Seeing is Believing

Through Greek, Judeo-Christian, and the Post-literate societies

The common interpretation of the cultural aphorism “seeing is believing”  is that “you need to see something before you can accept that it really exists or occurs.” Throughout its modern usage, it is usually uttered as a rebuke to assumptions made without visual evidence. In the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs it is defined as such: “The evidence of our own eyes tends to lead us to accept something as true.” The Oxford Dictionary traces the appearance of the proverb in the English language; that an early version appears in 1609 from S. Harward MS: “Seeing is leeving”, where leeving is “a dialectical variant of ‘lief’” which began as “lēof” in Old English and has since appeared in many literary classics, first as an adjective and then as an adverb. It was used extensively in the epic poem Beowulf as an adjective meaning “dear” or “beloved.”  By 1639, the proverb has evolved to “Seeing is beleeving” as written by J. Clarke in Parcemiologia Anglo-Latina. The current form can be traced to 1712 in J. Arbuthnot in Lewis Baboon: There’s nothing like matter of fact; “Seeing is Believing.”  In 1848, “seeing is believing” has been classified as a proverb in J. C. & A. W. Hare’s Guesses at Truth: “seeing is believing, says the proverb […] though, of all our senses, the eyes are the most easily deceived, we believe them in preference to any other evidence.” 

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A cursory search via the Google Books Ngram Viewer, indicates that the aphorism was most used in modern times in and around the 1860s, when the American Civil War had begun and concluded, the industrial revolution was in full swing, and the production of printed text had dramatically increased. The usage of the proverb peaked in two other eras: in the 1940s during World War II and again, at the turn of the millennium, an era ushered by fears of the Y2K bug, the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, and the subsequent War on Terror. In 2001, The aphorism makes an appearance in the Washington Times as such: “Seeing is believing” as “the old saying” and continues thus: “in the post-literate age the visual is more persuasive than it used to be.”  The rough data provides us some fuel for imagining a world on a rollercoaster ride in terms of its beliefs and skepticisms as informed by socio-political reality. An interesting fact: “Seeing is believing” is mostly mentioned in the exegesis of the Christian Gospels and in the writings of the American Romantics (1820-1860). The origin of “seeing is believing” (βλέποντας πιστεύει) in Greek civilization illuminates a world that has different but not without parallel takes on matters of seeing, belief, and faith from our contemporary understanding. The Greeks thought that seeing and knowing were considered the same or similar. Both are connected in the verb “eido”. “Eido” in Platonism is visual and separate perception. 

The Hellenistic religion believed that it was through the senses that a connection formed between an external, separate reality and an internal cognitive apprehension of that reality. As Aristotle is quoted in the opening of Metaphysics, “For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.”
The traditional Judeo-Christian understanding in comparison tells us that to “see” is more than just to “look” or to “gaze”; to see the world is to be in it and to be of it; In short, it is to actively discern. In a post-literate society, we know that seeing does not necessarily lead to knowing. Epistemically, the path to knowledge through the senses, including sight, have their flaws. Observing how the flood of images and data can obscure rather than surface the truth, one is led to believe that NOT seeing, or too much seeing without actually knowing is believing. Contemporary belief systems are predicated on our incapacity to process knowledge, to be passive recipients rather than active discerners. From experience, the less one sees through the thicket of facts, the easier to harbor beliefs about anything. 

  The Hellenistic precedence of seeing before believing is one issue addressed in the Gospel. In Mark 15:32, the Jewish people are said to have taunted Christ to save himself from certain death at the cross: “Let this Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross, so that we may see and believe!” The Bible thus serves as a counterpoint to the Greek, specifically Platonic mode. The Greek mind is the mind set apart from the object of inquiry, that draws a line between subject and object. In the Judeo-Christian view, “seeing is believing” is often opposed to faith. Faith is often thought of believing without seeing, sometimes even associating faith with the impossibility of seeing. But as postulated earlier, the cultural influence necessitating this distinction can be located in the origins of Greek philosophy that split eido into seeing and knowing. We can imagine that the people jeering at the foot of the crucified Christ were not simpleton hoi polloi as often assumed but might be Greco-Roman educated snoots.

   By the time Christ walked on earth, the legacy of the Greeks was already in place. They were a visual people, and theirs was a culture that painted eyes on their ships and revelled in the intrigue of illusions and trompe l’oeil. In Greek, the word for faith is pistis, and the word for believe is pisteuo. We see that the verb is formed directly from the noun. The stem of each word is made up of the same four letters – pist. Even in the strict etymological sense of Greek, through which the earliest Bibles were translated, believing was considered an active form of faith.

  How much of our contemporary societal expression, described as “post-literate” is really solidly Ancient Greek? We are in an age when despite available means, we actually rely less on visual confirmation but heavily on spectator worship and distant cognition. We have become more faithless now that we have become more observant and skeptical of any belief system, or more aptly, more faithless now that we manufactured facts and realities to suit our own beliefs.

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