The truth and mirrors

mirrorphoto

The eye of the beholder sees many things, and the beholder alone is the judge of what he or she sees.  The beholder sees beauty, or ugliness, or truth, or lies, and the beholder knows something.  The thing about eyes, however, is that they look out, not in.

Adam Smith, the great moral philosopher and economist, wrote that the solitary person “could no more think of his own character, of the propriety or demerit of his own sentiments and conduct, of the beauty or deformity of his own mind, than of the beauty or deformity of his own face.” The solitary person, in other words, can know little of himself – and so we need others.  “Bring him into society, and he is immediately provided with the mirror which he wanted [i.e. lacked] before.” This was key for Smith, for he believed that by considering the judgments and opinions that other people have of our actions, we achieve the basis of a moral society.

For Lou Reed, the mirror held the promise of love for those who couldn’t see their own beauty.

I’ll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know …

When you think the night has seen your mind
That inside you’re twisted and unkind
Let me stand to show that you are blind …

I find it hard to believe you don’t know
The beauty that you are
But if you don’t let me be your eyes …

Michael Jackson took this a step further, hoping that the mirror could help a person look inside.

I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways …
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change

Jackson’s use of the mirror was a kind of solipsistic (or maybe just plain lonely) version of Freud’s:  “The doctor should be opaque to his patients and, like a mirror, should show them nothing but what is shown to him.”

But mirrors are tricky.  They are passive reflectors.  Place a lie in front of a mirror, and you will see only a lie.  Mirrors confuse and when combined with smoke, serve to hoodwink and swindle people out of the truth and what is real.  The mirror, a hoped-for source of truth, gives the world to magicians and con artists.

In the Middle Ages, ambitious politicians and intellectuals wrote books called Mirror of Princes, in order to curry favor and win state positions by writing about how a real prince could reflect the qualities of an ideal prince.  An elaborate form of flattery, it was a way to get a job, but the Mirror of Princes literature was a corrupt thing, the falsification of what mirrors were supposedly created for.

Machiavelli exploited the lie of the Mirror of Princes to write the definitive satire of political philosophy, The Prince, seen only in its reverse-mirror image of “Machiavellian” self-interested intrigue, deception, and cruelty.  Machiavelli wrote his satire only too well, and his republican and democratic self has been lost to history (except for the community of political theorists, who are a small community indeed).  Machiavelli was a good guy, who survived torture and other awful events for his commitment to democratic republicanism.  Such is the danger of playing in front of mirrors.

In The Lady from Shanghai, Orson Welles created the classic mirror scene, in which his central characters meet in a fun-house mirror maze and proceed to have a shootout amid the dozens of reflected images of themselves.  Just who would kill whom is a matter of luck, but both Everett Sloane and Rita Hayworth are mortally wounded, and their stupidity allows Michael, played by Welles, to walk away free.  The beauty of the scene consists in the way that the mirrors only serve to reflect the hubris of everyone involved, amplifying the conclusions that one might have hoped to see.

Mirrors can show us only what we put in front of them.  Our fun-house mirrors create images that satisfy and mollify at the expense of the truth.  We use mirrors to convince ourselves that we can see objectively, when we’re only seeing what we want to see.  Francis Bacon observed that “… human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.”

IMG_1601There are mirrors, and then there are fun-house mirrors, and then there are false mirrors.  Mirrors can’t solve our problems or help us find the truth.  Only honesty can, and that’s a thing apart from mirrors.  Don’t seek the truth in a mirror.  Close your eyes and seek the truth within.  You may not see it, but you may find it.

Credits

Adam Smith, The Theory of the Moral Sentiments, in The Essential Adam Smith, ed. R. Heilbroner (New York:  W. W. Norton, 1986), p. 101.

Lou Reed, “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” recorded by the Velvet Underground and Nico in 1967.

Michael Jackson, “Man in the Mirror, Bad, 1988.

Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, Aphorism 41.

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7 Comments

Filed under existentialism, fiction, life, love

7 responses to “The truth and mirrors

  1. Nancy Cruz

    The truth is within and Meditation is the way…..

  2. maghan

    This reminds me very much of the Lady of Shalott with her weaver’s mirror and how she was only allowed to see a paltry reflection of the world and love until “the curse” of truth came upon her. Also, I have to defend the courtesans and say that perhaps their literature wasn’t so much corrupt as saddening. They wrote to move up in society, but they were only writing from a longing to be seen, which couldn’t happen because they were viewed as property and so were essentially invisible. Your patriarchal ideology is only too apparent in this post;-) But very interesting!

  3. micehell

    i kinda feel like it’s impossible to believe in the two-dimensional mirror when we live in a three-dimensional world.

    the mirror gives me a simplistic representation of who i am at one moment in time, a place to check in every now & again.

    which is one reason why people who choose cosmetic surgery really freak me out. if one thinks they look dreadful & timeworn on the outside, how the hell do they see themselves on the inside? and more important… just who exactly is the victim of this plastic surgery charade? the operated or the operator (and in that i DON’T mean the surgeon!)?

    sorry, i digressed & ranted. no soup for me.
    awesome thought provoking stuff, John. 🙂

  4. ichabod

    Hi John;

    “You may not see it, but you may find it.”

    I like that, my kind of line 🙂

    Thanks for your comment on my blog and I am adding this one to my roll. The content is well worth reading.

  5. Pingback: The truth and broken glass | truth and rocket science

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