True Beliefs and False Beliefs

The great rationalistic dream of modern times, believing that social actions are or can be primarily logical, has taught the illusion that the True and the Good are identical, that if men knew the truth about themselves and their social and political life, then society would become ever better; and that falsehood and absurdity always hurt social welfare.

But things do not stand in that simple way. 

Sometimes the truth aids society. But often a widespread knowledge of the truth may weaken or destroy sentiments, habits, attitudes upon which the integrity of social life, above all in times of crisis, may depend.

False beliefs do sometimes produce evil social results; but they often, also, benefit the community. Again no general conclusion is possible. We must examine each concrete case, each specific truth and falsehood in its specific circumstances.

We are not, therefore, entitled to judge that it is invariably a "bad thing” that men believe derivations, ideologies, myths, formulas, these verbal constructions which from a scientific standpoint always contain a large measure of the false and the absurd.

The myths are, in the first place, a necessary ingredient of social life. A society in which they would be eliminated in favor of exclusively scientific beliefs would have nothing in common with the human societies that have existed and do exist in the real world, and is a merely imaginary fantasy.

Here once more our investigation must be concrete. Certain derivations or myths under certain circumstances are socially useful, others detrimental; when the circumstances change, so may the effects of the myths.

The doctrine of the divine right of kings is scientifically ridiculous. From this it does not follow that it would always be better if men understood that it was ridiculous, nor that a belief in it always hurts society. The democratic ideology is equally ridiculous from the point of view of scientific truth. Belief in it may, nevertheless, in one historical context greatly aid, in another gravely injure, the welfare of society.

Those who believe that all social difficulties could be overcome if the truth about society were known “recognize only one tie [obstacle] - ignorance. Ignorance being eliminated, they have no doubt that society will follow the course they think is the best […]”

Society is not so simple as a problem in mathematics, which is fully solved once ignorance is overcome. Not only is it impossible that all men should know the scientific truth about society and act in accordance with this knowledge; it is far from clear that this would improve society even if it were possible.

[James Burnham]
The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, p.183-4

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