After watching the impeachment proceedings at the Senate for several weeks now, Filipinos will have become familiar with court room rituals and conventions. Many such conventions have to do with the oaths we take.  “Swear him in,” the presiding officer barks before a witness may begin to testify; whereupon, that person is prompted to repeat the statement: “I swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” When a witness appears to be giving conflicting statements, a senator-judge may warn him thus: “May I remind you that you are under oath.” All this may suggest that oaths do make a difference—that is, a person is less likely to tell a lie under oath than if he had not been explicitly sworn. Is this so? Why?

I am inclined to think that nowadays oaths do not mean much anymore. We tend to mumble these utterances as part of a ritual, instead of carefully weighing every word they contain and the promise to which we explicitly bind ourselves. It is the same thing with the public documents we fill up. We are likely to invest little time or attention in the accuracy of the information we give regardless of whether it is a sworn statement or not. A good example is the statement of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALN), which has become the center of gravity of the impeachment case against Chief Justice Renato Corona. Not many people are aware that the exact title of the document is “Sworn Statement of Assets and Liabilities and Net Worth.” The person who is required by law to file it is supposed to swear to the truthfulness of the furnished information before a public officer.

Does an oath acquire its binding character from law, or does it derive its force from the fact that it asks God to witness a pledge of truthfulness? Oaths have indeed come down to us from the ancient traditions of law and religion. In the United Kingdom as well as in the United States, heads of states take their oaths of office by raising their right hands while resting their left hand on the Bible. It is to them that this passage from the Scriptures might often speak: “Their mouths speak untruth; their right hands are raised in lying oaths.” (Psalm 144:8)

The political philosopher Giorgio Agamben argues that oaths pre-date religion and law. The ancients, he said, made even the deities swear to something higher or unspoken. In his highly original book, “The sacrament of language: An archaeology of the oath,” Agamben explains that oaths have their origin in man’s experience of language. In every language, he says, there is a binding force that transforms the words we speak into something far more vital than the utterances in which they are cast.  “Every oath swears on the name par excellence, that is, on the name of God, because the oath is the experience of language that treats all of language as a proper name. Pure existence—the existence of the name—is not the result of a recognition, nor of a logical deduction: it is something that cannot be signified but only sworn, that is, affirmed, as a name. The certainty of truth is the certainty of the name of God.”

The decline of the oath in modern times can only correspond, Agamben continues, taking off from an insight by Paolo Prodi, to a “crisis in which the very being of man as a political animal is at stake.” If I understand this intriguing thesis correctly, what it seems to be saying is that as politics sheds off its significance as a meaningful human activity, the conventions by which it operated in an earlier time also lose their potency. Oaths are reduced to ritual incantations carrying no force because they no longer proceed from an intimate experience of language.

In this connection, we may well ask: What is the significance of requiring public officials like the justices of the Supreme Court to submit a sworn SALN if this document is supposed to be hidden from public view? The filer of such a statement swears that the document contains nothing but truthful and accurate information. On the whole, we have taken these statements at face value, giving them little thought if any. But, once in a while, they are dug up as sources of damning evidence in cases filed against petty public officials. It is the first time the SALN has figured in an impeachment case.

Judging from their past statements, I get the impression that the defense team of Chief Justice Corona is prepared to concede that his SALNs from previous years have been marked by inaccuracies. The question they ask, however, is whether the filing of an inaccurate SALN constitutes an impeachable offense. Given the lack of seriousness with which our government employees have generally regarded the SALN, this is indeed an issue worth raising.

But to anchor the defense on an argument like this would succeed only if we accept that all oaths in modern society have indeed become nothing more than empty utterances. That is what Agamben is saying, but he states this as a lament over the way in which language has lost its force as a statement of our being. One might forgive Corona if he has come to the same conclusion. But he happens to be not a mere political observer, but the country’s chief justice. He cannot say that our sworn statements have no meaning and still remain chief justice.

The judicial system over which he presides as the highest official rests almost entirely on the binding character of oaths. To diminish their importance would be to undermine the very foundation of truthfulness on which the law depends.

I understand Corona’s lawyers have finally decided to let him testify. I would really like to hear him weigh every word of the oath he will take once he is sworn in as a witness.