“The Good, the True, and the Beautiful” (ISU Chapter of Golden Key National Honorary Society at its Induction Ceremony, April 16, 1997)
When I received the kind invitation to honorary membership in Golden Key National Honor Society, I have to tell you that I was a little worried. My mind flashed immediately to high school where during my senior year I was president of our local chapter of Key Club International. All that I remember that our Key Club did was to sell spirit ribbons every week during football season and use the money to give “lucky students” free tickets to the games. I was pleased to learn that Golden Key has no relationship with Key Club.
That mental trip back to Woodrow Wilson High School in the early 1960s got me to thinking about a teacher I had for literature, and her admonition to me and my classmates to fix our eyes on “the good, the true, and the beautiful.” I do not recall that she ever told us what these words meant, but on a practical level, pursuing “the good, the true, and the beautiful” in her class meant memorizing 500 lines of poetry, some of which I can still recite: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote...” “Is this a dagger which I see before me?...” “Tiger, tiger, burning bright...” Also, pushing us toward “the good, the true, and the beautiful” was probably her way of protecting herself from what she saw as “the bad, the false, and the ugly” -- Elvis, wide felt skirts with poodles on them, and pimply kids who butchered Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Blake. Besides, with all the certainty of a concrete thinker (which I was), I knew what she meant because I had memorized from the Bible, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Then, I went to college. As I read “Death of God” theologians and existential philosophers, I came to question moral absolutism while at the same time I deepened my appreciation for the complexities of defining what was “good, true, and beautiful.” Somewhere along the way, I realized that there is “big T,” eternal, unchanging truth and “little t,” changing truths, subject to tests of reliability. Put differently, I learned to distinguish between “deductive logic” which starts with first “causes” and works forward to “effects” and “inductive logic” which begins with empirically verifiable phenomena and works backward to theories to explain the observed. I felt better.
Then, I read William Faulkner’s “The Bear,” specifically: “‘I know what you will say now: That if truth is one thing to me and another thing to you, how will we choose which is truth? You dont need to choose. The heart already knows.... [T]here is only one truth and it covers all things that touch the heart.... Courage and honor and pride, and pity and love of justice and ... liberty. They all touch the heart, and what the heart holds to becomes truth, as far as we can know.’” So much for deductive and inductive logic.
There’s a solution, of course, to this dilemma: don’t read Faulkner. For a long time, I didn’t.
Then, I came to Idaho State University, where I discovered something interesting about this institution’s official seal. On it is a Latin motto which reads, “veritas vos liberabit” -- the truth will make you free.
So, which “truth” do you think the seal is referring to--unchangeable, eternal, BIG T truth; changeable, verifiable, little t truths; or Faulkner’s truths of the heart?
Last fall, I became interested in trying to find out why ISU’s seal contains this phrase. With the help of Diane Olson who is currently writing a history of the university, I learned that the junior class sponsored a contest in 1962 to design a new seal in anticipation of Idaho State College becoming Idaho State University. The winning design came from a man living in California, Ralph Harris, who had attended ISC for two years and then transferred to the Art Institute of Los Angeles. Mr. Harris, who now lives in Ketchum, recounts that he learned about the contest from a friend and decided to submit an entry. He wanted to put a Latin phrase on his design, but he was stumped as to what it should be. Walking to and from the Art Institute daily took him past a Catholic Church, where he frequently spoke with the priest who liked to work in the flower beds on the church grounds. It was this priest, not surprisingly, who suggested “veritas vos liberabit”--the truth will make you free.
As charter members of ISU’s chapter of Golden Key International Honor Society, I challenge you not only to think about the meaning of ISU’s motto but also to discuss with others what you think it means. Out of these discussions, I hope you will gain some satisfaction, as I have since my days in high school, wrestling with a complexity that continues to stimulate more questions than answers.