The idea that at birth, we possess all knowledge and wisdom, completely. However, as we progress through life we gradually forget this knowledge. This would explain how everything seem much clearer and simpler when we were children, and as we grow up life only becomes more complicated and uncertain.

What is aletheia?

In ancient Greek, the word aletheia means truth. But truth is a word with a variety of interpretations. So, what is the aletheia-interpretation of truth, and why is it meaningful? We can figure this out by first breaking the Greek word down into its components. The first is a-, which is the privative prefix, indicating the privation of what follows. The second component is -letheia, which derives from the Greek word Lethe. In Greek mythology, Lethe is a river/river goddess. The river Lethe is one of the rivers encircling Hades, the land of the dead. Specifically, it’s the river of forgetfulness. This doesn’t mean forgetfulness in the sense of mundane short-term memory loss, but a complete letting-go of all the contents of the mind—oblivion. So, aletheia means some kind of un-forgetting, an insistent refusal to drown or surrender acquired knowledge. But Lethe also implies oblivion, or complete nonbeing. So, aletheia, or truth, must also be bound up with being, or Being.

The concept of truth as aletheia, as either the recollection/continued retention of knowledge, or as a particular being or Being itself, can be found in a variety of ancient Greek sources. Check these out:

  • Plato, Republic — This is a big one. You can’t really hunt and peck; you pretty much have to read the entire thing in order to get the full effect and go through the entire Platonic process. The River Lethe gets explicit mention in Book X. Use the Sterling and Scott translation.
  • Parmenides — Since Parmenides only wrote one work, and only part of it survived, it’s a bit difficult to get directly into him. However, the best translation of Parmenides I have seen is by Stanley Lombardo, who incidentally has done a wicked translation of the Iliad. As for commentary on Parmenides, there’s so much of it out there that you really can’t go too far wrong. The entry in the relatively new tome Greek Thought is pretty good, though. Also check out Jonathan BarnesEarly Greek Philosophy for a great sampling of ancient criticism. And of course, Martin Heidegger has plenty of interesting stuff to say in his commentaries on Parmenides.
  • Aristotle, Metaphysica
  • Aristotle, De Interpretatione — These are both tough and chewy. But if you’re looking to get right into the meat of things, the early sections of the Metaphysica contain a good amount of Aristotle’s commentary on previous concepts of truth and being.

Among contemporary philosophers who have taken up this concept, the big name would have to be Martin Heidegger himself. In his early opus Being and Time, which I someday hope to understand, Heidegger takes an especially hard look at Parmenides and Aristotle, explicating the concept of aletheia as true-being. In, Heidegger comes to define aletheia as “unconcealment” or “disclosedness and disclosing,” a definition that fits into his larger concept of time as the horizon from which Da-Sein might understand Being.

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