“What Is Truth?” He Asked of Truth Itself

Nikolai Ge, What Is Truth? Pilate and Christ

Spiritual Sunday

As we prepare for Advent, today’s Gospel reading (John:18:33-38) features the famous truth interchange between Jesus and Pilate. The passage always bring to my mind poet William Cowper’s reflection upon truth in his long poem The Task.

Here’s the reading:

Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him.”

The long and rambling chain of associations that make up The Task lead to numerous reflections, some very powerful. In this excerpt, Cowper perhaps echoes Samuel Johnson’s poem “The Vanity of Human Wishes” and is certainly referring to both Isaiah 40:6 (“All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field”) and Ecclesiastes 1:2 (“vanity of vanities; all is vanity”). If everything “fades like the flower disheveled in the wind,” then all that survives is “the only lasting treasure, truth,” which Cowper compares to an amaranthine flower:

   All flesh is grass, and all its glory fades
Like the fair flower dishevelled in the wind;
Riches have wings, and grandeur is a dream;
The man we celebrate must find a tomb,
And we that worship him, ignoble graves.
Nothing is proof against the general curse
Of vanity, that seizes all below.
The only amaranthine flower on earth
Is virtue; the only lasting treasure, truth.

To go off on a tangent for a moment, the “amaranthine flower” to which Cowper compares truth was a mythical flower whose blooms were believed to never fade. It shows up in Paradise Lost (Book III) where Milton notes that, after Adam and Eve’s “offense,” the amaranth removed to heaven, where it shades the fount of life and is used by God’s angels to “bind their resplendent locks”:

Immortal Amarant, a flower which once
In Paradise, fast by the Tree of Life
Began to bloom, but soon for mans offense
To Heav’n remov’d where first it grew, there grows,
And flowers aloft shading the Fount of Life,
And where the river of Bliss through midst of Heavn
Rolls o’er Elisian flowers her amber stream;
With these that never fade the Spirits elect
Bind their resplendent locks inwreath’d with beams

But back to Cowper’s discussion of truth. His arrival there after observing that all else will fade brings him to the passage from John:


But what is truth? ’twas Pilate’s question put
To truth itself, that deigned him no reply.

If Jesus doesn’t reply, Cowper says, it’s because of the questioner. He does reply to those who are humble, candid and sincere, qualities which Pilate cannot claim:


And wherefore? will not God impart His light
To them that ask it?—Freely—’tis His joy,
His glory, and His nature to impart.
But to the proud, uncandid, insincere,
Or negligent inquirer, not a spark.

Imagining that he is being cross-examined as Jesus was, Cowper defines truth elliptically, shifting to metaphor. Truth can be like a good book or a good minister—if you don’t appreciate them, then the problem is with you:

What’s that which brings contempt upon a book
And him that writes it, though the style be neat,
The method clear, and argument exact?
That makes a minister in holy things
The joy of many, and the dread of more,
His name a theme for praise and for reproach?—
That, while it gives us worth in God’s account,
Depreciates and undoes us in our own?

Finally, referring to Jesus’s metaphor of his kingdom as a “pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:45-46), Cowper compares truth to that pearl—but it’s a peal available only to the poor and despised:

What pearl is it that rich men cannot buy,
That learning is too proud to gather up,
But which the poor and the despised of all
Seek and obtain, and often find unsought?
Tell me, and I will tell thee what is truth.

Now you know.

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