5 Historical Documents on Universal Truths

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post criticizing the strong form of moral relativism, namely the idea that nobody, or no culture, is right or wrong. In this post, to continue the objective vs subjective truth discussion, I will look at five historical documents that have explicitly acknowledged universal truths. Moreover, all of these documents proclaim non-empirical truths, i.e. they are not documents of science that can be tested by the scientific method. (I include this caveat because it’s easy for a relativist to acknowledge that science can have universal truths but then claim arbitrarily that other subjects work differently than science and shouldn’t have universal or objective truths. So, I am addressing the claim that nonscientific truths cannot be universal.)

1. Euclid’s Elements (~300 BC)


The Elements is one of the most influential books of all time, not just in mathematics but in the entire Western way of thinking. For this post, math is considered separate from science, in that math does not operate by the scientific method. It instead operates by a strictly logical method that was largely formalized by Elements. The steps of this deductive method, in contrast with the inductive scientific method, consist of:

  1. Listing axioms, or self-evident truths.
  2. Listing basic assertions, which also should be self-evident.
  3. Combining the axioms and assertions to obtain theorems, which are the end result.

(For a list of the axioms and assertions, see the wiki page.)

In Elements, the first “postulate,” or axiom, is that a straight line can be drawn from one point to any other point. This seems obvious enough. Clearly if we imagine two points, we can also imagine a straight line between them. Another seemingly obvious claim is the last “common notion,” or assertion, which states that the whole is greater than the part.

But to what extent are these axioms really self-evident or universal? On what basis do we have to judge their universality or objectivity? The last axiom, for instance, known as the parallel postulate, is not even true in certain geometries. These are questions that have been debated for centuries

2. The Declaration of Independence (1776)


“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Note that “We hold these truths to be self-evident” sounds like something Euclid would have written two thousand years earlier. In fact, the similarity is likely more than coincidence. Thomas Jefferson was a reader of Euclid, as evidenced in a letter to John Adams: “I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier.” Furthermore, the Declaration reads much like a mathematical proof in the style of Euclid:

  1. The introduction (“When in the Course of human events… a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation”) establishes the want for the “dissolution of political bands” and then acknowledges that they need to declare the causes for it, i.e. the need for a proof.
  2. The preamble establishes the self-evident truths.
  3. The indictment contains the various violations by the King of the self-evident truths.
  4. The denunciation gathers the above together and says a “therefore,” showing that the proof has been concluded: “We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.”
  5. The conclusion notes that the proof has been completed; therefore, they will act on the result of the proof: “That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown.”

More can be found in a talk given by Noam Elkies. The interesting thing is to note how universal these self-evident truths are. Is it objectively true, for example, that all men are created equal? Is this view just a Western and/or Enlightenment construction? I would argue it is not (this is for a different post).

3. Pride and Prejudice (1813)


The reason I have included Pride and Prejudice over any other work of literature is the opening sentence: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Yet again, we have a declaration of universal truth, though this time used in fiction to establish the setting for the story. In contrast with its use in the Elements and the Declaration of Independence, universal truth is used by Austen in a more sarcastic manner.

Indeed, literature in general tends to question truths that are universally held. In this context, Pride and Prejudice is special because it acknowledges this explicitly. The statement, of course, is patently false, but it raises the question of whether there are any universal truths in social relations. And what would “universal” even mean? If something applied to a certain group in early 19th century England but not to anyone else, is it still universal?

4. The Communist Manifesto (1848)


Back to serious documents, we have the strong claim by Marx and Engels that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” The signifier is the word “all,” which again proclaims a universal truth, at least universal to a sufficiently large breadth (“hitherto existing society”). By the nature of their argument, it should not be an absolute universal in the sense of applying to all time: success would mean having a classless society, and therefore, class struggles wouldn’t exist.

This example and Austen’s example are both social/historical universals. Marx argues that history can be understood by looking at class struggles, but again, on what basis can we support this? The modern view is that history is complex and can be partially understood through many different means, not just on modes of production.

On the other hand, Euclid’s is a mathematical universal, and Jefferson’s is a moral universal, in acknowledging the rights of man.

5. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)


This United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is among the most significant documents of the twentieth century, and it is also based on presumed universal truths. Its preamble consists of seven “whereas” clauses to establish several self-evident assertions much like in the introduction to the US Declaration of Independence. These are:

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge….”

These set up the basis for the 30 articles, which are the “self-evident” truths or axioms. The first three articles, for example, are:

“Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

Note that the UN did not feel the need to prove any of these. They were simply obvious or self-evident. The theorems, however, are all implicit. It is implied that if these axioms are violated, the UN has the authority to intervene on behalf of human rights.

We could spend a long time debating which particular articles are true or false, but the big picture question is, Can any of them be objectively true? Is the discussion of them even meaningful? The intuitive answer is yes.

To be continued…

2 thoughts on “5 Historical Documents on Universal Truths”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s