To what extent can truth be found in novels?

Reading a good book might well give you an insight into something that is true. Robert Harris is an international bestseller whose book Lustrum (2009) gives a fictional account of Cicero’s life [106 BC – 43 BC] but which is nevertheless based on the facts. From one perspective it tells us not much more than Harris’ imagined tale of a man who succumbs to corruption in Roman times. After all, how can we know what the life of Cicero was really like? The historical facts about Cicero’s life may count as historical knowledge, but how can the claim be made that Harris’ fictional book reveals some type of truth?

The book is a fictional account of the appalling potential consequences of political ambition. It touches on the truth about the complexity of private and public life. At the end it suggests that “a carefree life” away from the public gaze has much to recommend it. The themes are timeless; the underdog versus the establishment, and the sense of inevitable corruption through involvement in politics. So in this sense the book contains an artistic truth that good novels possess; a truth that offers an insight into what it is to be human or what it might be to be a “political animal”.

So the next time you are reading a novel, perhaps pick out some ideas and quotations that are relevant to TOK. It is important that you use your own examples in TOK, rather than copy them from TOK text books or websites. Make some notes in your own TOK journal so that you can use them in a future essay or presentation if they are relevant. Perhaps consider and make a note of how the type of truth found in novels compares with the types of truth found in other areas of knowledge.

I recommend reading the whole novel, but here are some quotations from Harris’ book.

  • For the connection between language and emotion: Cicero was well known as being one of Rome’s best orators. Harris writes, “What is great oratory, after all, except the distillation of emotion into words?” (p. 240)
  • On language and its implications “He spoke entirely without premeditation; had he thought about the implications of what he was saying, he would have been more cautious.” (p.309)
  • On self-knowledge “It is said that at the entrance to Apollo’s shrine in Delphi three things are written: ‘Know thyself’; ‘Desire nothing too much’ and ‘Never go to law’.” (p.360)
  • On words versus actions as a measure of a person “…Cicero, when Caesar offers his friendship to a man, it is not an empty thing. He takes the view that deeds, not words, are what count in this world.” (p. 352)
  • For the close relationship between success in politics and a superior use of language: “ ‘What are the only weapons I possess, Tiro?’…My only legions are my words. By language I rose, and by language I will survive.” (p.402)
  • On power“Caesar was never a man to mistake power’s show for its substance.” (p.350)

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