The Lady and the Scale (Part 1)

“Woman Holding a Balance”  -Jan Vermeer

When I came up with my blog name, Truth and Tolerance, I wanted to find an image for the header that expressed my attitudes about the idea of ‘truth’.

I had the good fortune to live in Italy for a bit, where I gained some familiarity with Renaissance art. (It is impossible to live in Italy and not learn something about art.) Back in the Renaissance it was common to make allegorical paintings about abstract things like Virtue, Wisdom, or Truth represented by a human being, usually a woman.

These kinds of paintings were very common during the Italian and French Renaissances, so I had no shortage of images to choose from. The most common theme is “Truth Revealed by Time”: Father Time pulls away a veil to reveal a nude woman, beautiful but pure, with piercing eyes. Here are some examples:

“Truth Unveiled by Time” by Francois de Troy.  Balanced. Classical… Dull. 

 

 

“Truth” by Jules Joseph Lefebvre. Can you guess my two favorite things about this painting?

 

 

These images are meant to resonate with something most people feel: the hope that no matter how many people believe a lie, some day the truth will shine forth, chasing away the darkness of falsehood. I’m not just talking about truth and lies in our personal lives, this emotion runs deep in our whole culture: read the comedies of Shakespeare, the Inauguration Speech of Barack Obama, or the Book of Revelation. In fact, I think it is a religious feeling first and foremost; a belief that somehow the whole universe is groaning towards some final revelation in which all that was whispered in secret is shouted from the rooftops, the good wheat gathered into the barn, and the chaff burned with unquenchable fire.

But I did not want to use one of these images to head up my blog  for a couple of reasons. First, these epiphanies of truth are rare in our lives: they are sort of a limit reality that we hope for, but never quite experience. Second,  the truth we often hope to be revealed is our private version of the truth. Personally, I believe that 2012 will reveal the New England Patriots as the greatest team in the history of football, but perhaps some fool out there might dare to disagree. Some hope that 2012 will vindicate their belief that America is wise and noble enough to elect President Obama to a second term; others hope that 2012 will reveal Obama as the amateur he really is. We can’t all be right. I think that deep down, we don’t even want to be right: our pride is so deeply bound up in these kinds of truths that each of us ends up not wanting the truth to triumph, but my truth to triumph.

Our daily experience of truth is something humbler than all that. It is an experience more like what we see in Vermeer’s painting above, which I will talk about next time.

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