An instance of the fingerpost

There has been a dispute between two people at work in the recent period, each of them giving a different version of the same situation. Which in itself has nothing that unusual. But this made me thinking about the whole notion of truth, its subjectivity considering the way the various protagonists of a same event can see or interpret it. Most of time it appears that they do not see the same fact under the same light. This reminds me of two great books I read (and should probably read again).

The first one is a more contemporaneous one. It is “an instance of the fingerpost” by Ian Pears (books edited in the UK in 1997).

The idea behind this book is pretty simple. A murder in 17th-century Oxford is related from the contradictory points of view of four of the characters, who will all appear as unreliable narrators. The setting of the novel is 1663, just after the restoration of the monarchy following the English Civil War, when the authority of King Charles II is not yet settled, and conspiracies abound.

Most of the characters are historical figures two of the narrators are the mathematician John Wallis and the historian Anthony Wood. Other people as the philosopher John Locke, the scientists Robert Boyle and Richard Lower, spymaster John Thurloe, and inventor Samuel Morland are also part of the novel).The characters that are fictional are nonetheless drawn from real events. For instance, the story of Sarah Blundy incorporates that of Anne Greene. The plot is centered on the death of Robert Grove. However, it also takes in the conspiracies of John Mordaunt and William Compton, and the politics of Henry Bennet and Lord Clarendon. Each narrator is telling the story many years after the events took place. And it is very instructive how their respective recollections of the same facts and their conclusion of the author and circumstances of the murder are different from one to another. And how theses variances are connected to their own life, past and personality. And also how they can be conditioned by their own personal interest.

The second book is a great classic: “De Res publica” by Platon, where you can find an interesting allegory known as the allegory of the cavern. Men are presented as chained  in a cavern. Their faces are directed towards the wall. The only light they now is a fire located in their back. They never saw the light of the day directly. From both themselves and any other thing around them, they only know the shadows projected on the wall by the light of the fire. In the same way they do not know the sound of things but only its echo. If one of them is freed from his chain and forced to join the exit of the cavern, the light will first cruelly blind him. Then all changes that will occur will make him suffering. He will resist and won’t succeed to see all what is shown to him. Will he want to return to his previous state? Or will he continue and then discover the reality of the world? In this case, as he will gradually become conscious of what was his prior status, what will happen if he goes back to the cavern? Will he be welcome? Will others accept to believe him? Will they reject him, ostracize him? Will they even in the worse case kill him… One of the interpretation of the allegory is that the cavern represents the world where people are living and where they believe they access to the truth. But maybe is it not really truth. Or maybe different people can have a different vision of what his the truth of each situation.


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