Study Guide

Arcadia Truth

By Tom Stoppard


Thomasina: There is no proof, Septimus. The thing that is perfectly obvious is that the note in the margin was a joke to make you all mad. (1.1)

The "joke" Thomasina guesses at only works if people really want to believe that truth exists – they'd rather go mad searching after the proof they are sure is there than admit that the proof never existed at all.

Lady Croom: Mr. Hodge, ignorance should be like an empty vessel waiting to be filled at the well of truth – not a cabinet of vulgar curios. (1.1)

"The well of truth" again suggests that truth is something absolute and unchangeable: like water from a well, it just is. People are just passive receptacles in Lady Croom's metaphor, making truth something that comes into a person from outside, rather than something they have a part in creating.

Valentine: When your Thomasina was doing maths it had been the same maths for a couple of thousand years. Classical. And for a century after Thomasina. Then maths left the real world behind, just like modern art, really. Nature was classical, maths was suddenly Picassos. But now nature is having the last laugh. The freaky stuff is turning out to be the mathematics of the natural world. (1.4)

This shift in mathematics seems almost like a shift in ideas of truth: instead of truth being above messy reality, truth becomes that which most accurately describes the mess.

Bernard: Christ, what do you want?
Hannah: Proof.
Bernard: Proof? Proof? You'd have to be there, you silly b****! (1.4)

How do we know something is true? With history, it's hard to say – Bernard thinks being present at an event is enough, but is that really so? Chater would probably have a very different version of events at Sidley Park in 1809 than Septimus would. So if even being an eyewitness can't provide proof, what can?

Bernard: But he fought a duel with Byron!
Hannah: You haven't established it was fought. You haven't established it was Byron. For God's sake, Bernard, you haven't established Byron was even here!
Bernard: I'll tell you your problem. No guts.
Hannah: Really?
Bernard: By which I mean a visceral belief in yourself. Gut instinct. The part of you which doesn't reason. The certainty for which there is no back-reference. Because time is reversed. Tock, tick goes the universe and then recovers itself, but it was enough, you were in there and you bloody know. (1.4)

Truth for Bernard seems to be a matter of faith, not reason. This seems a dangerous path to go down – if truth = what people confidently assert to be true, then what's to stop masses of people who share the same crazy idea from rewriting history?

Bernard: "Without question, Ezra Chater issued a challenge to somebody. If a duel was fought in the dawn mist of Sidley Park in April 1809, his opponent, on the evidence, was a critic with a gift for ridicule and a taste for seduction. Do we need to look far? Without question, Mrs Chater was a widow by 1810. If we seek the occasion of Ezra Chater's early and unrecorded death, do we need to look far? Without question, Lord Byron, in the very season of his emergence as a literary figure, quit the country in a cloud of panic and mystery, and stayed abroad for two years at a time when Continental travel was unusual and dangerous. If we seek his reason – do we need to look far?
Hannah: Bollocks. [...] You've gone from a glint in your eye to a sure thing in a hop, skip and a jump. (2.5)

While Bernard is convinced his own faith is enough, he does build a lot of circumstantial evidence to try to convince others that he is right. His rhetoric here is interesting because he's asking questions assuming that the audience will answer in a certain way (which Hannah doesn't). It's like he's asking fake questions in order to stop the audience from asking real ones.

Hannah: But, Bernard – I know it's them.
Bernard: How?
Hannah: How? It just is. "Analysed it", my big toe!
Bernard: Language!
Hannah: He's wrong.
Bernard: Oh, gut instinct, you mean?
Hannah: He's wrong. (2.5)

And here the tables turn. Hannah's adoption of Bernard's faith-over-facts way of thinking suggests just how seductive the lure of certainty is. The play has the last laugh, however, as a later comment by Septimus (2.7) about the artist confirms that Hannah's "gut instinct" is indeed right, and Bernard's colleague's scientific analysis is wrong. So what does that say about the best way to get to the truth?

Valentine: It may all prove to be true.
Hannah: It can't prove to be true, it can only not prove to be false yet.
Valentine: Just like science.
Hannah: If Bernard can stay ahead of getting the rug pulled till he's dead, he'll be a success.
Valentine: Just like science . . . The ultimate fear is of posterity . . . (2.7)

Hannah sums up the nagging uncertainty that plagues any quest for truth – no matter how much evidence one has in favor of one's pet theory, all it takes is one fact that can't be argued against – one rogue dahlia – to bring the whole house of cards crashing down. Why build the house of cards in the first place, then?

Hannah: It's all trivial – your grouse, my hermit, Bernard's Byron. Comparing what we're looking for misses the point. It's wanting to know that makes us matter. Otherwise we're going out the way we came in. That's why you can't believe in the afterlife, Valentine. Believe in the after, by all means, but not the life. Believe in God, the soul, the spirit, the infinite, believe in angels if you like, but not in the great celestial get-together for an exchange of views. If the answers are in the back of the book I can wait, but what a drag. Better to struggle on knowing that failure is final. (2.7)

The previous passage provides one strike against an afterlife – if you die before your theories are disproven, you'll never know you were found out – and this passage offers another. While truth is ostensibly the goal of all the knowledge-seekers in the play, Hannah's view is that certain truth would make the quest less, not more rewarding – but why? Why might wondering be better than knowing?

Bernard: Oh, bugger persuasive! I've proved Byron was here and as far as I'm concerned he wrote those lines as sure as he shot that hare. (2.7)

Here's another joke thrown in for the century-hopping audience but lost on the characters themselves. Lord Augustus's complaint that Byron took undue credit for his hare (2.7) suggests that even the supposedly factual record of the game books is not to be trusted as an accurate account of what really happened – making Bernard's use of it here as a benchmark for certain truth unintentionally funny.