Unearthing Truth: Reason, Revolutions, and the Inquisition

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It is a general weakness of men dealing with reason and delivering ideas that they are able to convince themselves that their words represent a break with the past and a new beginning. In the early stages of a revolution, history is at its most malleable. Disorder and optimism combine to wipe out those truths artificially manufactured by the preceding regimes. At the same time, they usually wipe out the memory of any inconvenient real event.

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We have great difficulty dealing with philosophy in the context of real events. These two categories seem to live on separate planets. We are still convinced that violence is the product of fear and fear the product of ignorance. And yet, since the beginning of the Age of reason, there has been a parallel growth in both knowledge and violence, culminating in the slaughters of the 20th century.

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Also, revolutions do not begin on dates, although we constantly search for that kind of reassuring touch point. An argument is sometimes made that the assumptions and methods of applied reason where all the key elements of modern intellectual thought can be found were first developed by the Inquisition. The Inquisitors were the first to formalize the idea that to every question there is a right answer. The answer is known, but the question must be asked and correctly answered. Relativism, humanism, common sense and moral beliefs were all irrelevant to this process because they assume doubt. Since the Inquisitors knew the answer, doubt was impossible. Process, however, was essential for efficient governance and process required that questions be asked in order to produce the correct answer.

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When the Inquisition was created in the thirteenth century, no one, least of all Pope Gregory, understood what was being set in motion. Issuing a bull which made the persecution of heresy the special function of the Dominicans hardly seemed a revolutionary step. The Inquisitors' definition of truth was arrived at slowly, as was the process which permitted them to establish it. But as each detail of that process emerged, so the assumptions involved became clear.

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Everything the Inquisition did – except the execution of the guilty – took place in secret. Public silence surrounded the work of the travelling Inquisitors. Unlike judges, magistrates, nobles and kings, who have always worn some symbolic costume, the Inquisitors wore the simplest, most anonymous black, like the proverbial accountant. And while their power permitted them to do their work on the basis of accusations and denunciations, what they really wanted were complete inquisitions. Being already in possession of the truth, they were interested in the rational demonstration of it by each victim. Perhaps the most telling detail was that each of these secret tribunals included a notary. His job was to record every word of every question and answer. These notarised manuscripts became the perpetual records of truth. But again, the purpose of such exactitude was to glorify the methodology, not the outcome. The notary was there to confirm the relationship between a priori truth and assembled fact. On the surface the Inquisitors were torturers and monsters. On a more profound level they were moral auditors.

This article reflects on the intersection of historical revolutions and the role of reason in shaping human thought. It challenges the notion that violence is solely rooted in ignorance, highlighting the coexistence of knowledge and violence throughout history. Through an exploration of the Inquisition's methodology, it delves into how the pursuit of truth was manipulated and upheld, emphasizing the paradoxical quest for certainty amidst the practice of doubt. The Inquisitors, often seen as symbols of terror, are also depicted as methodical seekers of moral validation through their meticulous documentation of interrogations.
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