©2019 by the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project.

Truth: Our Daily Bread

ALICE VON HILDEBRAND

 

The Wanderer

October 26, 1967

If Socrates were alive today, it is likely that he would sit close to a newspaper per stand and address the people rushing to grab a newspaper in order to "keep informed."

Those who buy bodily wares, he would tell us, are highly selective, and want to make sure they are getting the best for their money. As a matter of fact, they are likely to check with the consumers’ bulletin in order to have a reasonable guarantee that they are getting safe and reliable products.

But, there is no consumers' guide for newspapers, and we can hear Socrates saying: "What, you are about to confide your soul to a newspaper and yet you consult with neither father, nor mother, nor friend… ?"

Modern man buys newspapers as he buys bread, but he knows bread to be wholesome and nutritive. Can the same be said of newspapers in general? They sell information at a very small price, and given the modesty of the sum, people estimate that they cannot go wrong by buying them.

 

Newspapers owe their origin to the democratic belief that truth should not be the exclusive possession of a small minority of well informed people. All men should know the truth, and therefore, it is the newspaper's mission to spread it as much as possible, and at the smallest possible price.

 

No doubt, this principle sounds noble enough, and is bound to carry the assent of all those who have resented the fact that knowledge had often been a privilege reserved to an aristocratic minority. Now, at long last, truth will receive the diffusion that it deserves.

He who keeps these considerations in mind will experience no small surprise upon reading words of Kierkegaard, in which he states that if his daughter became a prostitute, he would never give up hope; but if his son became a journalist and remained one for three years, he would give him up as lost.

How can the great Danish thinker give such a fearful warning to modern man, who considers his newspaper to be his daily bread?

The lines just mentioned are to be understood in the light of another saying of the same author in which he proclaims that, in every generation, there are hardly ten men whose greatest fear is to fall into error. But, he adds, in every generation there are thousands and millions whose greatest fear is to stand isolated, even if they alone have a true opinion.

Material things have an enormous advantage over ideas, for everyone will notice that a material work has been badly done. Alas, the fact that ideas are erroneous in no way guarantees that people will perceive it. Not all men are capable of detecting errors and fallacies. This is so not only because these mistakes are presented under the garb of truth, or are introduced as "new" truths, but also because men's intellectual muscles are often atrophied, for, as we know, education mostly discourages authentic thinking. It was, I believe; Bernard Shaw who claimed he owed his fame to the fact that he had formed, a habit of thinking once a week—thereby acknowledging that genuine thinking is a rare phenomenon.

 

Most men think so little that they think they are thinking while, in fact; they just repeat—undigested—what they have read in their newspapers, and insist upon their right of repeating it. Once again, we are reminded of Kierkegaard's words: "Having refused, to use their freedom, of thought, men claim freedom of speech as a compensation."

A bad baker knows that he bakes badly. The man who has erroneous ideas, not only does not know how erroneous his ideas are, but will accuse anyone who antagonizes him of having himself fallen prey to error.

We are indebted to Pascal for having seen and formulated this simple truth. In his Pensées, he notes that the sight of a limping man fills his heart with pity; whereas a limping mind irks and irritates him. It is so, he adds, "because the limping man knows he is limping, whereas the limping mind accuses ME of limping."

It is the moral duty of a newspaper to speak the truth. Péguy's words come to one's mind: "Speak the truth, the whole truth; nothing but the truth. Speak clumsily the clumsy truth, boringly the boring truth, sorrowfully the sorrowful truth."

Truth is the bread of the soul, but here the analogy with food ends. For whereas every man wants healthy bread for himself and his children, not all men can say with St. Augustine: "Truth, Truth, how did the very marrow of my bones yearn for Thee." And Plato, while praising the greatness of truth, adds sadly: "But it is difficult to convince men of this fact."

Now, we are in a position to understand Kierkegaard's anxiety: does the press give men what they need—namely truth—or what they want—often error…?

If men preferred poisonous bread to a wholesome loaf, the bakers insisting upon making good bread would have a difficult time competing with those desirous to please their public.

A newspaper is exposed to two grave dangers: One of them is to tell people what they want to hear, instead of what they should hear. This method has the obvious advantage of guaranteeing a wide circulation. But as Péguy aptly remarked: "Flattering the vices of the people is more cowardly and base than flattering the vices of the great."

The second danger is to cheat people into thinking they are doing independent thinking, while, in fact, their newspaper has lulled their intellectual faculties through the systematic and "scientific" use of slogans.

Slogans are to the mind what soporifics are to the body. It should be clear, however, that the former is much more dangerous than the latter could ever be. For they foster the illusion of authentic knowledge and of having attained a superior position toward the world at large. They flatter pride in making people believe that they can diagnose a situation by a single word. They claim to be concentrated wisdom, while, in fact, they blur a man's vision of the world and misleads him into believing himself to be a competent judge of every question. Slogans distort a person's sense for truth.

It could be shown that there is a direct proportion between the increase in the use of slogans and the decrease in the interest in truth.

Slogans concocted by a small minority of intellectuals are, subsequently, through the press, accepted and swallowed by the overwhelming majority of men. They are presented in such a way that the public is shrewdly led to think that he has made up his own mind, and is enjoying the benefits of independent thinking. In fact, the masses are being indoctrinated and rendered incapable of authentic thought, through the scientific slavery exercised by the press.

Against the background of these ominous abuses and dangers, the true mission of the newspaper shines up in all its beauty.

The remark of Kierkegaard’s quoted above intimates that the prostitution of the truth is worse than the prostitution of one’s body. But the evil that can arise through this intellectual prostitution is proportionate to the good that devotion to truth can accomplish. Indeed, few missions are as noble as the one of seeking truth and of spreading it when it is found. Few tasks are as important as the one of enlightening an ignorant and gullible public, and of helping it to gain objective information.

The 100th anniversary of The Wanderer calls for joy and gratitude. Not only has it spread truth in season and out of season, but it has now taken a courageous stand in the present crisis menacing the Church.

Thanks to The Wanderer, we know that the beacon of truth is shining bright in a world threatened by darkness.