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How Do We Know What Is True?

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As humans in the twenty-first century, we are inclined to question almost everything we see, hear and believe. A question many of us ask ourselves from time to time is, How do we know what is true? We come to know the truth by following our own path, using philosophical thinking and questioning everything that we think is the truth. These ideologies are apparent after reading The Republic by Plato, Discourse on Method by Descartes and Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In Plato’s The Republic, Plato uses the allegory of the cave to make it clear that we see the truth only after we accept that the visible world and the intelligible world are both important to have a real understanding of the world. He believed that everyone has the capability to be intelligent, and that we are all born with the potential to see the truth. After explaining the story of the men in the cave and one man becoming free, seeing the world for the first time, then ultimately seeing the sun, Plato reveals that the sun represents the truth. He writes, “all things right and good…gives birth to light and its sovereign source, that in the intelligible world it is itself sovereign and the author of truth and reason”. This represents the idea that the light that the sun provides, acts as the truth to the caveman and he only finds it through understanding and rationalizing the world around him. He possessed the possibility of seeing the truth but could only do so after being set free and trying to make sense of the world around him. This in turn tells us that we all can know the truth through being philosophical thinkers and doubting the things we currently think are true with full faith.

Descartes also teaches us that the truth or reason can be acquired by questioning the reality of what we call true today in his essay, Self-Reliance. He urged people to always be skeptical of the world around them and the reality that presented itself to them. He had four principles that he followed in order to seek the truth. One was to “never accept anything for true” (19), unless it was completely known as correct. This rule allows one to philosophize by doubting everything they think is true. To explain the second principle he wrote that one should “divide each of these difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible”. This principle was to basically divide and conquer these doubts and concerns. The third principle introduces that after dividing these doubts about the world, Descartes would arrange them from easiest to most complex and then try to resolve them from there.

This organization was processed through and based around objects even if those objects did not completely correlate to the order that things were arranged. The last principle that Descartes says he follows was to “make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I might be assured that nothing was omitted”. This meant that he observed and learned through his doubts and finally learned a form of truth that could not be argued against because it is somewhat vague and general.

While following these principles, Descartes also wanted to build a safe way to navigate through life in search of the truth. He revealed his thoughts about how to live this life through the introduction of four maxims. His first maxim was to obey the laws set by society and practice customs. The second, was to stand by your decisions once you have made them. The third was to try to change yourself, not the world. The last maxim was to be a philosopher. This fourth and last maxim was the most important to Descartes because he believed it was the key to finding the truth and reason. He believed that everyone has the ability to be rational and put reason at the center of their thoughts, and because we have reason, there must be truth or information that is solid that our reason stems off of. Because he believed that reason was something that everyone is born with, he believed that everyone is capable of reaching the truth.

Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson brings forward the idea that the truth will come to us if we follow our own path and practice originality. In the opening lines of his essay on self-reliance he writes, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your own private heart, is true for all men,- that is genius”. By stating this in the opening of his essay, Emerson made his point clear. He praises and admires originality and cleverness above all. He thinks that these values combine to create someone who will reach the truth and eventually create greatness.

All of these texts suggest ways in which the truth can be brought to light. Plato used the allegory of the cave and the concept of philosophy, Descartes believed in following principles and methods, and Emerson believed in looking inward and counting on your own originality to reveal the truths in life. They all however, speak of looking inward and coming to conclusions for ourselves rather than relying on the world, society, and culture for answers. In a more direct way of thinking, truth can be found through philosophy and using your own reasoning to think of answers that satisfy us rather than come to terms with what satisfies others.

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