According to Oliver Wendell Holmes, truth is defined as shared perception.
If I think that I am sitting at a table, I find that the other persons present agree with me; so if I say that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles. If I am in a minority of one, they send for a doctor or lock me up.
When we apply this theory to matters of politics and law, where large numbers are lined up on opposite sides of pressing issues, nothing but might is left to make right: “truth [is] the majority vote of that nation that [can] lick all others.”
Holmes’s nihilism—falsely called “realism” by his followers—has done much to corrupt the theory and practice of law in modern times.
As with many successful errors, however, Holmes’s sophomoric subjectification of certitude contains an important half-truth.
As Thomas Aquinas explains, the highest good for human beings, flowing from the rational part of our nature, is twofold: “to know the truth,” and “to live in society.”
A healthy human life demands that we seek truth defined as the concordance of our minds with objective reality. It also demands that we share that truth with one another.
What happens when society itself gives way to error, so that those free from certain popular manias begin to fear that others will “send for a doctor or lock [them] up?”
Alexis de Tocqueville soberly notes that the truth-seeking side of our nature is difficult to sustain in the absence of social support:
The same effort that makes a man depart violently from a common delusion almost always carries him beyond reason; [so] that, to dare to declare a war, even a legitimate one, against the ideas of your century and your country, the spirit must have a certain fierce and adventurous disposition.
Men of this character, whatever direction they take, rarely attain happiness and virtue. And, to say so in passing, this is what explains why, in the most necessary and most holy of revolutions, so few moderate and honest revolutionaries are found.
The lesson is not that we should give up on “the most necessary and most holy of revolutions.” Such as the long overdue counter-revolution against the present organized subversion of all that is sane and sacred.
Rather, the lesson is to remain “moderate and honest” even as we (necessarily and piously) revolt.
Given our political nature, this combination of moderation and honesty can only be achieved in close association with other citizens devoted to cultivating these virtues.
Alternatively, no matter how many scattered souls may desire truth, each will find itself, locally, “in a minority of one”!
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