decide about myself. Then this duality again unites into the single self and thereafter bears within itself the results of this encounter. This is constantly happening in the process of the interior life. It is the way in which it is accomplished.

But what if I am not truthful in dealing with myself? What if I deceive myself, pretend? And do we not do this constantly? Is not the man who is always “in the right” most perilously “in the wrong”? Does not the man in whose opinion others are always at fault constantly disregard his own fault? Is not the one wh always gets his way living in a tragic delusion, unaware how foolish, how conceited, how narrow, how brutal he is and what harm he is doing? If I wish to associate properly with myself and so with others, I must not disregard my own reality, must not deceive myself, but must be true in dealing with myself. But how difficult that is, and how deplorable our state if we honestly examine ourselves!

Truth gives man firmness and stability. He has need of these, for life is not only a friend but also an enemy. Everywhere interests oppose each other. Constantly we meet touchiness, envy, jealousy, and hatred. The very differences of disposition and point of view cause complications. Even the simple fact that there is “the other,” for whom I am in turn “the other” is a root of conflict.

How shall I manage? By defending myself, of course. Life is in many respects a battle, and in this battle falsehood and deceit might sometimes seem useful. But what on the whole give us firmness and strength are truth, honesty, and reliability. These qualities bring about an enduring result: respect and confidence.