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The sovereign good

  • 25 November 2021
Long ago, a Greek village boy was accused of throwing a stone at a classmate. When charged with this offence, he opened his innocent eight-year-old eyes wide, and said, ‘I didn’t do it. The devil did it: he pushed me with his tail.’ There is an old saying in English, so old that sixteenth-century preacher Hugh Latimer himself mentioned it as being old in his time. Tell the truth and shame the devil. In the incident I recall, the devil was not shamed, but blamed. And the child had not told the truth.

Statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon, also of the sixteenth century, is probably most famous for his collection of essays, one of which is called ‘Of Truth’. The opening of the essay has always been very quotable: ‘What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.’ I’ve often thought how wise jesting Pilate was, for even then the question of the nature of truth was a thorny one. And Bacon was under no illusions about the limitations of human nature. He thought that most people had ‘a natural though corrupt love of the lie itself,’ and that ‘a mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure.’

It seems that Bacon was right then, and right now. But the attitude towards truth has changed, I think. Now we accept the idea that there are different sorts of truth: the phrases historical truth, narrative truth and emotional truth come trippingly off the lips of vast numbers of people. Then there are the complex notions of fantasy and fiction: we have long subscribed to the notion of novelists making up various ‘lies’ or fantasies in order to tell underlying truths about human nature. But we also have to accept, I think, that a gentleman’s word is no longer his bond.

I can remember a time when truth was closely bound up with the concepts of honour and shame. I was very young when the so-called Profumo case rocked Britain and contributed to the discrediting and eventual fall of the Conservative government. John Profumo, then Secretary of State for War, came from a privileged background and had had ‘a good war,’ having fought in and survived the D-Day landings. At the end of the conflict, he held the rank of Brigadier and had been awarded the British OBE and the American Bronze Star.

But in 1961, the 46-year-old Profumo began an extra-marital