Sense and Nonsense: Lies—Consecrated and Damned

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The eighth commandment forbids lying. A federal judge in Arkansas formally stated that the president of the United States lied in her court in an official proceeding. Presidential lawyers sometimes quibble about intention, about legal lying and real lying. The judge maintained that because of the lie, justice was not done to a party whose case depended on the truth.

Our first president, it is said, did not tell a lie. When he affirmed, “I cannot tell a lie,” he still had the capacity to lie. But he did not use it. This is why he is praised. Praise and blame are the exterior signs of our internal soul, of how we are perceived to stand to ourselves, to what is right. Plato said that no one would want to have a lie in his soul about the most important things. No one would want to lie to himself about himself.

Recently I was on a civil jury in the District of Columbia. All jurors took an oath, as did each witness. Why was it not enough just to be there? We could, after all, still take an oath and lie. In our system of government, the “rule of law” cannot work if judges, jurors, and witnesses lie with impunity. The integrity of any system of justice depends on truth- telling. Jurors were asked not to talk to others while the trial was still on. They were not to be subject to outside pressure or to be influenced by ideas not coming directly from the evidence presented. In the Fourth Book of the Ethics, Aristotle speaks of a virtue that has to do with speech. The purpose of speech is to communicate truth.

If we use our speech so that no correspondence exists between what we say and what we think or ought to say, the very purpose of speech breaks down. In the case of habitual liars, we literally do not “believe a word they say.”

 

On September 18, 1760, Boswell records the following remark of Samuel Johnson: “There are (said he,) inexcusable lies, and consecrated lies. For instance, we are told that on the arrival of the news of the battle of Fontenot’ every heartbeat, and every eye was in tears. Now we know that no man eat (sic) his dinner the worse, but there should have been all this concern; and to say there was, (smiling) may be reckoned a consecrated lie:’ Johnson’s irony is clear. People ought to be truthful, even if they aren’t. We are reluctant to admit the truth and slow to correct our lies.

We have all heard someone, perhaps ourselves, called “a damned liar,” or “a dirty liar.” It is bad enough to be a liar, but some lies are more heinous and enraging than others. The “white” lie may indeed have to do with something quite unimportant by any objective standards, though we would not bother to tell it unless there were some degree of untruth involved. Jocose or humorous lies are common. My friend who says she is 37 each birthday is not telling the truth. But then she never quite expects anyone to believe her, either. Her lie is “white” or even “consecrated.” Plato’s noble lie, his foundation myth, is really not a lie at all. Even though it would seem to be a lie, it was in fact a description of the truth. No one can tell us the truth if we insist on hearing the truth as a lie.

How do we deal with someone we know is lying? Often we just do not want to know. We would rather believe that someone is telling us the truth than catch him in a lie. Parents suspect little Johnny of stealing or smoking or some other “small” sin. The issue becomes compounded when the boy lies about it. Lying turns one fault into two faults. Habits are formed by repeated acts. But we make up for lying by correcting our lie with the truth. It is destructive of our character when our record causes others to expect us to lie, to be known as liars.

Each lie compounds the evil of what is already evil. The lie has a strange status. It does not deal with reality directly as do most other vices. Murder, adultery, or stealing has to do with our mis-dealings with others. Lying has to do with the conformity of our words with our mind. Lies intend to deceive, make us appear what we are not. In the end, the only cure for lying is not to lie.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

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Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).

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