Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

While riding on a bus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a group I was with skirted Harvard Yard, ground zero for American higher education.  The Harvard seal is ubiquitous there (the letters VE-RI-TAS imposed on open books), on t-shirts, signs, and buildings as far as the eye can see. 

“Does anybody  know what veritas is?” a rider said. 

“I’ve been wondering that myself,” someone else chimed in.  “I know it’s not Latin for Harvard.  Does anybody know Latin?”

Another rider spoke up, “I saw it everywhere and got curious so I googled it.  It means ‘truth.’  And it’s kind of cool that its letters are printed over open books.”

I finally inserted myself into the conversation. 

Veritas is the Harvard motto, and it does mean “truth” but technically the full motto is “Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae.  ‘Truth for Christ and the Church.’  There are a few places around campus that still have this, including over the doors of the Widener Library.  And it’s not just any open books; the way I’ve heard it, one book is the Bible, one represents the great learning of the past in written form, and in some versions, the third book is face down, representing the necessity of God’s self-revelation beyond human reasoning that may be found in books.  In fact, Emerson Hall, which houses the department of philosophy, has a biblical inscription over the doors that reads ‘What Is Man that Thou Art Mindful of Him?’, which is in the Psalms.” [Ps. 8:4].

Stunned silence followed.  Finally one person said, “Well, that’s pretty amazing.  I guess they don’t follow that any more, do they?”  Everyone chuckled nervously. 

I kept pondering the question that originally caught my attention: “Does anybody know what vertitas is?”

Visitors to Harvard Yard tend to have their photos made in front of the Statue of the Three Lies, which is among the most photographed sculptures in America.  It’s supposed to be a representation of John Harvard, the college namesake but the figure is that of a model (lie #1), the inscribed term “founder” is likewise wrong (lie #2), and the date inscribed for the founding of the college is erroneous (lie #3).  I could not help but note the irony that the motto is “veritas” but the most influential image of campus is not the library but rather the “lying” statue.  Indeed, the motto of not just Harvard but perhaps for most of American higher education is more aptly illusio, Latin for “irony, deceit, or mockery,” the root word for “illusion.” 

The funny thing about truth is that it exists apart from human understanding.  It’s the ultimate question of “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”  It mistakes the human part of the phenomenon for the ultimate test of reality.  The truth is that the earth circled the sun completely apart from the human perception that the reverse was “true.”  The truth is that atoms have worked in specific ways long before we had the technology that allowed us to understand their properties.  In the end, truth is never created; it is merely discovered.  The trick is, what do we do when we are faced with the truth?

A friend of mine used to work for a man who was convicted on felony charges; someone asked him if he knew that the guy was involved in the illegal activities and my friend said, “I knew enough to know that I didn’t want to know.”  Put another way, his defense was, “I knew the truth but I figured that if I didn’t admit that it was the truth, I wouldn’t have to face up to the realities that ensued.”

To some extent, this is the same defense that was offered up by a Roman governor with a glib retort to a truth claim: “What is truth?”  In Latin, “Quid est veritas?” (John 18:38).

The question never really changes, does it?

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles