Veritas, Roman Goddess of Truth…

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Roman mythology holds that the daughter of Saturn, and the mother of Virtue, was one who was named Veritas, the goddess of truth. According to mythical accounts, she was by nature elusive. Not in a trivial sense, but in every way imaginable. She took, it was said, to hiding in the bottom of a holy well where she could not be found without considerable expense in time and purpose for those bent on discovering her whereabouts and character. This caricature of the evasiveness of truth is not without merit.

Humanity has always held the concept of truth and truthfulness in high esteem. It is no surprise that the Latin noun, Veritas, is used alone as the motto of not just Harvard University, but also of Drake University, Bilkent University, the prestigious Scotland independent school Fettes College, the Dominican Order of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Dominican-run Providence College. Other halls of higher learning and theological acumen combine Veritas with others: Lux et Veritas (Light and Truth), Vox Veritas Vitas (Speak the Truth as a way of Life), Veritas Curat (Truth Cures), and Veritas et Utilitas (Truth and Service). In each of these it is Veritas which supplies the crucial meaning, about which the others are mere handmaidens.

The Greeks were no less enamored of the concept, though the word was to them not Veritas but Αλεθεια,  Alethia. The great philosopher Aristotle defined Αλεθεια in this wise: “To say of what is that it is, and of what is not, that it is not, is true.” Now see how Αλεθεια is constructed: the prefix α- signifies negation; the suffix -λεθεια alludes to “that which is hidden or forgotten.” Thus Αλεθεια means the unhidden, the remembered, the unveiled, and these are meant to be applied in the subjective sense. That is, the quality denoted by this linguistic construction resides not in the object under analysis, but rather in the observer. Truth to the Greek mind was a matter of perception, not of the object, but by the one who sees.

The temptation to dig into the way Αλεθεια and its cognates were anciently used by Aristotle, Homer, Plato, Epictetus, and others is powerful. Were our object to translate a passage from scripture, we might have no choice. Thankfully, our purpose is less ambitious. We admit that truth is as the Romans characterized it — having the nature of a greased pig easily spied, impossible to grasp. We recognize that Herod, when asking “What is truth?” was not displaying crass ignorance, but betraying an understanding of deep significance.

Aristotle was right. And yet he was not. For his formula presumed we can see what is and what is not, with perfect vision, when experience teaches that we cannot. We can only guess. And sometimes our guesses are good, but at other times they are abysmally bad.

Theologians are disadvantaged by their need to speculate afield on morals and ethics, subjects not amenable to simple observations and experimentation, yet necessary for the churchman to comprehend in order to save man’s soul.

The scientist eschews these disadvantages by pursuing scientific truths in terms of verifiable phenomena that can be reproduced faithfully in lab and field. Science thus limits itself, to save its soul.

It is in this latter context that we define Veritas in the Megatherium Society. When, in the mid-19th century, William Stimpson declared that he and his fellow Megatheria sought nothing but the truth, he meant it in this sense, and that alone. We today echo his words, and — as members of the Megatherium Society — we gird ourselves with that selfsame charge.

jc

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