The beginning: what is truth?

Some time ago a retired veteran was hanging out in the middle of the city where all the people were; he began talking with random people (anyone who would listen, really), and asking questions about many topics. The sum of his questions was “why?” “Why do we do things like this or that?” Why do we believe such and such?” Over time enough people stopped to talk with him, and enough people began to ask the same questions, that politicians accused him of being anti-patriotic: threatening national security by causing disunity among the nation, creating opportunities and weaknesses for enemies to exploit. Once this happened, they got enough popular and political support to convict him. He was executed by poison: Hemlock, specifically; and his name was Socrates, one of the first philosophers.

I don’t exactly know what he said or why, and it doesn’t matter because it’s the ideas behind the story (however true or mythical; whether the ideas of Socrates himself or those of the people who wrote about him) that matters: truth and tempered tolerance. If something is not true; why believe it or do it, why risk your life for it? That’s part of why many of you are soldiers, isn’t it? You believe your country and what it stands for are worth risking your death. You believe you’re making the world a better place. Yet at the same time he pursued truth, Socrates supposedly said “the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know anything;” meaning the more people he talked with, the more perspectives he heard, the more he realized it is impossible for humanity to really know something; and if we can’t know something then we ought to be careful about what we are willing to kill and be killed for.

That is what I want for you: to consider carefully for what you risk your life. And when I say your life, I don’t just mean your beating heart; I mean everything about your life: your family, friends, contributions to society and the things you aren’t doing because you’re a soldier. I don’t want to convince you to become a member of this political party or that; this church or that group; to have these beliefs or those. If the only impact I have is to make a few people ponder (whether they change their minds or not) their actions and beliefs, then I will consider this effort of mine not wasted.

So my first questions to you are “what is truth?” and “what is true?” If you don’t have a working concept of truth then every other intellectual endeavor is pointless. Or is it?