The allure of Truth

On converting to Catholicism (or Straussianism).

Blake Smith

May 10, 2024

A response to The Harper Review’s spring 2024 proposition, “We should tell children the truth.”

Dear editors, 

To ask whether we should tell children the truth is to posit distinctions separating “children” from some other group (presumably adults), “truth” from some other way of relating to interlocutors about the world (falsehood, obviously, but also delusion, ignorance, nonsense, etc.), and what we “should” do from what we might, but should not, do.

Each of these distinctions raises doubts, as well as practical difficulties. One might ask, for example, whether undergraduates are children, adults, or something else. One might wonder whether one can tell the one singular truth, and one might suggest that any thinking about ethical imperatives around truth-telling should begin by investigating the conditions for discussion of our shared world that prevail in any given circumstance.

The question, “should we tell children the truth?” assumes, moreover, that the one to and about whom it is posed is a non-child, in possession of some (if not the) truth, and capable of telling it but wondering whether he ought to share it with a human type (the child) of which he is himself not a member. The question solicits him to consider himself as a potential enlightener and evangelist, or as an esoteric concealer, or again as a benevolent teller of parables by which immature minds can be guided and eventually be so formed as to fully know the truth for which he untruthfully prepares them.

The role of the one who knows, but might or might not reveal, the truth and its accompanying ethical dilemmas (what should he do?) echoes the profession of the educator. This role is seductive to students, who desire a bridge from their current position as passive recipients and victims of “learning” (compounded of truth and untruth, in uncertain proportions) to an imagined future position in which they would be truth’s distributors or withholders. This longing seems to be, indeed, a key mechanism for many young people’s conversions to such faiths as Catholicism and Straussianism, by which they envision themselves passing from one side of the question of truth (that of the children) to the other (that of the “we” who know).

One is thrilled by such flattering troubles—what do I do with the truth I possess? Should I tell it to lesser, younger, perhaps unready minds? Contemplating them, one is led away from considering the local, contingent, unsteady character of, if not “the truth” in its majestic singularity, then the possibility of communicating truths convincingly. One is prevented, too, from asking if one is not oneself a child in need of truth (and perhaps unable to receive it), or whether it is not children who are closer to truth than the “we” to whom the question is posed.

“Truth,” perhaps, names less something that can be told (or not) than what in our living and thinking together resists the certainty of being adult.

Parrhesiastically,

Blake Smith

Blake Smith is a writer who lives in Chicago. He was most recently a research fellow in Bulgaria.