On Lying

On Lying

My first thought was that the word ‘lie’ is not univocal except in the most elementary and superficial way. To say ‘that which is not’ is what is usually called a lie, but in our actual relations with one another that in no way exhausts its meaning.

Conventionally, lying is condemned tout court, but that is convention’s usual view that everything is simplistic, either/or, simply black or white. However, it cannot be that lying under any and all circumstances is always wrong and regardless of who lies and to whom, and about any and every subject-matter. I appeal to Socrates, but first must exclude what he calls the ‘lie in the soul’—that is, the lie that we tell out of ignorance—saying and believing that something is so when, in fact, it isn’t. Then we speak an untruth but do not know it; we speak out of our own mistaken views, out of ignorance. If this is the ‘lie in the soul’ then presumably all other lies are ‘in’ the soul in some other sense of ‘in’.

Leaving such examples on one side, the fact is that Socrates lies quite often, and in many of the dialogues. In the Meno, for example, he claims not to remember how Gorgias spoke when he made his visit to Athens. His words (in my translation) are:

I am not sure that I remember, Meno, so that I cannot say at this

moment how he seemed to me then. But probably he did know

and you know what he used to say. So remind me how he spoke,

or, if you wish, tell me yourself, for no doubt the matter seems to

you as it did to him.

Now it is perhaps possible to interpret these weasel words in such a way for them to be in some remote sense true, but the interpretation would be far-fetched and strained—and, in any case, Meno takes it that Socrates actually does not remember what Gorgias said. This I cannot believe.

(This is a classic strategy of deception, a trope: to say something which, if carefully scrutinized, is true, but so framed that the hearer will understand something other than that truth.)

Why then does Socrates lie? The answer lies in his next little speech:

Then let us leave him since he is, in fact, absent. In heaven’s name,

Meno, what do you say virtue is? Don’t keep it to yourself but speak,

so that if I have been deceived by a lie I can benefit, if it is clear that

both you and Gorgias know, even though I have said that I never met anyone who did know.

Socrates is willing to talk with Gorgias (he does so in the dialogue named after him) but only WITH him, when he is present and can be held accountable for what he says. By lying, Socrates sets him to one side, as it were, and forces Meno to take responsibility for his account of virtue. This is the pre-condition of Meno’s learning anything from the conversation. Talking about virtue is easy—especially if it is about some absent person’s definition or view of virtue, but talking virtue—not about it—means that the speaker has to have and exhibit what he is talking about, namely, virtue. As Socrates was fond of saying, virtue is knowledge.

[Later comment: this is a reflection of the cardinal principle of understanding Platonic dialogues: what is talked about (as the ‘subject-matter’) is acted out in the actions and relations in the dialogue. The Laches is ‘about’ courage, and it is held with two valiant soldiers (who should know about courage, if anyone does) and exhibits courage in the way they conduct themselves. Similarly, with the Symposium which is ostensibly about love—and we see love displayed by Socrates (and his friends), but also reported by Alcibiades. And so forth.

Although I have described this as the cardinal principle of understanding the Platonic dialogues, this is an ‘academic’ statement. The truth is wider than that: it is the cardinal principle of understanding any interaction or speech between people.]

Why does Socrates lie? He lies because it is to the advantage or benefit of Meno; it is certainly not to the benefit of Socrates himself. He gets nothing out of the lie except the putting of Meno in a better position to become a learner. What Socrates gets is a better chance to help Meno, by making him responsible for what he says.

It is now possible to generalize. Lying is ‘virtuous’ when it is done to benefit or help or protect, in some way, the person lied to. Lying is NOT virtuous when it is done to help oneself, to gain some advantage or possession or mastery over others.

In other words, the meaning of a lie—and our judgment of it—depends in large part on the intent, or motive of the speaker-liar. Conversely, the meaning of a true saying also depends, in part, on the speaker’s motive. It is clearly possible to do more damage, in some circumstances, by telling the truth than would result from lying. In the Meno, Socrates reminds Anytus of what everybody knew—namely, that the best political leaders of Athens could not –did not—educate their sons, most of whom were nonentities. This was the truth, but it may have prompted Anytus to become the main accuser of Socrates at his trial. Socrates was not compelled to bring forward these embarrassing examples and so we may ask why does he do so? Many might think him perverse and deliberately provocative, but it is more likely to be that the only way to help Anytus learn (not forgetting that Meno is listening) is to face him with certain truths about his ‘heroes’—and silently and implicitly remind him that he too is the son of a father who did not educate him to be a statesman. Yet he claims to be one and holds power as if he were one. It is a principle of Plato’s political thought that, if governing is rational, if it is a skill or art (tevcnh), then knowledge is needed—a knowledge that comes from a proper education. Hence the philosopher-king. What had been the education of Anytus?

[Later comment: of course, if governing is not a rational activity, then it is reduced to a question of power.]

So much for convention’s usual classification of lying as evil, or as vice, and truth-telling as good, or as virtuous. What is important is the intent and effect of our words, not the ‘truth’ value. (Incidentally, it is curious that we have one word for telling lies—the verb ‘to lie’, but there is no corresponding single word for telling the truth.)

Of course, there is the far deeper question as to whether truth can be contained in words at all. Words are not the reality they refer to or signify; some claim or assume them to be—but they are only images and, if they have any truth in them, it is only to the extent that they are accurate or precise images, indicating as far as possible what they refer to or name. But they can never be what they refer to, nor can they replicate it; as signs, they merely point to it, signify it.

In Aristotelian terms, truth is a quality of propositions. His ontological Law of Non-Contradiction is well-known: ‘A thing cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect’, but it has its propositional counterpart, The Law of Excluded Middle: ‘A statement is either true or false’. There is no ‘middle ground’. It would be more modest to say that if a statement is neither true nor false, then it cannot be handled or treated by Aristotelian logic.

Plato does not understand language in this way. Words, while having an existence and status of their own, signify both things and the ideas of those things; words point in two directions, as it were. But they are images and they conform to the definition of an image: an image is not what it is; the word ‘tree’ is not a tree, and yet it signifies one—or, more correctly, it may signify either a particular tree or the species of tree, depending on the context. This is opposed to the definition of the ‘idea’ or ‘form’, which for Plato is: an idea or form is what it is. This leads to a view of truth different from that of Aristotle, who holds that truth is the correspondence between the words and what they refer to. For Plato, truth is the coherence, the hanging together, of words, things and ideas, for example; but, ultimately, truth relates to being not to speech.

I sometimes reflect that for the positivists NO statement is true or false, for Aristotle every statement is EITHER true or false, and for Plato every statement is BOTH true and false. Because language connects with reality—both things and ideas—it images it, and therefore it must contain some truth—at the very least in the structure of the sentence; the problem is not to decide whether it is either true or false, but rather in what sense it is true, and in what sense false. Language is a metaphor, and we do not usually think of metaphors as true or false, but rather as apt or inapt, as appropriate or inappropriate, as revealing or obscuring.

The Greek words for truth and true are ajlhvqeia and ajlhqhv~. These are held to be derived from, or compounded of, two Greek terms. The first is the simple a which is a privative or negative prefix, like English ‘un’ or ‘de’. The other, more substantive word is lhvqw from lanqavnw, which means to escape notice, to be unknown, unseen, and in the Middle and Passive Voice it means to let a thing escape one, to forget.

Thus the compound word ajlhvqeia is ‘that which does not escape notice’ or ‘that which is not unknown or unseen’ and ‘that which is not forgotten’ (i.e., remembered—a not insignificant word in the Meno). There is a certain duplicity or irony in this understanding, for if truth is ‘that which is not unseen or unknown’ few of us can claim that the truth is always and immediately obvious to us, is manifest—the truth, that is, about any particular matter at any particular time. The definition, however, justifies its etymological roots when we suddenly see the truth of something and (metaphorically) exclaim “Of course!” or “Obviously!” Seeing the truth of something with all its beauty, clarity and power, shows us at the same time the rightness of this definition; it is as if the recognition of some specific truth brings with it, at the same moment, a recognition (or remembrance) of what truth is—coherence again.

In the last sentence reference was made to the beauty of truth and it is certainly true that in ordinary speech we say or think that lies are ugly, so that the converse would be that truth is beautiful. There is, somewhere deep within us, an inarticulate sense that lying makes us ugly, or that liars are repulsive or ill-favored. Remember Pinocchio. We surely avoid known (and even suspected) liars, partly, no doubt, because we cannot trust them—because they are not what they are, they do not mean what they say, they present a false front, they intend to mislead us and make us believe ‘what is not’ (that is, make liars of us as well, albeit unintentional liars); they are dangerous. But even without any clear view of their dissimulation or lies, we also avoid them simply because they are ugly—and, with Plato, we prefer to associate with beauty.

If lying is ugly, a form of dishonesty, then it would seem that truth-telling (or simply not-lying) is beautiful and a form of honesty; and honesty has to do with integrity, being whole, and that is why it is beautiful.

In the ordinary and commonly accepted use of the words ‘lie’, ‘lying’, and ‘liar’, when either by words or actions we deceive some one else, we do not intentionally deceive ourselves. It may happen unintentionally, but then we have ‘the lie in the soul’. In either case, our souls are disordered—that is, lose some of their beauty, become uglier, and we find it harder in the long run to live with ourselves. It must be in the long run, because in the short run we may well enjoy whatever advantage we gained from the lie, and that enjoyment obscures the other and undesirable consequences—such as the fragmentation of our souls, the disintegration of our being.

(Although these remarks seem to relate to our souls, to the inward man, we all know that for some people, perhaps ourselves, telling lies brings about physical changes in the body: our temperature rises, we blush, become nervous and fidget, or assume a particular body position, and so forth. It is the measurement of these changes that is involved in lie-detecting equipment.)

Broadly speaking, the consequences of lying may be thought of in four categories. First, there are the consequences within us, sub-divided into those we are aware of and those we are not. Second, there are the consequences to our relationship with other people. Third, there are the effects on the relationship of other people to us. And fourthly and finally, on the consequences within those others.

Category One

The first category—the consequences within us:

If we are not aware of the lie we have told—if we have ‘the lie in the soul’—then the result is simply that we live with our ignorance, without knowing it. But the ignorance has its effect upon us, obviously in our actions—if we think that Larisa is south of Athens (when it is, in fact, north) our journey will be mistaken and unfulfilled. But it also has an effect in the very condition of our soul, which cannot achieve wholeness or integrity as long as it has within it an element that is out of touch with reality—that is, a mistaken notion or opinion. Under these circumstances we may eventually feel a dissatisfaction, a vague feeling of disorder, of being uncomfortable with ourselves, and if we do, then we may set about identifying our mistake, our ignorance, and correcting it. And we correct it by learning the truth of the matter, which can then be integrated with the rest of the soul, thus achieving or restoring both its greater unity and our comfort.

If we are aware of the lie we have told or the deceit we have practiced, we ultimately experience the discomfort mentioned in the former section, but with increased anguish. We not only have to endure the fragmentation of the soul, but in addition know it—and the knowledge pressures us into acknowledging and dealing with the lie. There are only two ways of dealing with it. One is to invest energy in maintaining the lie, in living with it; the other is to correct it.

The maintenance of the lie takes a great deal of energy. Usually it requires the perpetration of more lies and always requires the re-affirmation of the original lie. Some lies are widespread and broadcast, in the sense that they are told publicly and to everyone. But other lies are told to select individuals or to select groups; this entails remembering which individuals or small groups know the lie and which don’t. It is dangerous, and sometimes the liar loses track of who has been told what. Then external as well as internal confusion reigns. The outcome is frequently a diminution in public confidence in the liar’s (presumed) honesty and integrity. That, in turn, leads to a re-affirmation of the lie, an elaboration or development of the original lie, all of which takes energy and contributes to the further disordering of the soul.

The alternative to maintaining the lie is to correct it. This is very hard to do and although we may speak of a particular and isolated lie being ‘taken back’, ‘withdrawn’, it cannot be done in reality; the only way to retract it—insofar as that may be done—is to simply acknowledge it, to confess it, both inwardly and outwardly. But that can be complicated and unsettling to others, as well as to ourselves. It can be ‘excused’ by telling another lie—namely, that the liar did not know he was lying but had said what he had believed to be the truth. Depending upon the perceived character of the liar, this might work to placate others (see below), but it only aggravates the liar himself. He now must live with a double lie.

A lie, of course, usually—perhaps always—has external consequences and any attempt to retract it means a correction of subsequent actions or results based on it. Since we lie in order to gain some advantage over others, to deceive them for our own imagined benefit, any retraction that is to be believed (by ourselves as well as by others) requires a surrender of that advantage, whatever it may be. As Claudius says in Hamlet:

My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer

Can serve my turn? Forgive me my foul murder!—

That cannot be; since I am still possess’d

Of those effects for which I did the murder,—

My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.

May one be pardon’d and retain the offence?

In the corrupted currents of this world

Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice;

And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself

Buys out the law: but ’tis not so above;

There is no shuffling,—there the action lies

In his true nature; and we ourselves compell’d

Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,

To give in evidence.

Claudius cannot repent—he cannot surrender what he gained by his offence. He cannot do it, in part, because he cannot admit to anyone—even to his queen—what he has done. But that is what is required to overcome his foul action and the subsequent lies associated with it. He can admit it to himself—but his admission is, in a way, the cause of his misery and his inability to govern. (When Claudius is king, Osric is the courtier.) Such an admission is not impossible in itself—but it is clearly impossible for Claudius, given his character. And so he lives with his guilt—that is his present punishment, without having to wait for what may happen ‘above’.

His guilt is the price he pays for keeping his ‘wicked prize’. But he does keep it. And being king, he may ‘shove by justice’ and ‘buy out the law’; this means that his power protects his fault—and thereby compounds it. What seems strength is, in fact, weakness; and, in the play, leads to his own destruction and to the loss of the state’s autonomy, to its downfall.

I am not conscious, in myself, of any major lies or wickednesses, and I certainly have not committed murder—although when quite young I wished someone dead, but even then all I would have gained was release from their oppression and not any possession or status they might have had. On reflection, I think most of my lies and deceits were minor and of the same intent; they were mainly protective of me, my writings, my thoughts, my actions, or my organization when under some kind of apparently unwarranted attack, an attack I thought unjust or detrimental of some identifiable good. I am not aggressive by nature, I believe, but some people, who desire and need control over others, have found it necessary or desirable to try to exert power over me; this I resist, usually successfully, but taking great care not to become like them. Even if they wish to control me, I have no wish to control them—I merely want them to leave me alone to pursue whatever good I can understand. If I were as successful as I would wish, then I would try to persuade them to help me learn (or teach me, in their vocabulary) whatever supposed fault or inadequacy has prompted them to wish to control me. This might then be converted, gradually and insensibly, into a learning for them—or rather, for us; in other words, to convert a competitive power relationship into a cooperative friendly one. I do not always find it easy to be so high-minded but I try. There is a limit, however, to my desire and ability to protect pushy people from themselves.

[Later addition: It is not easy to analyze my own character and actions, but I can add another element, as it were, that has prompted me, on occasions, to lie or practice some kind of deception. No blame is to be attached to anyone in the following; it is purely descriptive. My early life was characterized by a non-acceptance that was almost absolute—I wanted to be accepted and had no idea why I wasn’t. This can be said now, but at the time—being an infant—I didn’t understand what was happening: I just felt alone—detached, isolated, abandoned. Another way of saying this is I felt unloved—not perhaps totally, but mostly. It was aggravated by the fact that my brother, three years my senior, seemed to be accorded all the things denied me; so I knew they existed, were possible, which made my own treatment even more unsatisfactory and puzzling. I needed to be loved—and while it is true that this is probably a universal human need, my need was more than normal. This need, as I grew older, colored my relations with girls, and then with women. I wanted them to love me and if they showed any signs of doing so then my interest in them waned. Looking back this seems tinged with cruelty, but I didn’t realize what I was doing, so it was not deliberate—but a kind of deception was certainly involved. It was a bit like fishing: whatever ‘beauty’ I had, whatever attractiveness, was a kind of bait, and when the fish swallowed the bait and was hooked, I just threw the hook in again. I did not reciprocate the feelings—any more than the angler feels for the fish. I do not like myself—the self that I was at that time—but I see now that I was trying to understand the nature of human affection and to discover how I could share in it. But the other person had to go first.

This search for someone to love me needed to have as its counterpart the search for someone for me to love. The former was a lot easier than the latter.

My puzzlement, my not knowing, from the earliest times did have a concomitant advantage, and I attribute to it my continuing desire to understand things. This deep curiosity is not motivated by any sense of a wish for power; I have not wanted to use whatever I came to understand but simply to find rest in the understanding. In my attempts at scholarship this has been of inestimable value—I have tried—and still try—to understand whatever may be understood in texts and in life. My search for love and approval got transmuted into a search for some understanding, for some measure of truth.]

I do not believe that I have achieved possessions, power, or status as a result of lying but, as already stated, I have told lies and deceived in order to protect myself. The problem here has to do with the ‘self’ I claim or imagine myself to be protecting. If that self is defined by wealth, possessions, status, title, or authority, then the protection can only be effective by using the weapons of my adversary—which is ultimately self-defeating. The wonderful thing about Socrates—whose name, literally, means ‘safe power’’ (from sw`~—safe, sound, whole—and kravto~—might, power)—is that, in a certain sense, he is invulnerable, that his soul is invulnerable; even when he drinks the hemlock he says that no harm can come to a good man—while the fourteen or more friends surrounding him suppose that death is the greatest hurt that can be inflicted on anyone. For Socrates the problem is ‘not to escape death, but to escape evil which runs faster than death’. It is well-known that a disguised Socrates could have fled from Athens, but he refused to do so, simply because escaping would entail deceit and a rejection and violation of the law. Death would not disorder his soul, but deceit would. His action had further complicated results which will not be explored here except to point out that by refusing to flee, his accusers and the Athenians who condemned him are held accountable for what they have done—and what they did was based on a lie—namely, that Socrates corrupted the youth.

It is remarkable that in all of the dialogues Socrates never loses his equanimity, his self-control. That self-control, however, is not like that of Odysseus who is long-suffering, using deceit to maintain himself, his ‘self’, and who, very fittingly, is made openly angry only by his wife Penelope: she is the only one who can make him reveal himself. But his self-control is an exertion of power to keep in check, to prevent any display of his thoughts, emotions, and desires, simply because if such things were apparent and known they could be the means of controlling him. The control he exercises is an effort on his part, but the self-control of Socrates is seemingly effortless. The reason, it would seem, is that Odysseus has pride in himself as an artificially created Homeric-style competitive man, a hero, and he must be devious in order to maintain that self-image and himself, and his public image; Socrates also has pride but it is in himself as a human being, and as a servant of Apollo, as it were, of the lovgo~. Odysseus needs praise and honor, Socrates integrity.

It is certain that the kind of pride that Odysseus has is the source of much of our lying and deceit.

Few of us can be as radically virtuous as Socrates—I certainly cannot be—and so I protect my ‘self’—not my soul but my artificially constructed ‘self’—by whatever means are available to me including, I regret to say, on occasion, lies, deceits, evasions, misrepresentations, manipulations and so forth. Socrates has nothing to lose—except, of course, his virtue—for he has no money, no possessions to speak of, no status, no power—he has nothing, but is something.

For me, and I suspect most of us, defending the ‘self’ is not the same as protecting the soul, but Socrates tells us and shows us that that is the only thing worth doing.

Having lied and deceived and now regretting it, when the opportunity arises and it seems appropriate, I try to admit to a person that I have lied, explain why I thought I had to lie, and then apologize. This, in a way, is paying a debt to them—something I owed them—but I cannot undo what I have said or done, those things are irreversible—and not because I am unwilling so much as because of the often intangible nature of whatever advantage accrued to me. It is, of course, pleasant to be forgiven but I do not seek forgiveness from those to whom I have lied; if they do forgive me, all well and good, but I have to forgive myself. And it is important to do that, although it is essential to forgive and not simply to forget

Category Two

The lies we tell disorder our own souls, within us, as it were, but they affect our relations with other people. People to whom we have lied must be watched. Depending on the circumstances and the nature of the lie, they may well be dangerous for if they detect the lie our ability to live or work with them—and others—is compromised. We may lose power.

We do not have much respect for those we lie to, and, as our lying is believed, our opinion of them sinks lower. Mixed with the lack of respect there is some fear—fear that we may be discovered. A further complication is that we often despise those we have deceived. The confusion in our attitude towards them may well make us uncomfortable, but it also makes us very wary and cautious in trying to work with them. Of course, we may despise them so much that we consider them to be nonentities and irrelevant to any cooperative project, but one consequence of that is that we lose—or our project loses—the abilities and energies they have.

In widely varying degrees, however, we have to be on our guard and watchful of our dupes, and we cannot have the enjoyment that comes from an open and honest relationship. In a certain sense we cannot have a relationship with them at all simply because a part of us is withheld—kept from them—and something, not a real part of us but a pseudo-part, an apparent part, takes its place.

Those who lie and relegate those they have deceived to an inferior status run the risk of what the Greeks called u{bri~ (hubris)—‘overweening pride’ as the Victorian translators called it. Their sense of their own superiority, while grounded in some genuine ability, grows and exceeds the limits of their reality: the English words that are associated with this hubris are violent, overbearing, wanton, insolent. They are the characteristics of the tragic hero.

Category Three

It is virtually impossible, in the long run, to keep the telling of lies secret and hidden. In the extreme cases, the character of the liar becomes known and even exaggerated (since there is seldom actual evidence that can stand rational examination); to have a reputation for dishonesty means that others will not share freely, either because they do not trust and fear the consequences of sharing or because they resent any advantage that has accrued to the liar and will do nothing to help him.

Either way, friends, family members, and colleagues tend to distance themselves and become more cautious in their dealings. Liars tend to become isolated—which often means that given their separation from most people, they are driven into a close relation with an unfortunate individual who becomes—and is known as—a crony. This accentuates the distance from the liar that others feel, and also makes him more vulnerable. The crony who knows of the lies and deceptions has power derived from that knowledge and can easily become a threat and a possible supplanter. The relationship might appear very close but it is essentially unstable. It is ironical that a liar cannot trust his crony—how could he, for his crony is a liar and we all (even the liars among us) know that liars cannot be trusted.

Collusion initially enhances closeness, but the closeness brings danger and apprehension because liar and crony are increasingly dependent on one another and that puts them in each other’s power. Sooner or later one destroys the other, usually out of fear or jealousy. A classic case is Othello and Iago.

Category Four

If lies affect the liar, inwardly, and limit his relations with others, and their relations with him, it remains to consider what effect the lies have inwardly on those lied to and deceived.

The range of inward effects is large and it is probably impossible to do other than survey some of the possibilities. Those who have been lied to and know it, must be distinguished from those who have been lied to and do not know it.

Of the latter category little can be said. Depending on their degree of sensitivity, they often have a vague, indefinable sense of separation, of distance, of discomfort particularly (but not only) in the presence of the liar—but it is indefinable and they just experience a sense of awkwardness—something, they might feel, that they cannot ‘put their finger on.’ This may be very disturbing—it disturbs and disorders the soul; what is remarkable is that the lie, the disorder in the liar’s soul, infects the soul of the one lied to—it is infectious. And yet, the one lied to has done nothing reprehensible: but he has unwittingly ‘received’ into himself, as it were, or ‘accepted’ a lie.

Those who know they have been lied to are often, quite properly, offended and angry. The cause is not hard to seek. To be lied to, deliberately, means that one is regarded and treated as an inferior, that one is being used, manipulated, serving some hidden (and therefore probably unacceptable) purpose. Along with the sense of being treated as an inferior is the concomitant denial of equality—they are, of course, two sides of the same coin. There is the specific feeling of inferiority in that we are taken to be simple-minded enough to be deceived, or trusting enough (which in the mind of the liar is often the same thing). What might be considered a virtue, our trusting nature, is turned against us, and used to our detriment even though the content of the lie might not affect us directly. The fact of the lie is enough.

The temptation of whoever is deceived is to interpret the situation in terms of power. The lie or deception is a way of exerting power on us, of controlling us, and we shall respond by exerting our own power in return—if we have any. If we don’t, we feel impotent. But exerting power simply to frustrate the intents of the liar is purely negative, and although it may give us some satisfaction (“I am not going to let the bastard get away with this”) it only disorders our soul. Again, the disorder that defines the lie (and the liar) spreads itself, and it takes a Socrates or an approximate facsimile to put a limit to that disorder. It is not easy.

Another possible effect on those deceived is to lose, generally, some trust in others—and that is a real loss. Cautious circumspection is one thing, but universal cynicism is another. The problem is: How can we behave with integrity in a world that lacks integrity and not be destroyed? There comes to mind Congreve’s play The Way of the World in which the two main characters, Mrs Millament and her suitor Mirabell, have to find their love in a world peopled by characters with the suggestive names of Fainall ( meaning ‘fain all’ and ‘feign all’), Lady Wishfort (voracious, grasping, wishing for it and everything) and Mrs Marwood (who would mar everything). Mirabell complains:

A man may as soon make a friend by his wit, or a

fortune by his honesty, as win a woman by plain-dealing

and sincerity.

It is a miracle that they can find each other. But, as in life, miracles do happen.

In human affairs, close relations usually develop slowly as, for example, between two people who gradually learn to trust each other and to reveal truths about themselves which, if stated bluntly at the beginning of the association would have killed it. This progressive revelation of one’s self is not really a form of deceit—though it may be thought, mistakenly, to lack candor. We may be immediately attracted to some one—in the extreme case, we fall in love—but we cannot declare ourselves totally and immediately; we are too complicated, too extensive, too inarticulate to do it—and it must be done through time, successively, and the order in which we reveal ourselves is critical. And, in addition, we may not be integrated enough inwardly, we may not know ourselves well enough to communicate who we are.

Although we can, in such circumstances, lie and deceive, our affection or love will on the whole prevent us from doing so—because lying is a sign of enmity not love, and renders us unlovable through ugliness, and causes separation when we desire unity. It also indicates, for the reasons stated above, that we do not regard our friend or lover as an equal.

How love and friendship originate or arise is a mystery. The romantic notion is that it does not come about as the result of a process but immediately—‘whoever loved who loved not at first sight’. That this happens cannot be denied, but we can become friends –or even fall in love—with some one we have known (in the sense of associated with) over a period—perhaps a long period—of time.

The relevance of all this is that love and lies do not go together, and it is the beauty of a friend and of the friendship itself that might prompt us to renounce our past deceptions. Neither lovers nor friends think that they deserve the affection shown them; merit is not involved—if we were treated according to our deserts, who of us would escape whipping? –and friendship is not calculated. Although we can and do, on occasions, seek out some one with power or wealth or beauty, something that will be to our advantage, this is not love or friendship. It is like a profit and loss account, it is calculated, and although a relationship that begins that way may get transformed, it begins as a deception and may never recover.

Lies separate us, one from another, and therefore they make it impossible to adhere to the ancient proverb, cited by Plato in the Republic (St. 424): Friends have things in common, friends share (koina; ta; tw`n fivlwn). Outwardly, that is obvious because the whole purpose of lying is to let—or rather, make—another person believe something different from what the liar believes. The word ‘different’ indicates the separation. But inwardly the situation is analogous: the soul is not unified when it contains both truth and falsity—it defies Aristotle’s Law of Non-Contradiction, as it were, the soul cannot simultaneously hold a truth and its opposite, a lie, if it is to maintain its integrity.

The connection—the marriage—of love and truth is not a simple one. The complexity of the human soul is too great to be analyzed here—or anywhere—‘O! What a piece of work is man’—but it must be admitted that lovers lie. In The Tempest, Act V.1, Ferdinand and Miranda are discovered playing chess, and Miranda says “Sweet lord, you play me false.” This must mean that Ferdinand is cheating, and he replies “No, my dearest love, I would not for the world.” Since, presumably, the chess game is a metaphor for their relationship, Miranda’s accusation and Ferdinand’s denial must be understood at two different levels. A plausible interpretation might be that Ferdinand does cheat at the game in order to let Miranda win—not wanting her to feel inferior by being defeated, a loving thing to do. But his denial is at the level of the world, not of the game, and what it means is that he will be true to her, will not ‘play her false’, in life. Miranda’s response is full of commitment: “Yes, for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle,/ And I would call it fair play.” This might be taken to mean ‘even if you were disputing (and using both fair means and foul)—possibly in debate, possibly in combat—no matter what you did I, Miranda, would approve.’ She will support her love, the one she loves.

Shakespeare not only wrote about love and truth—and love and falsehood—but experienced it in his own life. Taking the Sonnets as being essentially autobiographical, Sonnet 138 is worth recalling:

When my love swears that she is made of truth

I do believe her, though I know she lies,

That she might think me some untutored youth,

Unlearnèd in the world’s false subtilities.

Here the flattery of being thought young (an ‘untutored youth’) and innocent (not knowing ‘the world’s false subtleties’) overcomes what the reason knows. Shakespeare and his mistress lie to each other (as well as with each other), know that they are both lying, and so live in a world of fantasy but one which they do, in fact, share.

It would be an interesting inquiry to ask how lies and fantasy are related, if at all, and to pursue it might require a reading of Thurber’s classic The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Lies are, of course, calculated. We lie to get some advantage that we reckon will benefit us. Some poor souls, it is true, may have lied so much and so often that they don’t even know they are doing it—but this is extreme and rare. The fact of calculation, of reckoning, is not in itself wrong. Socrates calculates with Meno, for he wants to get him to speak from his soul, from himself, and not from Gorgias, and so conducts himself to bring that about for it is the precondition of Meno’s learning.

This shows a certain friendship for Meno, a caring for his soul, and surely the greatest act of friendship, the greatest benefit bestowed on a friend, is to help him learn. Socrates can help Meno learn—or, rather, he can try to help Meno learn—but he rejects absolutely the conventional role of ‘the teacher’. That role is played by Gorgias and all the Sophists, as indicated by the very word by which they are known, for sofisthv~ means ‘a knowing one’ or ‘one who knows’. Socrates claimed not to be wise (sofov~), not a knowing one, but to be a filovsofo~, a lover of wisdom, and that, in turn, means that he has no wisdom or knowledge to transmit (or sell, as the Sophists did). Knowledge is not a possession, and we cannot claim it as an individual’s achievement or accomplishment, especially not our own. In the simplest terms, without our society and without our language, we would never have learned anything; they made it possible, and nobody, Sophist or not, could claim to be the originator and rightful possessor of the language, for example, or number.

Once knowledge is claimed as an individual possession, as an acquisition, it becomes subject to all the conditions of material things. It involves ownership, for example, and may be given or sold. It is interesting, however, that it is quite unique in that it cannot be lent or borrowed. Once ‘given’, knowledge cannot be taken back, cannot be retracted, and no viable demand can be made for its return. It is truly democratic in that, by its nature, it belongs to no one person, but to all, to everyone, and no matter how many share it the value, as knowledge, never diminishes. Of course, if it is treated as a commodity the situation is different, but although it may be treated as such it is a usurpation of its nature. That is fraudulent.

Socrates does not have knowledge, but loves it; and he loves his fellow citizens, his fellow men. He cannot give them knowledge, and for two reasons—because he does not have it, and because, even if he had it, it cannot be given or received. These are things done, or claimed to be done, by those conventionally called ‘teachers’ and Socrates rejects that title. What he can do is to help others learn—not to give them knowledge, but to help them create it. For this reason he characterizes himself as a midwife, not one who gives birth, but one who helps some one else give birth.

Material possessions, commodities, and their stored value in wealth, involve the power struggles for acquisition, and these, in turn, involve lying and deceit. If having wealth and possessions is seen as a good, as the good, then it becomes the advantage to be gained from lying. Another common reason for lying is the desire for power and this may seem to be different; but no man sought and achieved power in order to grow daffodils.

The world is too much with us; late and soon

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

Wordsworth was right.

Conventional teaching involves lying, minimally in the sense that even if, as teachers, we know the truth, and even if it may be communicated or simply told, it may not be done all at once. It is done in stages, as it were, and thus we simplify, knowing full well that much more is involved; it is only by describing the earth as a sphere that we come to learn that it is an oblate spheroid. In the history of astronomy, it was only by thinking that the sun goes round the earth (as attested by the senses) that it was ‘discovered’ that it was the other way round and the earth went round the sun, and then it was ‘discovered’ that both and neither were true; it all depended on what point of reference was taken as fixed. And no point—as far as is now ‘known’—has priority; there is no Newtonian absolute space. If no point is fixed in nature, then how we describe the motions of the heavenly bodies depends merely on the convention we decide to adopt. Is that a ‘truth’ we would tell our first graders?

I recall, with some wry humor, what Thomas Aquinas wrote in the Prologue to his monumental Summa Theologica:

Because the teacher of catholic truth ought to teach not only those

who have advanced along the road but also to instruct beginners

(according to the saying of the Apostle: As unto little ones in Christ,

I gave you milk to drink, not meat—I Corinthians 3.1.2), we purpose

in this book to treat whatever belongs to the Christian religion in a

way that is suited to the instruction of beginners

He may have been known as ‘the Dumb Ox’ but he was not without a sense of humor. He must have known his nickname, but “Dumb’ meant silent, not stupid, and ‘Ox’ referred to his size (which was, to say the least, impressive). His humor showed when, needing an example of a virtue, he chose ‘the gentle ox’. In his Prologue I do not detect any humor, but am staggered by the thought that the Summa is ‘milk’; I doubt that I could digest the ‘meat’.

Teachers, good teachers that is, offer ‘milk’ not ‘meat’ but that is only another way of saying that they simplify, distorting or presenting a version of the truth (as they see it), in a form that can be grasped by young or less experienced minds and that facilitates further study. But of course, much of school teaching has to do with facts (not truth) and with conventions which are mostly neither true nor false. Nobody thinks the alphabet is true or false.

In the first of his famous Essays, entitled Of Truth, Francis Bacon (a man well practiced in lying and deceit), begins by writing:

What is Truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for

an answer.

According to the Gospel of John (18.38), Pilate did ask the question, but it is Bacon who interprets it as a jest. To me it seems more like the rather jaded and cynical question of a man with no principled belief, as much as to say, everyone has their opinion and it is all relative. I could only accept ‘jesting’ if it is taken to mean ‘not serious’.

Bacon’s opinion is clearly stated:

A mixture of lie doth ever add pleasure. Doth any man doubt

that if there were taken out of men’s minds vain opinions, flattering

hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like,

but it would leave the mind of a number of men poor shrunken things,

full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?

So lies not only bring advantage, or, at least, are intended to bring advantage, but also, according to Bacon, ‘add pleasure’. Presumably, the pleasure comes from having out-smarted some poor ‘innocent’ and the feeling of superiority and self-satisfaction from having done so, together with the realized advantages. Bacon may be right, in general, but it is hard for me to think of Socrates’ mind as a ‘poor shrunken thing’ or to suppose him ‘full of melancholy and indisposition’. On the contrary, his mind was rich and expansive, and his zest for life, for the life of inquiry, gives the lie to ‘melancholy and indisposition’.

Bacon elaborates his views:

But it is not the lie that passeth through the mind, but the lie that

sinketh in and settleth in it that doth the hurt . . . but howsoever

these things are thus in men’s depraved judgments and affections,

yet truth, which only doth judge itself, teacheth that the inquiry

of truth, which is the love-making or wooing of it, the knowledge

of truth, which is the presence of it, and the belief of truth, which

is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature.

Clearly, for Bacon, the ‘inquiry of truth’ is only a passing phase, perhaps necessary but leading to a settled condition in the ‘knowledge of truth’. This is non-Socratic and it is easy to understand why his contemporary William Harvey, the physician who discovered ‘the motion of the heart and blood’, scornfully commented that Bacon wrote philosophy like a Lord Chancellor (which he did and was).

The interesting phrase to me in Bacon’s remarks is ‘yet truth, which only doth judge itself’. The word ‘only’ indicates that nothing else is capable of judging itself, nothing save truth—which would mean that a lie does not judge itself. Why not? Presumably because truth is the criterion or standard by which any judgment is made and so, in Bacon’s understanding (assuming he is not lying), truth has the double function of making the judgment and supplying the standard for that judgment. A lie cannot ‘judge itself’ because, being a lie, it has no criterion for judgment.

It is reminiscent of Socrates’ remark in the Republic that if the intellect is corrupted then the standard for judgment is simultaneously corrupted and cannot be trusted, but must lead us astray and into error.

The trouble with Bacon—and many academic writers—is that when we read him, are we being persuaded of some truth or of the grandeur and talent of the author? The Essays were dedicated to a noble lord, and one cannot doubt that Bacon had in mind some preferment, some career advancement. Presumably, if there was any truth that would have been abhorrent to the noble lord Bacon discreetly left it out. After all, what is truth?

In spite of all the complexities, however, in the simplest terms we all know what a lie is, can understand (if not approve) why it is told, and feel some sense of repugnance and shame in its presence.

[Later Addition: I think that the final paragraph of the original was and is true. In some instances, a lie is simple and straightforward (if lies can ever be that). When the state trooper stops us and asks “Do you know what speed you were doing?” and we answer “Only 30 miles an hour, officer”, the lie is easy to recognize. We know and the officer knows.

But lies—like life—are often more complicated. I mentioned the connection of lies with fantasy and should, perhaps, have added the relation with irony. I think, on reflection, that, in my story of Billy Tibble at the beginning of the Preface, his answer was intended to point out the irony.

We are always playing with both being and non-being—and it is a game to be played. If we are serious about the world and human life, we must recognize their playful character and conduct ourselves accordingly. If we don’t, life becomes a tragedy; and if we do—but don’t take it seriously—then it becomes a comedy; the tragic hero falls as a result of his efforts, the comic hero survives in spite of them. We need to transcend both of these and see that we have some power in our lives but that it is only partial. The tragic hero tries to control everything, which is impossible although he doesn’t know it, and the comic hero actually controls nothing and doesn’t know it. The tragic hero accepts—or rather claims—responsibility for everything, as it were, while the comic hero is responsible for nothing.

The problem in human life, perhaps, it to assess accurately the extent of our responsibility, to limit the degree in which we are responsible, and to recognize what is beyond us. In Aristotle, the ‘soul’ of tragedy is in the plot; that is, in part, in the circumstances or context within which a human being lives and moves, and these include many accidental things. It is by chance, it is accidental that Oedipus is traveling the same road as a chariot carrying the king, but in the opposite direction. It is, in part, accidental that one of them must give way; yet neither will and a fight ensues. At this point, the plot has brought about a circumstance which displays and evokes character, the second most important element of tragedy. If the king in his chariot and Oedipus on foot had not been so full of pride and self-importance, they would have passed each other peacefully—somehow negotiating a passage. But neither would give way, and that is the result of character. However, it is not because of character that they meet, that is plot. Given the meeting—the confrontation—how they act is largely determined by character.

In our lives, there are many accidental features and many of them we cannot control. We may not even be aware of them. But we have some measure of control—so that if, for example, we find ourselves associating with a den of thieves, we can make the determination to leave their company; or if we find ourselves in a situation which tempts us to do what is wrong, we can remove ourselves from that situation and its temptation. But there are always circumstances with many elements that we do not and cannot control—may not even know. To recognize the degree of freedom we have, the extent to which we can control the circumstances is a real benefit, but the key words here are ‘degree’ and ‘extent’.

This relates to lying because, when we lie, we are refusing to accept the reality of the circumstances and want—urgently want—to make them something else, or treat them as if they were something else.

Another connection that ought to be explored is our use of the word ‘fiction’. In some sense, all writing is fictional—it is not what it writes about. Even when we write about words, about language—when we use language to analyze or describe language, the words we are using are not the words we are writing about. Except, of course, they are. This circularity is inescapable—as is the circularity of all human knowledge. Any serious consideration of the world and our life in it must begin with a consideration of the signs and sign-systems in which ‘reality’ is recorded and analyzed, and the nature of the human intellect in which those signs originated. The intellect also, of course, identifies those aspects of ‘reality’ that will be ‘defined’, by which is meant given limits; a word has a definition, we suppose, but it also is a definition, a de-limiting. What are the laws or rules that govern this process of separation? And collection? We both divide and combine; how can this be understood?

The intellect not only investigates the sensible world, the world of the senses, and makes it to some extent intelligible, but it also creates and investigates possible worlds—and at that point we are involved in what is conventionally called ‘fiction’. Whether or not Troy ever existed historically (as Schliemann insisted), it has certainly existed imaginatively, and its influence will not be diminished if it were ever shown that it had no historical basis. Nor does it matter whether or not there ever was a single poet called Homer.

Language reflects this distinction by having a way of speaking about what is—the indicative mood—and a way of speaking about what could be, the possible—the subjunctive mood.

One of the functions of the possible is to provide a vision for changing the actual. As Socrates says in the Polity/Republic, whether the city they have made in words ever existed on earth does not matter, for it is ‘perhaps laid up in heaven as a pattern for him who wills to see, and seeing, to found a city in himself.’ It may or not be ‘laid up in heaven’, but it is certainly laid up in the intellect and has been for almost 2500 years.]

Appendix to ‘On Lying’

Shakespeare is always worth reading on any topic and so the following is appended from As You Like It, Act V, Scene 4 (the final scene)

Enter Touchstone and Audrey.]

Jaques. There is, sure, another flood toward, and these couples are coming to the ark. Here comes a pair of very strange beasts, which in all tongues are called fools.

Touchstone. Salutation and greeting to you all!

Jaques. Good my lord, bid him welcome: this is the motley-minded gentleman that I have so often met in the forest: he hath been a courtier, he swears.

Touchstone. If any man doubt that, let him put me to my purgation. I have trod a measure; I have flattered a lady; I have been politic with my friend, smooth with mine enemy; I have undone three tailors; I have had four quarrels, and like to have fought one.

Jaques. And how was that ta’en up?

Touchstone. Faith, we met, and found the quarrel was upon the seventh cause.

Jaques. How seventh cause? Good my lord, like this fellow.

Duke Senior. I like him very well.

Touchstone. God ‘ild you, sir; I desire you of the like. I press in here, sir, amongst the rest of the country copulatives, to swear and to forswear; according as marriage binds and blood breaks: a poor virgin, sir, an ill-favored thing, sir, but mine own; a poor humor of mine, sir, to take that that no man else will: rich honesty dwells like a miser, sir, in a poor house; as your pearl in your foul oyster.

Duke Senior. By my faith, he is very swift and sententious.

Touchstone. According to the fool’s bolt, sir, and such dulcet diseases.

Jaques. But, for the seventh cause; how did you find the quarrel on the seventh cause?

Touchstone. Upon a lie seven times removed:—bear your body more seeming, Audrey:—as thus, sir. I did dislike the cut of a certain courtier’s beard: he sent me word, if I said his beard was not cut well, he was in the mind it was: this is called the Retort Courteous. If I sent him word again ‘it was not well cut,’ he would send me word, he cut it to please himself: this is called the Quip Modest. If again ‘it was not well cut,’ he disabled my judgment: this is called the Reply Churlish. If again ‘it was not well cut,’ he would answer, I spake not true: this is called the Reproof Valiant. If again ‘it was not well cut,’ he would say, I lie: this is called the Countercheck Quarrelsome: and so to the Lie Circumstantial and the Lie Direct.

Jaques. And how oft did you say his beard was not well cut?

Touchstone, I durst go no further, than the Lie Circumstantial, nor he durst not give me the Lie Direct; and so we measured swords and parted.

Jaques. Can you nominate in order now the degrees of the lie?

Touchstone. O sir, we quarrel in print, by the book; as you have books for good manners: I will name you the degrees. The first, the Retort Courteous; the second, the Quip Modest; the third, the Reply Churlish; the fourth, the Reproof Valiant; the fifth, the Countercheck Quarrelsome; the sixth, the Lie with Circumstance; the seventh, the Lie Direct. All these you may avoid but the Lie Direct; and you may avoid that too, with an If. I knew when seven justices could not take up a quarrel, but when the parties were met themselves, one of them thought but of an If, as, ‘If you said so, then I said so’; and they shook hands and swore brothers. Your If is the only peace-maker; much virtue in If.