. . .

Three Reputations

What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.

Paul de Man as Jesus, academics as the Pharisees, webloggers as Pilate? Enough to make even an unbeliever squirm.

Flipping through the racks, I may have found something more suitable:

Jesus stooped down, & with his finger wrote on the ground. And while they continued asking him, he lifted himself up, & said unto them: let him that is among you without sin cast the first stone at her. And again he stooped down & wrote on the ground.
And even closer fits might tempt elsewhere, since it's far from clear whether de Man would be playing the woman taken in advoutry or a guy with a rock in his hand. I'm only confident that his part doesn't include a line like: Hath no man condemned thee? Neither do I condemn thee.

. . .

Postscript, 2009: This series began as a response to a thought-provoking post by Tom Matrullo. In 2004, Dave Winer destroyed Tom's and hundreds of others' blogs without warning. Winer also ensured that the Wayback Machine doesn't have a copy of the relevant page. What is truth? said the web, and would not let the question stay.

. . .

What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.

Although Francis Bacon's essay is dedicated to the truth, it delineates the lie as lasciviously as Nietzsche or Strauss ever would:

Truth may perhaps come to the price of a pearl, that showeth best by day; but it will not rise to the price of a diamond, or carbuncle, that showeth best in varied lights. A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure. Doth any man doubt, that if there were taken out of men's minds, vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds, of a number of men, poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?

He understood the use-value of secrecy, too. Bacon lived in esoteric times. At the Tudor court, as at Stalin's, few public intellectuals died of old age.

13. The first chapter of a book of the same argument written in Latin and destined to be separate and not public.

A guy could get killed. Some of his own guys did. And he helped kill some of them.

He compromised, but for a higher goal. (He had a higher goal, but he compromised.) A collaborator who feared companionship, he flamed a vision of truth, a prophetic vision even, and he had to find funding, and protection, and still somehow smuggle the word out. Pprrpffrrppffff.

But truth is contrary, and that time is like a river which carrieth down things which are light and blown up, and sinketh and drowneth that which is sad and weighty. For howsoever governments have several forms, sometimes one governing, sometimes few, sometimes the multitude; yet the state of knowledge is ever a Democratie, and that prevaileth which is most agreeable to the senses and conceits of people.

That the cautels and devices put in practice in the delivery of knowledge for the covering and palliating of ignorance, and the gracing and overvaluing of that they utter, are without number; but none more bold and more hurtful than two; the one that men have used of a few observations upon any subject to make a solemn and formal art, by filling it up with discourse, accommodating it with some circumstances and directions to practice, and digesting it into method, whereby men grow satisfied and secure, as if no more inquiry were to be made of that matter; the other, that men have used to discharge ignorance with credit, in defining all those effects which they cannot attain unto to be out of the compass of art and human endeavour.

That the very styles and forms of utterance are so many characters of imposture, some choosing a style of pugnacity and contention, some of satire and reprehension, some of plausible and tempting similitudes and examples, some of great words and high discourse, some of short and dark sentences, some of exactness of method, all of positive affirmation, without disclosing the true motives and proofs of their opinions, or free confessing their ignorance or doubts, except it be now and then for a grace, and in cunning to win the more credit in the rest, and not in good faith.

That although men be free from these errors and incumbrances in the will and affection, yet it is not a thing so easy as is conceived to convey the conceit of one man's mind into the mind of another without loss or mistaking, specially in notions new and differing from those that are received.

That the discretion anciently observed, though by the precedent of many vain persons and deceivers disgraced, of publishing part, and reserving part to a private succession, and of publishing in a manner whereby it shall not be to the capacity nor taste of all, but shall as it were single and adopt his reader, is not to be laid aside, both for the avoiding of abuse in the excluded, and the stregthening of affection in the admitted.

That universities incline wits to sophistry and affectation, cloisters to fables and unprofitable subtilty, study at large to variety; and that it is hard to say, whether mixture of contemplations with an active life, or retiring wholly to contemplations, do disable and hinder the mind more.

So he trumpeted the real, worked alone, temporized and plotted, and was, of course, undone: brought low by both his politics and his science. All for the sake of humanity's future.

How did humanity's future react? "[THE REST WAS NOT PERFECTED.]"

God gave Adam free run of Eden excepting the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Bacon's interpretation, this is an injunction to pursue empirical research and leave ethical speculation alone. Morality is the original sin; to pass judgment is to usurp godhood. (As in Foolbert Sturgeon's retelling of the adulteress story -- Jesus: "Let he without sin cast the first stone." Abashed guy, handing a stone to Jesus: "I apologize, master; it was rude of us to start without you.")

This reconcilation of Genesis, the Gospels, and modern science is ingenious, and prescient ("never argue about religion or politics"), and (more clearly than Bacon might wish) dangerous, and (it turned out) unforgivable.

A survey of shelves and sites reveals a hodge-podge reputation, a headcheese of prim disapproval, idiotic hero-worship, occultism, and conspiracy theory: cold-blooded traitor, utopian technocrat, suck-up to a superstitious king, scientific methodist, positivist sinner (and, aesthete though I am, long may the methodists win out, 'cause I ain't no more healthy than the average aesthete and I need those pharmaceuticals), a sexual creature or beast....

In short, fate and fame supplied the customary reward of the skeptic speculator:

"What are thou that questions thus?"
"Men call me Bacon."

. . .

What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.

Bacon's melodious sentence is itself an example of the triumph of grace over truth. His personal experience of judgment halls may have overpowered his biblical studies -- or could he be foisting away a too-close kinship of philosophical inquisitors, so vehemently as to call attention to the resemblance he denies?

"I was the justes judge that was in England these fifty years; but it was the justes censure in Parliament that was these two hundred years."
What I asked was what most folks call a "rhetorical" or a "leading" question (and some folks call "proof"). I phrase it as a question so that you'll draw the answer up from your very own store of cleverness -- "Yes!", fist pumped up then inwards -- and then it's personal, you're committed, you've sworn your allegience.

But honestly turn the question back to me, and what can I say? I can try to answer it myself, losing my advantage. Or I could meet it with rhetorical silence, glaring as if dumbfounded by your rudeness or your clumsiness, and then let my more pliant disciples rip you apart while I approve them: a bullying technique of group enforcement favored in playground and classroom both. ("O, I say, here's a fellow says he speaks as a hegemonic subject!" "O, I say, here's a fellow says he doesn't speak as a hegemonic subject!")

Or I could do something I can't even picture. It's not like I have a lot of pictures.

At any rate, we chiefly emulate Pilate (uncredited) when we wash our hands of the whole affair, and chiefly criticize him (by name) for his question. Among English speakers, Pilate's reputation was made by Bacon's vivid tableau, even though the source gospel hardly bursts with japery:

Then led they Jesus from Cayphus into the hall of judgment. It was in the morning, and they themselves went not into the judgment hall lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the paschal lamb. Pilate then went out unto them & said: What accusation bring ye against this man? They answered and said onto him: If he were not an evil doer, we would not have delivered him onto thee. Then said Pilate to them: Take ye him, and judge him after your own law. Then the Jews said onto him: It is not lawful for us to put any man to death. That the words of Jesus might be fulfilled which he spake, signifiying what death he should die.

Then Pilate entered into the judgment hall again, & called Jesus, and said unto him: Art thou the king of the Jews? Jesus answered: Sayest thou that of thy self, or did other tell it thee of me? Pilate answered: Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and high priests have delivered thee unto me. What hast thou done? Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then would my ministers surely fight that I would not be delivered to the Jews, but now is my kingdom not from hence. Pilate said unto him: Art thou a king? Then Jesus answered: Thou sayest that I am a king. For this cause was I born, and for this cause came I into the world: that I should bear witness unto the truth. And all that are of the truth hear my voice. Pilate said to him: What thing is truth.

And when he had said that, he went out again onto the Jews and said onto them: I find in him no cause at all. Ye have a custom that I should deliver you one loose at Easter. Will ye that I loose onto you the king of the Jews? Then cried they all again saying: Not him but Barrabas.

That Barrabas was a robber.

If someone tells you that everyone who hears him knows the truth, and you don't actually feel much of anything when you hear him, is it really so wrong to ask him to elaborate?

Nor is it all that clear (in translation, anyway) that Pilate terminated his laugh line by turning on his heel and exiting stage left to scattered applause. Later, the same gospel shows Jesus refusing to acknowledge another direct question:

We have a law, & by our law he ought to die: because he made himself the son of God. When Pilate heard that saying, he was the more afraid, & went again into the judgment hall, & said unto Jesus: Whence art thou? But Jesus gave him none answer. Then said Pilate unto him: Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, & have power to loose thee? Jesus answered: Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above. Therefore he that delivered me unto thee is more in sin. And from thenceforth sought Pilate means to loose him: but the Jews cried saying: If thou let him go, thou art not Caesar's friend. For whosoever maketh himself a king, is against Caesar.

Pilate's patience is remarkable. Like later totalitarian regimes, neither imperial Rome nor Tudor England held truck with silence; self-incrimination was their favorite evidence, and they had no scruples about getting it.

In fact, the reader can't help but be struck by the gospels' generosity toward Pontius Pilate, increasing over time as the early Jewish cult became more reliant on Roman gentiles for protection and converts. The Romans weren't going to take the fall for this one.

The Gospel of John, being written last, sketches an especially sympathetic portrait (elaborated by Bulgakov, among others), of a colonial bureaucrat hamstrung into damnation by politics, confusion, and self-fulfilling prophecy.

A final unanswered question, then: When Jesus said that Pilate's power was "given thee from above," just which authority was he talking about?

Further deponent saith not.

Quotes from the Gospell after Saynt Johan the Euangelyste
translated by William Tyndale, 1525


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All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.