The Fullness of Truth and Our Inherent Ideals

Essays for America: Truth enables us, inspires us and compels us in the pursuit of greater goodness.

John Trumbull, “The Declaration of Independence” (detail), 1819
John Trumbull, “The Declaration of Independence” (detail), 1819

In 1776 the United States of America was created. But, the Founders didn’t create the principles and ideals to which the new country appealed in asserting its independence and on which it would ground its political and legal, cultural and economic facets in the years to follow.

The core ideals to which our founders appealed grounded their intellectual justification for their independence and nationhood and guided their actions. Their core truths influenced the planning of our Constitution’s structure and function and guided the new nation’s political activities and its wider culture.  

Such is the nature of truth. Not popular truth, not shared truth, but truth that can be known. Actual and factual truth. Truth that can be proved by reason and science. Truth that is part of our very being. Real truth that is inherent to life and living. Timeless truth that is ever timely.

Our Founders and the citizens of their day knew many such crucial truths about mankind’s nature and capacities, about individual freedom and its proper use and limits, about the nature and substance of morality and justice, about their role in society and governance, about the range of individual freedom, its inherent responsibility and its moral rectitude.

A somewhat smaller subset of the citizenry held crucial core metaphysical truths from which all such rationally provable truths must emanate. These citizens were believers in a monotheistic God, who were mostly Christian in some form. These individuals understood such truths, not just as discrete truths, but as a harmony of truth arising from profound philosophical and theological certainties accessible to all through a proper use of reason and a proper understanding of revelation.  

Their reasoned faith tied their assertions about human nature and political governance to the Divine, to a transcendent God. As our Declaration of Independence states, we were “endowed by our Creator” with certain inalienable rights. Rights that are inherently ours by design, individually and collectively. Rights that come from our Creator and are part of our very nature and being.

Rights that no government can bestow. Rights that the government must protect and promote. Rights that may be altered only by our personal decisions and actions should they violate some element of the moral code as manifest in the laws of the land. Rights that find their origin in the rational moral principles of Western philosophy and the revelatory content of the Judeo-Christian traditions.

One such eternal and enduring ideal — a crucial, foundational truth — is the truth that “all men are created equal.” While this principle has proven to be a continual challenge for our country since its inception, many issues and improvements in our nation’s laws and culture arose inevitably from this moral and philosophical ideal, from this intrinsic truth.

Any and every man, woman and child is equal in worth and meaning to every other man women or child, regardless of any biological or creedal exceptions which might be construed to alter such equality.

Despite the certainty of equality, we know, on a large scale and on a small scale, this ideal is not always equally applied in the nuances of daily American life. Nor does it always correctly and adequately inform our perceptions, our opinions, our actions or our relationships. Yet, such omissions and distortions do not deny the truth of “human equality.” They confirm it. They prove its timeless nature and timely utility.

For such transgressions of “equality,” be they minor or major, point the best of us to seek some form of redress. And, such redress should be equally concerned with the injustice of the act upon the recipient and with the correction and edification of the perpetrator of the attitude or action.

Such a process for redress, be it legal or relational, illustrates other inherent ideals of our country’s informal culture, its philosophical precepts and its more formal legal code. The ideal of true justice necessitates a just redress for grievances, just as “restorative justice” seeks to correct a wrong, to enlighten the transgressor and to restore relational harmony, all of which arise from many other timeless and timely truths.

Ideals and truths such as the brotherhood of mankind, the mutuality of respect, the necessity for confessing errors, the importance of giving and receiving forgiveness, the demands of equal justice, the relationship between the punishment and the crime and even the “golden rule” all rely on underlying truths.

Notice the simple complexity at work here. The truth of such ideals guides and informs us. Notice, too, how as we apply these principles even in the simplest scenarios, other such truths quickly emerge. This singular ideal of universal human equality brings forth a host of other such ideals like redress and restorative justice, like the admission of guilt and the obligation of forgiveness. Notice too how this complexity and the interplay of other ideals leads not to ambiguity, but to greater clarity.

The very existence of such ideals within the nature of our country’s culture and governance should cause us to reflect on the sheer quantity of truths we possess, despite our modern beliefs about the absence of truth as manifest in relativism and philosophical materialism. For this endemic operation of multiple ideals, in the assertion of just one such truth, should tell us two crucial things about our country and the nature of truth.

First, we should never let a singular ideal or principle dominate our thinking and our governance. When we do, we ignore the necessary nuances and complexities that the full array of timeless ideals has upon our thinking and our actions in our daily life. A ready example is evident in the recent affinity for socialism, whose primary and often singular principle is equality to the exclusion of all other ideals and truth.

Secondly, we should truly recognize not only the existence of truth, as in the “equality” principle above, but in the full spectrum of truths and the complexities and sophistications these principles inevitably produce. We should recognize and rejoice in the breadth and depth of truth that abounds in life and from which our American government and culture, by virtue of its conceptual grounding, can truly learn and apply.  

For we are truly a blessed nation — but not a perfect one. We are blessed because truth is the very essence of our defining documents. In explicit ways — like equality, life and liberty and in all the many implicit ideals and implications that are innate in our nation’s founding philosophy — we have been truly blessed. Blessed with an opportunity and blessed with a challenge.

For each day, in our individual and collective lives, we must embrace the challenges and the responsibilities such truth requires of us. Such truth enables us, inspires us and compels us in the pursuit of greater goodness. Such truth enables us to preserve and guide the world, to be its salt and light. And, upon such truth, we have and should continue to rely. For the fullness of truth will persuade and edify us and lead us to a greater realization of our inherent ideals.

Vindicius, a pseudonym, refers to a Roman slave who was lauded and “vindicated” for his defense of the Roman Republic in the sixth century B.C.