On the Origins of Truth-Telling

On the Origins of Truth-Telling

In Holy Nihilism, I posited that the origins of truth-telling as a value originated in the piratical militarism of steppe-based warrior cults:

The origins of true testimonialism appear to lie in the militaristic raiding societies of the heroic Bronze Age — “heroic” not meaning “moral,” but defined by “heroes” who set out to take prizes from the unknown (often other tribes). Heroic quests had to be undertaken with groups of men under circumstances where high degrees of trust were mandatory. If someone was promised a certain portion of the treasure taken or glory earned as a reward for their participation in the heroic undertaking, the promise had to be kept or the promise-breaker’s reputation would be destroyed. In such a heroic, militaristic society, your reputation was your life — was arguably greater than your life, for it would influence how others viewed your children as well. Your word was your bond. When a hero made a “boast,” such as what Beowulf promised to do to the monster Grendle, their words were not an empty brag (as we think of boasts today), but a serious utterance, much closer to an oath, and warrantied with their life. ‘I will do this or die trying.’ And in reciting the words and deeds of others, this honor in maintaining a trustworthy tongue remained, to the point that an allegation of dishonesty might even be cause for a duel. ‘The words I speak are truth, warrantied by my sword or my life.’ That is true testimony.

This theory is not my own — it comes from philosopher Curt Doolittle, and there is strong linguistic and historical evidence for this theory (I found the etymological origins of “testimony” in the male genitalia to be particularly demonstrative).

However, further research into the classics has led me to believe that the practicalities of truth-telling don’t really get at the heart of the motivation behind the origin of institutionalized respect for truth. All of this reasoning certainly applies, but I believe there may be a greater, more potent desire for truthful speech beneath such practicalities.

One of the great challenges in any investigation of ancient texts is ascertaining their integrity: is this really how the story went? Is this the original?

This applies as much to the Bible as it does to Homer. But most importantly, it may potentially apply to any story that is to be taken seriously after the events have faded from the memories of the living.

From 12th century BC Achilles to 8th century AD Beowulf, the descendants of these steppe-dwelling piratical raiders sought glory. They understood the inevitability of death, and they hoped to live on in stories that would be told after their death. But if these stories were to survive the ages, they must be believed. They must be taken seriously.

Thus, culturally, the importance of truth-telling may not have been a practical thing to do with the logistics and risk-investment of a military life. It may have been far more important than that. Indeed, it seems to be a religious matter, for the glory-seekers of that epoch depended upon the bards and poets for their own “immortality.” Their own fate in stories rested in the words of the songs that would carry them forward.

There is a cynical view held by some historians that many such family legends were simply invented in order to give legitimacy and status to certain families. Gods as well as famous men were often surreptitiously inserted into the traditional lineages without much care for truth. While I have no doubt that this happened on occasion, I am dubious that the practice was as widespread as is generally held. First, I am not convinced that the identities of Gods in these stories were intended to be literal in the historical fashion with which they are often now interpreted. But second, and more importantly, if such a practice of dishonesty were widespread, then there would be no basis for belief in the story, and no basis for belief in immortality through song that survives the ages.

We can imagine then that the Indo-European raiders likely still were the progenitors of institutionalized truth-telling (testimonialism), but not for the petty benefits of trust in war — important though that may have been. It wasn’t their mortal life which they were concerned with, but their immortal life, their reputation carried forward in the stories that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren would hear, for which they were concerned.

It would have been for this glory that they participated in a war-like lifestyle in the first place, on the assumption that in a culture of truth, such stories could not simply be invented and believed — they actually had to go and perform the deeds. They must have anticipated that their children too would have valued such glory in their ancestors: strength, courage, skill, and loyalty that only appear in the face of serious adversity, when they come face to face with their own death, not only without flinching, but with an onward charge:

It is at this moment — and only at this moment — that the hero has a brief and shining chance to become daimoni isos: “equal to the gods.”

The pursuit of this kind of glory seems reasonable if death is a foregone conclusion anyhow. Nevertheless, if the price of such a moment is painful and certain death in place of a long and peaceful life with one’s family, then one can only hope the story-teller gets it right.

To do that — and to be believed — he must tell the truth.

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