Describe an Elephant

I was listening to a 53-minute recorded speech, by Oliver DeMille where he says that Freedom lovers are losing the battle for Freedom because they’ve been trained to think only in sensus solum and not sensus plenior.

Now if you’re anything like me, you had no idea what he was talking about, so I continued listening and he explains what he’s talking about. Here is my explanation of how I understood it:

Sensus plenior is translated from Latin roughly to “the fuller meaning,” while sensus solum is translated to “the only meaning.”

Sensus plenior is the language and thought processes of poetry, art, allegory,  symbolism, creativity and compassion while sensus solum is the language and thought processes of literal interpretation, scholarly research, the scientific method, logic, justice and morality.

As I was listening to DeMille’s talk, my mind started to ponder in these ideas and the importance of both being solid and grounded by knowing something is true, which is only possible using sensus solum – and also of being open to new truth of which we were not aware which is only possible using sensus plenior.

This led me to think about the common claim from philosophy major students and professors that there is no such thing as truth. The reason is because truth is defined for each individual based on their own experience and point of view.  It’s quite possible that something that one person sees as true can appear to be in direct conflict with what another person sees as true.  In sensus plenior, this makes perfect sense and there is no conflict in accepting two different and apparently contradictory definitions of truth.  In sensus solum, this creates confusion and often, especially in religion and politics, generates conflict.

I think a good explanation of how to resolve this can be found in the poem The Blind Men and the Elephant by John Godfrey Saxe based on an Indian fable.

The Blind Men and the Elephant

John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a WALL!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho, what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a SPEAR!”
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a SNAKE!”
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he:
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a TREE!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a FAN!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a ROPE!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

Anybody who has done any surveying, as I have done, will recognize that from one plat to another, physical objects and their relative location to each other will vary slightly.  The location of the objects in relation to each other does not really change, but because of rounding and different points of reference, or because the instruments used may have slightly different calibration and accuracy, measurements on a plat map may vary slightly.  It’s not that physical objects are in different locations, but the description contained in the different plat maps are different.  If one description is based off of something that changes, like a body of water or something that has been removed, the description may vary greatly from the description of another person who did a survey many years previous.  If there is faulty equipment there will also be a loss of accuracy.

If we look at truth as reality as it is, we may experience differences in the description, based on the experiences of who is describing truth.  It’s not that there truth doesn’t exist, it’s that there is a difference in frames of reference – and a possibility of faulty means of measuring truth or a perception of truth being based on something that doesn’t remain the same.

The thing is, if I am relying completely on my own perspective, using sensus solum, my perspective is based off of faulty equipment.  The more perspectives on truth that I experience, the better my ability to define reality accurately.  This is why sensus plenior is so important, especially in maintaining freedom.  It’s a key concept in the idea of all freedoms.  It accepts and integrates the value of an individual’s frame of reference and right to maintain it.