Origins of the "double-truth"

Sun Dec 24 14:51:33 UTC 2000

There is one unquestionable Greek use of the idea of a higher and lower
truth, well before the influence of Buddhism is possible, and the source, of
course, of most of the western usage of this theme - including later Greek
thought, Philo and Sufism.

Plato distinguishes consistently between the Truth of Being ("that which
always is and never becomes") and the only apparent reality of becoming
("that which is always becoming but never is"). It is moreover the
distinction between Mind (Nous itself) and the objects of the mind. Any
attempt to juggle the "apparent" pieces into a logical system can be at best
a symbolic approximation to the Truth. Nonetheless "popular" religion is
forced to do just that. People demand a "system", and above a "saving of the
appearances" on which morality itself rests.

It would seem that every religion that expresses itself in analytic (as
opposed to symbolic) terms makes this same distinction, at least in its
mystical tradition - perhaps because it is the truth which they have seen.

As being is to becoming, so is pure intellect (Nous) to opinion - Plato,

We must in my opinion begin by distinguishing between that which always is
and never becomes, from that which is always becoming but never is - Plato,
Timaeus 27

What is at issue is the turning round of the mind from the twilight of error
to the truth, the climb up into the real world which we shall call true
philosophy - Plato, Republic 7.521

What others call true reality, they (the wise) call, not real being, but a
sort of moving process of becoming - Plato, Sophist

"The One remains, the many change and pass.
Heaven's Light forever shines; earth's shadows fly."

is but the popular expression of this tradition.

It has been suggested that Plato may have got the basis of this idea from
Orphism, but so little is known about Orphism and its origins that even if
this is true it hardly gets us any further. It does not rule out an ultimate
"eastern" origin though. One thing is certain though, from the dates
involved, that Plato could not have got this distinction directly from

To suggest that it is merely a clever device to reconcile conflicting
"commentarial" discrepancies is itself very clever, but hardly does the
subject justice, even if there are cases when this is true.

John Richards

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