timelessness & the golden age of “Truth”

This is too long – Just read those passages, which look interesting to you!

Content wise, “the History of Truth” is twofold in historical stages and the notions of truth, which they entail. Basically they are characterized by an epistemology firstly seeing truth as natural, and secondly cultivating it. As it is typical for Auden, timelessness is the key criterion for valuable knowledge. While the first stage could conceive of timeless knowledge and took it as a model for building society, the second stage eroded the universality of truth. Now this truth most valuable of all, a truth that is naturally given, is as timeless as “paper-dishes”.

I. Timelessness and doing science?

Actually, timelessness is the only clear-cut feature, which the poem ascribes to truth. For a reader, who is trying to figure out Auden’s notion of truth in this poem, no other measure remains than this universality in time. This implicitly disqualifies the feasibility of another criteria of truth, which I would assume to be primary to scientific inquiry; the universality of knowledge. In that sense, Auden connects the core meaning of the poem to the reader’s self-reflections. While in “The History of Truth” an “anti-model” is the last orientation “to do by” (to do what ?!), “timelessness” is the last useful measure for the reader to recognize universal knowledge.

This might have a rather mind-boggling effect, if this reader happens to be a scientist.

How to validate knowledge, if the only measure left is its meaning on an endless timescale? How can the scientific system proceed over time, when truth is supposed to be timeless? In the last stanza Auden considers us to live in a constructivist age, in which truth is open for conversions by human hands.  From such a constructivist perspective science seems to have an ambiguous relation to this measure of timelessness, since it proceeds by disproving the timelessness of truth claims. I reckon science as deconstructing black boxes does not really leave a lot of timelessness, which scientists could believe in. Only a scientist, who believes in truth being “out there”, being a part of nature, can work with the criteria of timelessness while validating truth claims. Such a mindset, however, is outdated in Auden’s conception of knowledge as represented in “the History of Truth”.

Since this poem does not seem to address scientist it is difficult to conclude. Nevertheless, by writing such a twofold history of truth, Auden again seems to see scientists as “the man of action” in opposition to a kind of natural philosophy. Just as in “Bestiaries are out” this traditional belief, which puts truth as part of nature and therefore nature as morally interesting, is considered as out-dated now. Even if Auden pragmatically realizes this, negatively connoted words like “paper-dishes” and “anti-model” clearly allude to his aspiration for a more affirmative and (!) timeless conceptualization of knowledge. He is not content with the kind of epistemology, which gave up universal beliefs and entertains a meaningless “anti-model” just to get along (as connoted in”our last to do by is an anti-model”).

II. The Golden age of “Truth”

I think in “The History of Truth” Auden longs for a certain epistemological wealth, which he misses in the “anti-model”. The first two stanzas depict these values.

Truth as both pluralistic and universal

“In that ago”, the first historical stage covering stanza one and two, there were several objects of belief, truth being their most credible one. Truth is somehow over superstition, symbolized by phantastic creatures. Auden explains this superiority in knowledge by attributing superiority in time to truth. “More first” and “more always”, however, does not sound too decisive about this universal value. Accordingly, all other “credibles” are also original and eternal, truth just exceeds them a little in achieving timelessness. The small-scale paradoxes “more first” and “more always” are shortcuts for the plurality of ‘universalities’ (not singular) and nicely signify how Auden’s ambiguity stands for a different set of priorities than you might expect. His ambigious statement you can sum up by saying there is more than one truth, but only Truth with a capital T is universal. Nevertheless also superstition fulfills the crucial criteria of timelessness and can be addressed as universal as well. Still one tends to weigh them differently, Auden seems to remember us and purposefully hesitates with an ultimate decision about which was ‘most first’ and ‘most always’. Just as in “Archeology” he denies to depict the past as entirely mystical and driven by universal beliefs.  What distinguishes this phase from the later “anti-model”  is that it had a “primacy if truth” and many other “credibles”. Actually the “anti-model” is monistic, not the earlier belief in truth. “Truth” here is signifying a epistemologically richer age than ours. What is the benefit from this richness?

Truth as natural and thereby purposefully purposeless

Finally, with the words “The truth was there already to be true” Auden signifies truth as embedded in nature and as deprived of any practical use. Not made by man, it was the basis, the “model”, for all human attempts to create something eternal and therefore resembling truth. Believing in this natural truth liberated human products like “archway and song” from their contingent stance as cultural artefacts, they could be truthful as well. As indicated by the paradox “more first” truth, i.e. nature, was always a step ahead merely being “there to be true”. By giving meaning to human endeavors, it did have a fruitful purpose, which stands in harsh contrast to a desperate strive for practicability symbolized by “paper-dishes” and “kilowatts”.


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