Nemo autem securus est in iis bonis quae potest invitus amittere. Veritatem autem atque sapientiam nemo amittit invitus: non enim locis separari ab ea quisquam potest; sed ea quae dicitur a veritate atque sapientia separatio, perversa voluntas est, qua inferiora diliguntur. Nemo autem vult aliquid nolens. Habemus igitur qua fruamur omnes aequaliter atque communiter: nullae sunt angustiae, nullus in ea defectus. Omnes amatores suos nullo modo sibi invidos recipit, et omnibus communis est, et singulis casta est. Nemo alicui dicit: Recede, ut etiam ego accedam; remove manus, ut etiam ego amplectar. Omnes inhaerent, idipsum omnes tangunt. Cibus eius nulla ex parte discerpitur; nihil de ipsa bibis quod ego non possim. Non enim ab eius communione in privatum tuum mutas aliquid; sed quod tu de illa capis, et mihi manet integrum. Quod te inspirat non exspecto ut reddatur abs te, et sic ego inspirer ex eo: non enim aliquid eius aliquando fit cuiusquam unius aut quorumdam proprium, sed simul omnibus tota est communis…

At illa veritatis et sapientiae pulchritudo, tantum adsit perseverans voluntas fruendi, nec multitudine audientium constipata secludit venientes, nec peragitur tempore, nec migrat locis, nec nocte intercipitur, nec umbra intercluditur, nec sensibus corporis subiacet. De toto mundo ad se conversis qui diligunt eam, omnibus proxima est, omnibus sempiterna; nullo loco est, nusquam deest; foris admonet, intus docet; cernentes se commutat omnes in melius, a nullo in deterius commutatur; nullus de illa iudicat, nullus sine illa iudicat bene. Ac per hoc eam manifestum est mentibus nostris, quae ab ipsa una fiunt singulae sapientes, et non de ipsa, sed per ipsam de caeteris iudices, sine dubitatione esse potiorem.

Now no one is secure in enjoying goods that can be lost against his will. But no one can lose truth and wisdom against his will, for no one can be separated from the place where they are. What we called separation from truth and wisdom is really just a perverse will that loves inferior things, and no one wills something unwillingly. We can all enjoy it equally and in common; there is ample room, and it lacks for nothing. It welcomes all of its lovers without envy; it belongs to them all but is faithful to each. No one says to another ‘Step back so that I too can get close; let go of it so that I too can embrace it.’ They all cleave to it; they all touch it. No one tears off a piece as his own good; you drink nothing from it that I cannot also drink. For what you gain from that communion does not become your own private property; it remains intact for me. When you breathe it in, I need not wait for you to give it back so that I can breathe it too. No part of it ever becomes the private property of any one person; it is always wholly present to everyone…

But to the will that steadfastly desires to enjoy it, the beauty of truth and wisdom is not obscured by the crowds of eager listeners. It is not used up in the course of time, it does not move from place to place. Night does not cover it, and no shadow hides it. The bodily senses do not perceive it. It is near to those in all the world who turn themselves toward it and love it. It is eternally present with them all. It is not in any place, but it is present everywhere. It warns outwardly and teaches inwardly. It changes for the better all who see it, and no one changes it for the worse. No one judges it, but apart from it no one judges rightly. And so it is clear beyond any doubt that this one truth, by which people become wise, and which makes them judges, not of it, but of other things, is better than our minds.

— Augustine, De Libero Arbitrio II.14 (trans. Thomas Williams)

31 thoughts on “Truth

  1. Thank you, David, for sharing this. I don’t think I’ve seen it before. It has a loveliness to me that is cousin to the loveliness of Parmenides’ poem and of James’ phrase “warm and breathing truth.” However, I’m a modern guy and bound to make myself undercut most of the loveliness of these thoughts by running through and replacing “truth” everywhere with “fact”. For in my widest frame of the world, fact is circumstance that can be so even were no mind in the world. I imagine this is a faint picture, if one can picture it at all, from a frame in which there can be no such thing as a world without at least the mind of God. But to continue the fact-in-contrast-to-truth picture, I dispose truth as entirely recognition of fact. Humans and other high animals have those recognitions in action-schemas, humans have truth in that way prelinguistically, and that form of truth is ongoing support of our linguistically held truths.

    There is fact and its recognition. I don’t mean an entirely lonely recognition. Certainly there is no such thing as an entirely lonely linguistic or conceptual recognition of fact. A doe and its fawn just now worked their way through the front yard, and come to think of it, even if the fawn becomes old and the mother long dead, the action schemas of that offspring will not become an entirely lonely thing. Its way of life is immersed in a history of that living path.

    Late in life, Einstein spoke of the friends that could not be lost. He called them true searchers. He meant the persons of science who had devoted themselves to finding the truths waiting out there in the darkness. That is one regular use of “truth” I just wrote. But I then think on what I said and realize I meant fact and the touching it that is truth. Aristotle, Newton, and Einstein touched the fact of free-fall differently. Truth can grow all around the facts and lead us to new facts.

    Thanks again, and I hope these remarks will not be inappropriate to your sharing of this Augustine.


  2. I don’t see anything ‘unmodern’ here, though even if I did that would hardly count against it. You seem to be supposing that since this quotation comes from Augustine, it must involve some mysterious, mystical hoo-hah, or some otherwordly Truth-with-a-capital-T. But capital letters are a modern obsession. All Augustine has in mind here is truth of the ordinary sort, albeit with a special focus on truths that don’t change, like the truths of mathematics and logic or fundamental normative truths (all things should be rightly ordered, inferior things should be subjected to superior things, one should give others what is rightly theirs — his examples). But the main point survives even skepticism about eternal truths. It is that truth, unlike material goods and possessions, is a non-rival good that is not diminished by some people’s enjoyment of it. If that’s a contra-modern thesis, count me as contra-modern.

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    • Oh, I meant the modern only in connection with the firm distinction between fact and truth. Both remain shareable in the modern.

      Because the author is Augustine, I naturally take him as of a piece with the other of his writings touching on truth (and wisdom). The pertinent things I notice quickly in my library are THE TRINITY VIII.2–3 and ON GENESIS II.24. To dig for what Augustine had in mind in the quoted passage is a fine thing to me, but it is also fine to see what good sense one might take in by these lovely expressions in one’s own frame, however near to or far from Augustine’s.

      Thanks again for sharing the passage. There is a neat book I have neighboring this vein of Augustine’s, turning over the facets through the history of Western philosophy. It is edited by Kurt Pritzl, and its title is TRUTH – STUDIES OF A ROBUST PRESENCE (2010).


      • I’m not aware of any firm distinction between fact and truth that is characteristic of modern philosophy but alien to ancient and medieval. Philosophers use both terms in a variety of ways, some of which diverge from Augustine’s usage, but others of which do not. If, as in some usages, ‘truth’ is a property of propositions or statements and ‘facts’ are true propositions or statements, then obviously there are no facts without truth. If ‘fact’ names instead the states of affairs or other features of the world that make true propositions or statements true, then there could be facts without truth if there were no propositions or statements. Augustine’s ‘truth’ strikes me as ambiguous between true propositions and whatever those true propositions are about. In that sense, there can be truths without minds if there can be anything without minds. Augustine of course does not think that there could be anything without the divine mind, but that is a conclusion rather than a premise. In the DLA, he is explicitly arguing that we have to recognize eternal truths even if we suspend judgment about the existence of God qua divine mind; in fact, he argues that if eternal truth is the only thing higher than our minds, then eternal truth is divine. I see nothing unmodern about any of that in any untendentious sense of ‘modern.’


        • Many of the mediaevals defined truth as the adequation of the intellect to the thing. But this definition seems to originate with the 9th century Jewish Neoplatonist Isaac Israeli ben Solomon. I can’t recall if Augustine commits himself on this issue one way or the other.

          Aristotle does draw something like a fact/truth distinction in the Categories:

          “For there being a man reciprocates as to implication of existence with the true statement about it: if there is a man, the statement whereby we say that there is a man is true, and reciprocally—since if the statement whereby we say that there is a man is true, there is a man. But whereas the true statement is in no way the cause of the actual thing’s existence, the actual thing does seem in some way the cause of the statement’s being true: it is because the actual thing exists or does not that the statement is called true or false.”


            • (I probably didn’t need to state that Isaac Israeli ben Solomon was Jewish. There was a decent chance you might have guessed.)


          • Indeed. This is one reason why I was unwilling to grant that there’s some standard modern fact/truth distinction that pre-modern philosophers don’t recognize. Even in contexts where thinkers don’t seem to be distinguishing them explicitly in that way, I doubt that many fail to recognize the difference between a true statement or proposition (logos, ratio) and what it’s about. It may be that some of them were guilty of conflating features of words or thoughts with features of non-mental things — perhaps Plato or later ante rem realists about universals did that, maybe — but I’d need a powerful argument to convince me that they did it because they didn’t recognize a difference between true statements or propositions and the things they’re about.

            I’m a complete amateur in medieval philosophy, but I’m not aware of any passages in which Augustine takes truth to be adaequatio rei et intellectus / intellectus ad rem. The impression I get from reading through De Libero Arbitrio with an occasional glance at the Latin is that he uses ‘veritas’ sometimes in the way one speaks of ‘the truths of mathematics’ or the like (i.e., of the fact that 3 x 3 = 9, not of a property of the intellect or a proposition) and sometimes in the way one speaks of ‘a true judgment’ (i.e. as a property of the judgment or the intellect making it, not of the fact that it is about). But that’s just an impression, and not based on a detailed reading of the Latin.


    • “All Augustine has in mind here is truth of the ordinary sort”

      Well, yes, but of course in the context of that passage he thinks truth of the ordinary sort has a good chance of turning out to be identical with God.


      • Sorta, but not quite, on my reading at least. I take the train of thought in the surrounding context to be something like this: we believe God exists, but we (or at least you, Evodius) don’t know, so let’s think about it and see; the intellect is the highest part of us; if there is anything higher than the intellect, it will be divine, and indeed will be God; sure, Evodius, it won’t follow that anything higher than our intellect has all the attributes that we believe God has, but if there’s nothing higher than it, then it will be divine even if it lacks those other attributes; look, eternal truth is higher than our intellects; so if there is nothing higher than eternal truth, eternal truth is divine, and indeed is God.

        The conclusion that it is God could be read (one of my students wants to read it this way) as the claim that eternal truth is an infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent intellect that created all things without aid. I don’t think that can be the intended conclusion, because it’s too obviously unwarranted, and if Augustine thought it was warranted it would be odd that he signals the distance between the conclusion and the existence of God as he and Evodius believe him by faith to be. What the argument establishes, if it succeeds, is that there is eternal truth and that eternal truth is higher than our minds. The additional thought seems to be that this deserves to be thought of as divine. The text doesn’t say so explicitly, but the idea seems to be that eternal truth already has enough of the features that we (well, if we are Augustine and Evodius) intuitively associate with the divine to count as divine if it’s the highest thing there is, and perhaps that it is worthy of reverence and devotion. Certainly the passage I quoted in the post seems to be at pains to highlight the associations: eternality, immutability, omnipresence, and inherent beneficence at least make their appearance.

        I was thinking of you when I posted in part because I know that you teach this text and in part because Augustine’s argument here reminds me of your old posts on ‘theological logicism.’ So I wonder how, if at all, you see the thought of those posts relating to Augustine’s argument here.


  3. “If every thought requires an owner and belongs to the contents of his consciousness, then the thought has this owner alone; and there is no science common to many on which many could work …. So the result would seem to be: thoughts are neither things in the external world nor ideas. A third realm must be recognized. Anything belonging to this realm has it in common with ideas that it canot be perceived by the senses, but has it in common with things that it does not need an owner so as to belong to the contents of his consciousness. Thus for example the thought we have expressed in the Pythagorean theorem is timelessly true, true independently of whether anyone takes it to be true. It needs no owner. … Thus I can also acknowledge thoughts as independent of me; other men can grasp them as much as I. …. We are not owners of thoughts as we are owners of our ideas.”

    — Frege, “The Thought”

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  4. I do not know Latin. When I look up “fact” in my Latin dictionary, they’ve got some Latin words for it. However little or much thinkers writing in Latin (similarly with Greek, Arabic) may have used those terms in connection with their thinking about the characters of truth does not matter, for I think it is plain from Roderick’s posts above that sensitivity to some distinction between fact and truth and connection between them was alive in the Medieval writers and in Aristotle.

    Normally in philosophical conversational context, if I said “modern”, I’d mean since Descartes. But in my earlier posts here, I was thinking of later, more like from Bolzano forward. So I’d have thought Frege as modern. But that does not matter, for the reason in the preceding paragraph. I was mistaken to associate sensitivity to and disambiguation of fact and truth with distinctively “modern” philosophy, however more salient became our modern-language uses of “fact” in philosophy (apparently not until after Bolzano in German philosophy).

    Philip the Chancellor presented five definitions of truth. The first was Augustine’s which from Soliloquia II.5 was “that which is” (id quod est). The second, from Hilary of Poiters, “that which declares or manifests being” (declarativum aut manifestativum esse). Third, from Anselm “rightness (rectitude) perceptible only by the mind.” Fourth, “adequation of thing and intellect.” Fifth, “the true is the indivision of being and that which is” (verum est indivisio esse et quod est).

    The last is the one Philip thought most important. He didn’t like Hilary’s because it contains reference to a knowing subject. The true must be defined “without any relation to an intellect.” Philip took “adequation of thing and intellect” to be a secondary type of truth, the truth of the sign, because the adequation must be understood as that of a mental sign and the thing signified.

    (I take the information of the preceding two paragraphs and the following two from Jan Aertsen in MEDIEVAL PHILOSOPHY AS TRANSCENDENTAL THOUGHT [2012].)

    Philip was seeking, rather, an ontological definition of truth. He took Augustine to be on that track, the right track. He thought Augustine’s indicated that truth is secundum substantiam. “Yet he is not satisfied with this definition because it insufficiently expresses that by which ‘truth’, quo concept (ratio), differs from ‘being’. . . . Augustine’s definition must therefore be “articulated”, and this articulation gives rise to the fifth definition.” Philip apparently borrowed elements from Aristotle and Boethius to arrive at his preferred definition: “the true is the indivision of being and that which is.”

    “In God, to be and that which is are identical; he possesses indivision in the highest degree (maxime), and thus truth in the highest degree. Although in other things to be and that which is are different, their truth consists in the indivision of these components.” I’ve some ruminations on correlating Philip’s two elements with indivision of existence and living existence (mind among the latter), but in my great mercy, I’ll not ramble on.

    I’d like to add, however, on David’s way with the root-post passage from Augustine the following general blessing from Bolzano:
    “It follows indeed from God’s omniscience that each truth is known to him and is continually represented in his understanding, even if no other being is acquainted with it or thinks it. Consequently, there actually is no truth which is recognized by nobody at all. This, however, should not keep us from speaking of truths in themselves, since their concept does not presuppose that they must be thought by someone. The fact that they are thought is not contained in the concept of such truths, but it can nevertheless follow from some other circumstance (in this case the omniscience of God) that they must be recognized by God himself, if by no one else.” (W I.25)

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    • I think if I were going to quibble with Augustine, I’d complain not that he’s failing to disambiguate truth and facts, but that he’s failing to disambiguate truth and knowledge (or ‘wisdom,’ sapientia). On the one hand, he’s focusing on the objects of knowledge or wisdom, on the ‘truths’ that are known. On the other hand, he’s talking about truth as known, truth as a good for the person who knows it. ‘3 x 3 = 9’ and ‘the intellect is higher than the senses’ are, presumably, true, if at all, whether or not I know that they’re true and whether or not I believe them or have ever entertained them. But Augustine’s focus is on the good of knowing them, not on the truth that they retain whether or not I know them; the good that I enjoy, if I do, is not their truth as such but my knowledge of them. I’m not sure anything important rides on that distinction in this context — though I’ve found myself wondering in other contexts whether conflating that distinction contributes to making agent-neutral goodness seem plausible to some thinkers — but it seems more pressing than the absence of any clear distinction between truth as a property of propositions and facts as their truth-makers.

      I’m generally skeptical not only that pre-modern philosophers (however ‘modern’ is understood) didn’t appreciate a distinction between true propositions or judgments and the things they’re about. I’m also skeptical that there is any consensus in ‘modern’ philosophy about facts, truth, or the distinction between them. Some use ‘fact’ to mean ‘true proposition’; facts are propositions, not the things those propositions are about. Among those who use ‘fact’ to refer to things that (somehow or other) make propositions true, there seems to be nothing like a general consensus about how to understand them beyond the agreement that they’re not truth-bearers. See here:

      I know next to nothing about Bolzano, but note that the SEP entry here claims that he “had no use for facts or states of affairs,” and seems to regard him as thereby at variance with a great number of subsequent lines of 19th and 20th century thought. In any case, as in so many other areas, what we seem to find here is pluralism, not consensus.

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  5. Thanks for the additional thought on Augustine, and thanks for the pointer to the SEP articles of Mulligan. Truly there is diversity on FACTS today. I have Neale’s FACING FACTS and Betti’s AGAINST FACTS. I like keeping them on the shelf right next to each other, nice and cozy.


  6. I’m obviously too late to this party (and too ignorant of Augustine) to add anything of substance to it (in any sense of “substance”), but it’s never too late to make insubstantial comments, so here are two.

    1. I went to grad school with Tom Williams, not just a gentleman and a scholar, but a candidate for the best dressed graduate student I ever knew. He has a cool website.

    2. I grew up on Ridgeway Avenue in West Orange, New Jersey, across the street from a monastery of the Augustinian Recollects. The monks emerged from the monastery maybe once or twice that I saw in the 15-20 years that I lived there, hooded and in robes, scaring the crap out of just about everyone who saw them. In more mundane news, they recently sold the monastery, which was in turn demolished to make room for a park. What are these monasteries now but the tombs and sepulchres of God? I mean, what are they but a means of augmenting property values?

    Obviously, living across the street from an Augustinian monastery did absolutely nothing to facilitate my knowledge of Augustine, or anything else.

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  7. A decidedly non-Augustinian take on truth that I encountered in last night’s reading. Almost Sciabarra-esque?

    I aspire here to something more modest than objectivity, which is truth. It is a slippery creature, and elusive, one that lives most of the time in contradiction. Its pursuit requires not only the employment of rigorous doubt and thorough research but the capacity for empathy and discernment, qualities available only to individuals embedded in bodies, places, histories, and points of view. There is blood in us, to paraphrase Eid Suleiman al-Hathalin, whom you will meet [later in the book], and spirit and a heart. This is not a handicap but a strength, and the source of our salvation. I brought a lot with me when I set out to write this book. You carry no less as you set out to read it. If our meeting is fruitful, and I pray that it is, it will be because of what we both brought to it it, and not in spite of that.

    There are surely arguments contained in its pages, but I do not intend this work primarily or even secondarily as a polemic. The arguments it makes, it makes along the way. It is first of all a collection of stories about resistance, and about people who resist. My concern is with what keeps people going when everything appears to be lost. These pages represent an attempt to understand what it means to hold on, to decline to consent to one’s own eradication, to fight actively or through deceptively simple acts of refusal against powers far stronger than oneself. It is also a reckoning with the consequences of such commitment, the losses it occasions, the wounds it inflicts.

    –Ben Ehrenreich, The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine, p. 3.


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