‘Then you will know the truth,(John 8:32)
and the truth shall set you free.’
This phrase, probably one of the most well-known phrases from John’s Gospel, is also, perhaps, one of the least-understood. Printed on mugs and t-shirts, quoted by believers and non-believers, staunch sceptics and spiritualists alike, it seems that the phrase has enough of a ‘zen’ feel to it as to fall into the most abhorrent of literary categories—a cliché.
And yet, we are told that all clichés have ‘some’ truth in them. What is, then, the truth of this phrase? Asserting that ‘the truth shall set you free’ is not so much to say that telling the truth is a morally praiseworthy thing to do, but rather that telling the truth is also liberating. It’s not only a good thing ‘to do’ but it ‘feels good’ to do it—or at least that’s what we assume. We assume this because it seems to us that being ‘set free,’ liberated, or no longer oppressed, must always be a more preferable state of affairs than the converse.
This could not be further from the truth. Indeed, the truth does set us free, yet not an amicable sort of freedom, rather a dizzying one, a shame-filled one, a naked freedom. Yes, ‘naked’ is a good way to express this freedom. Perhaps this is why we speak of ‘naked truth,’ ‘cold, hard evidence,’ and ‘bare facts.’ For something supposedly so liberating we sure use an awful lot of uninviting imagery… and rightly so.
Nor is this without precedent. Religious depictions aside, in the art of the 16th and 17th century, for example, there existed only a handful of allegories whose nakedness had a morally positive reference instead of an erotic and carefree allusion that, in essence, diverts – or dare we say, corrupts – the viewer’s attention. Among these exceptions, we find ‘sacred love’ in Titian’s painting whose unadorned nakedness is a counterpoint to the luxurious clothing and make-up of ‘profane love’, for example. Otherwise, Alberti’s influential De Pictura still held the mantle on the term pudica (‘full of shame’) which was also adopted for the personification of repentance. Without the cloth that conceals, all we are left with is the ‘naked truth’; a phrase which still comes naturally to us, but whose image has been with us for several centuries.
Exposing our nakedness
If we are truly to seek, and accept the truth in all its gruesome entirety, we will inevitably also come face to face with our vulnerability, our weaknesses, our shortcomings, our nakedness. This is why the pursuit of truth, while noble and liberating, must necessarily include the experience of shame. It is, in fact, this shame—or rather, the desire to avoid it—that leads individuals to deny the truth, to keep on wearing a mask that not only hides their true face to others, but also paradoxically to themselves as well.
‘I am as the Other sees me’, would insist Sartre. Shame, thus, would entail a hiding from being seen. And being seen goes both ways; it refers both to the gaze of the people around us and to our own: the way we see ourselves. While the first might be more straightforward to address and deal with, such as remaining out of sight or, at worst, hiding our face in desperation, as most representations of ‘shame’ would seem to suggest (think of Masaccio’s iconic Expulsion of Adam and Eve, or as we find in Rodin’s Bourgeois de Calais, and Sieger Köder’s Elia on Mount Horeb); the latter has more subtle, albeit no less severe and damaging implications. Shame is the forebearer of envy, that is to say, a kind of pain one feels at the sight of the qualities or fortune of another, as Aristotle would put it. But in the true sense of the word, envy is the inability to see one’s own reality; literally, the inability “to look into”, in-video. Giotto brilliantly summarises this for us in paint, at the Scrovegni chapel in Padua; a reminder of the path one ought aspire to, away from envy and injustice (among other ‘vices’), and towards caritas—love—and justice (among other ‘virtues’) towards the ‘Other’ and for the common good.
Embracing our nakedness
All acts of injustice, of malice and hatred to one’s kin, can thus be distilled down to the frantic denial of the truth and the shame that it brings with it.
So, livid in the ice, up to the place
where shame can show itself, were those sad shades,
whose teeth were chattering with notes like storks.
Each kept his face bent downward steadily;(Dante, Inf. 32: 34-39)
their mouths bore witness to the cold they felt,
just as their eyes proclaimed their sorry hearts.
Cain is the prototype here. His turning away from the shameful truth of his shortcoming before God and man, turns into an envious rage that leads him to commit the greatest act of hatred. Maybe this is why Dante names one of the pockets in the lowest circle of hell ‘Caïna’ reserved for those who betray their own kin. Cain’s story happens again and again whenever power—or rather, the perception of power—enslaves with the fear of shame. Cain’s story has been reenacted across the ages everywhere. Including in our country. Including in our time.
The acceptance of truth is indeed a ‘shame-full’ experience, but it also sets us free from fear. It is an acceptance that is also, in a way, accompanied by a certain retrieval of identity, a retrieval of one’s face. We often speak of shamelessness as being ‘barefaced’, and it is those who are without shame that hold up their face in the hope of self-preservation, of maintaining a misleading outer image in spite of the otherwise shameful turn of events. Shamelessness is the inability to see or admit to the way things are. It is a question of pride. The shameless person enters ‘invidiously’ into the dark cave only to be ultimately turned to stone. But the shame-full person enters with a polished, ‘naked’ surface, reflecting the truth.
Accepting the truth, or proclaiming it, more often than not leads to an uncomfortable or unnerving state of affairs. The freedom truth gives us does indeed fill many of us with anxiety. But it does liberate us from being enslaved to fear. In this sense, we look with pity at the ‘powerful’ of our time—politicians and businesspeople—who use their power to hide the truth from us and from themselves. We pity them, for their struggle to avoid shame makes them puppets of their own making, controlled by fear.