Aristotle, in book four of his “Ethics,” brings up a “minor” virtue with no “proper” name. In English, it is generally called “truthfulness.” It is a medium somewhere between boasting and self-deprecation. It means that we speak the truth about ourselves – not too much, not too little. The truthful man, we trust, does not lie to us.

Aristotle makes this fine statement to which anyone, I think, can assent: “A lover of the truth who is truthful even when nothing is at stake will be seen keener to tell the truth when something is at stake.” We should love what is true for its own sake, simply because it is true.

ost of us have heard the following passage from the Gospel of John: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” It was spoken by the same man to whom a Roman governor addressed the famous, or infamous, question: “What is truth?” The governor is notorious for not waiting for an answer. Either he did not want to hear it, or he did not think one existed.

To know the truth is why we have minds. The pursuit and discovery of the truth constitutes one of the most profound delights we can experience. In book six of the “Ethics,” his discussion of the intellectual virtues, Aristotle tells us: “There are five states in which the soul grasps the truth in its affirmation and denials. These are craft (art, techne), scientific knowledge, prudence (phronesis), wisdom (sophia) and understanding (nous).”

The truth of art refers to the correspondence between what is made and what the artist or craftsman intended to make. The truth of science means that the premises, middle terms and conclusion of an investigation are logical and based on evidence. The truth of prudence – the intellectual virtue of the practical vir-tues – means that actions we take that express who we are correspond with what a good person would do in the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves. The truth of wisdom refers to seeing the order of all things in proper relation to each other. And the truth of understanding means that we immediately grasp the first principle, the principle of contradiction, on the basis of which all other proofs and acts are based and made possible.

Everyone wants to live a life of truth in all these areas wherein truth is open to him. Plato said that no one wants a “lie” in his soul about the most important things. It is bad to lie to our friends; it is much worse to lie to ourselves.

In book 19 of “The City of God,” Augustine says: “No one ought to be so leisured as to take no thought of his neighbor, nor so active as to feel no need for the contemplation of God. The attraction of a life of leisure ought not to be the prospect of lazy inactivity, but the chance for the investigation of truth, on the understanding that each person makes some progress in this [investigation], and does not grudgingly withhold his discovery from another.”

Augustine is careful to affirm that a life of learning is not a neglect of our neighbor. He is unhappy with laziness of mind. We are not to be grudging about the truth that we know. Truth is always free – no one “owns” it. It is ultimately what binds us together in the same world, this quest to know what is.

Leisure, as Aristotle says, is that state of life in which we really are free to pursue what is true. It is the real end of all politics and the one thing over which politics has no direct control. (Otherwise, we could not be free – this is the hallmark of any pursuit of truth.)

What about untruth? Are we unconcerned about it, especially in our own pursuits? Aristotle, as always, has wisely settled this score. “We must, however, not only state the true view, but also explain the false view: for an explanation of that [false view] promotes confidence. For when we have an apparently reasonable explanation of why a false view appears true, that makes us more confident of the true view,” he says.

Aristotle’s admonition, I think, was taken to heart by Thomas Aquinas when he carefully set down the arguments against his propositions before making his own arguments for them. To “know” what is false is also a perfection of the mind. Vice only arises when we knowingly neglect or set aside the truth so that we might do what we want. We become inauthentic to ourselves and we know that we do.

To speak the truth truthfully to one another is not only a delight; it is close to the core reason we exist in the first place.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is a professor of government. He can be reached at As This Jesuit Sees It . appears every other Friday, with Fr. Maher, Fr. O’Brien and Fr. Schall alternating as writers.

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