The simple challenge of Alain Badiou's 'ethic of truths'
“This ethics combines, then, under the imperative to 'Keep going!', resources of discernment (do not fall for simulacra), of courage (do not give up), and of moderation (do not get carried away to the extremes of Totality).”
- Alain Badiou, An Essay on the Understanding of Evil
The twentieth century was a disappointing time for ethics, marking as it did the decline and eventual collapse of moral philosophy. One book shines out as a fascinating alternative approach to the question of the good life, however: Alain Badiou’s polemic Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. While it is written in the awkward style that is typical of this French philosopher’s less-than-accessible thought, it offers a remarkable simplicity of vision for a life well-lived. The essence of his insight can be expressed in just two words: keep going.
If this seems overly simplistic, or even naïve, this is merely the inevitable consequence of simmering down the heady brew of Badiou’s ‘ethic of truths’ into a two word maxim. You may even have seen research recently saying people are happier if they give up rather than persevering... well, beware of academics bearing gifts. The challenge that faces us when we take on Badiou’s moral principle is not to blindly keep going, but to first recognise when we have encountered a truth. Then, having experienced this extraordinary event, we must kindle fidelity to that event, to keep that truth alive, rather than letting the everyday world snuff out its flame and return us to our humdrum existence.
Truth, for Badiou, isn’t a proposition, it is that which exceeds our experience and prior understanding. In extraordinary events, truth punctuates our world from the outside and reveals something that was previously hidden. Badiou likes to give as examples well-known breakthroughs in the sciences - Einstein seeing through the evident logic of Newtonian physics to the truth of something beyond it, for instance. But he also likes to provide the example of love, for love itself is a truth that punctures our everyday experience and shows us a glimpse of something that exceeds our understanding - a realisation that there could be two where previously there was only one. When we encounter such a truth, we have an obligation to what was revealed - a duty of fidelity to that event, lest we betray it.
The difficult part of Badiou’s principle, therefore, isn’t to keep going - although make no mistake, sometimes it can be a test beyond all measure to keep faith with the truth you have encountered. The challenge is to distinguish a genuine encounter with truth from the many different ways that you can be deceived into believing something is true. Some purported ‘truths’ are merely blind dogma, or fear dressed up as revelation. The truths that are revealed to us in extraordinary events are a possibility within everyone’s existence - but there’s always a risk of such revelations going horrifically wrong.
Badiou suggests we can fail in three ways. We can go astray by being deceived into something that is a ‘simulacrum’ of the truth, a deceptive illusion. When we mistake our lust for love, for instance, we become victim to something that is a distortion and a shadow of love. Or we might betray the truth revealed to us, becoming distracted from the event that revealed this truth to us, and let it go, as so many do with their relationships. Or we can inflate the importance of a truth so that it becomes an absolute totality, such that it becomes a mechanism for claiming power. This is what Badiou calls disaster, and we just lived through precisely this.
‘Keep going’ is a principle for life that applies in all worlds, provided it is understood and pursued with great care. And this is partly why for Badiou it is an ‘ethic of truths’, and not of ‘the truth’. Because truth in totality is forever hidden from us... it is an excess, it cannot be captured by our clumsy languages. The merest echo of this abundant truth can be felt in the logical truth of mathematics, the closest our symbols ever get to capturing lightning. Whichever world we live in, the truth can sometimes cut through our assumptions and reveal itself to us in an extraordinary event. When it does, we owe it to ourselves to follow wherever it leads.
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