A Mute Testimony

According to some archeologists [1], there once lived a vibrant urban civilization along the littoral of the Black Sea in what is now Bulgaria. A few thousand years ago, the cities of this area were burned by fire and utterly destroyed, leaving only their ruins in mute testimony, no texts to decipher, no living language to provide oral traditions of their existence, only the silent and equivocal testimony of what was left behind. There is much in history that we do not know because the remains of it have not survived. In some matters, the truth of what has happened is known only to God above because no one who could have told has left a mark and the traces of it have vanished on this earth. While this is an unsatisfying aspect of reality, it is all too common for us to have gaps in our knowledge because something happened with no witnesses, and without witnesses there can be no testimony of the sort that we can recover. Even where there are witnesses, if something is recorded in a language no one living can decipher, it cannot communicate anything to us either.

Earlier today I finished reading a book [2] that sought to burnish the reputation of George Thomas, one of the prominent and most conspicuously talented generals of the Union army during the Civil War. The author appeared to fault Lincoln and others for behaving in a political fashion, and also commented negatively about the clique that surrounded generals like Halleck, Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, and Schofield. A book I hope to read within the next couple of days likewise deals with the problems of a general, namely that of Lew Wallace [3], who ran afoul of Grant due to a miswritten order that led to a loss of honor on his part. It struck me that while it is easy for historians to make fun of political generals, that engaging in war as a republic is a political act, and a successful general needs to be able to win the support of the populace and civil and political leadership and not only win battles. We disparage political skill at our hazard, for no one is so talented that their name cannot be blackened with slander and their reputation buried by hostile testimony. The truth is a mute testimony; for people to come to a knowledge of the truth, someone must tell them, someone must write it down, someone must teach it to them.

Yet it is not only that we must recognize the importance of political skill in military matters. All generals, in a matter of speaking, are political generals in that they have cliques of people they get along with and enjoy spending time with, and this tends to lead to certain informal institutional networks that can help someone or hinder them, give them a second chance after they screw up or keep them from getting a chance at all because they lack the opportunity to prove themselves. Yet it is not armies alone that have these patterns; all institutions have their own politics, and one cannot be a leader or aspire to leadership of anything without coming to grips with the reality of politics. Whatever it may be called, whether mentoring or counsel that we ignore at risk to our well-being, the decisions that we take with regards to people, who we choose to socialize with, how often we spend time with others, the support and encouragement we give to others, is a political act. It is not only a political act—it may have many other layers—but it is no less than a political act either.

I find this bothers me on some level. On the one hand, I know that my own perspective colors the way I see life, the way I treat others and the way that I tend to interpret their actions and infer their motives. On a broader level, one can intellectually know that as we cannot read minds, and often cannot trust people to record their own behavior honestly and completely, that our knowledge of others will depend on triangulation and requires some tolerance for error, some allowance for giving or not giving the benefit of the inevitable doubt. Yet this reality still bothers us, for regardless of our candor about our own fallibility and our knowledge at the imperfection of either texts or artifacts to give eloquent testimony as to the truth, none of us really denies that there is some truth to be gotten. Even those who most stridently claim that there is no such thing as objective truth and that all is relative write these thoughts in heavy books, many of them taking years to write, that can be understood for what they say. Their own existence contradicts their claims. It is all too simple to deny the existence of ultimate truth simply because we lack the reliable means of grasping it in our puny hands or comprehending it in our limited minds.

The reality, though, is all the more harrowing. We are simultaneously in total and unanimous agreement, whether unwittingly or not, that there is ultimate truth at the basis of our existence, and also in equally unanimous, though sometimes unwitting, agreement as to our own universal absence of the means of fully grasping or living according to that truth. That is an inescapable tragedy of human existence, that we long for what we cannot possess in this life, that we reach for what we cannot grasp, that we want what we cannot have. The best we can do is to seek to live our lives surrounded by people whom we love and who love us, in spite of our awareness of our mutual flaws and shortcomings, to find the unreachable perfection of truth that we cannot enter into in the more limited boundaries of communities of fellowship and brotherhood (or sisterhood) that we can enter. And so, whether we are aware of it or not, we all on some practical level practice our charisma in search of a good community in which we feel safe and protected, even if we are aware that the maintenance of these communities and cliques and groups and affinities inevitably distorts that larger truth that we often seek to ignore if we cannot delude ourselves into believing that we have it all figured out. Yet that which we cannot know sits just beneath the surface, a mute testimony to the limits of our understanding and the unbounded state of our ignorance, a gulf so impossible to cross that we would rather forget that it is there in the first place, or failing that, view as beneath the worth of our notice and attention, since it is hopeless for us to remedy the situation on our own.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/08/31/book-review-the-horse-the-wheel-and-language/

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/03/24/book-review-master-of-war/

[3] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2016/03/17/non-book-review-my-greatest-quarrel-with-fortune/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Military History, Musings and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Mute Testimony

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Civilization And Its Enemies | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: The Lost Civilization Enigma | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: A Concise History Of Bulgaria | Edge Induced Cohesion

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