Sense and Nonsense: Lying to Ones Soul

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Wearing his baseball cap and uniform, Charlie Brown comes into his living room, where his sister, Sally, sits watching TV on her bean-bag chair. Dejectedly, Charlie says to her, “It’s the last game of the season, and we lost.” Sally just walks away, saying to a puzzled Charlie, “So what does that mean?” With his hat to the side of his head and Sally nowhere in sight, he explains aloud philosophically, “Well, in the long run and as far as the rest of the world goes, it doesn’t mean a thing….” In the last scene, however, Charlie’s head is buried despondently in the bean bag. He laments, “But I can’t stand it” (Schulz, If Beagles Could Fly, 1990).

No doubt, we cannot help but see something noble in Charlie Brown’s refusal to admit that the game and the season are not important, even though he knows Sally doesn’t care and the game doesn’t mean a thing “to the rest of the world.”

No one should be surprised if I tell him that this end-of-the-season scene reminds me of Plato. Everything reminds me of something in Plato. The Peanuts incident recalls a passage to my mind that is near the end of the second book of The Republic. I read this passage aloud to a class, it struck me so much. It recalls Charlie’s realization that some things are important even if no one else thinks so. There is something poignant about suffering for a real loss that no one else figures to mean anything. But with Charlie’s “can’t stand it,” we see that he recognizes a real loss, even if it is only not winning the last game of the season.

The conversation between Socrates and Adeimantus had been about whether the gods would lie. But when Socrates asks him whether the gods would “lie,” Adeimantus replies lamely that he “does not know.” Next, Socrates asks him, “Don’t you know that all gods and men hate a true lie?” Adeimantus still does not get what Socrates is driving at. Surely, Socrates explains, “No one wants to lie about the most serious things” in the deepest part of his own soul. Indeed, in this inner place is where we fear a lie most of all.

 

Lying to ourselves about the things that are, about the most important things, is surely a most provocative concern. We suddenly realize that we can lie to ourselves about the nature of our being, of our world. We can choose not to know what is in order that we do not have to change our ways.

Socrates continues: “To lie and to have lied to the soul about the things that are… and to have a lie there is what everyone would least accept, and that everyone hates a lie in that place [his own soul] most of all.”

If it were true that no one lied to himself about reality, the world would be a pretty good place. Socrates, of course, is speaking of the city he is building in speech, of those who are as they ought to be. He knows of the discrepancy between the things that are actually done and the things that ought to be done. Like Charlie’s lost game, it seems that nobody in the world cares about the things of one’s soul.

Yet, Socrates’s words are, “No one would want a lie in his soul” about the most important things.

The notion of lying to ourselves is deliberately paradoxical. Lying normally refers to what we tell others that is not in conformity with what we hold or know. The possibility of lying to ourselves is more subtle. It means that we can control our picture of the world so that it does not conform to reality.

Socrates suggests that we can lie to ourselves in the most important things, not just in little or indifferent things. Lying to ourselves about the most important things defines what we are before these same important things. Does this mean that the drama of our existence is not exterior to ourselves after all? Indeed, it does. Moreover, we control the drama.

Charlie Brown, as manager of the losing team, does not lie to himself. He knows his team lost. He does not pretend otherwise. Charlie’s soul is not divided within himself. This is the drama of his cry: “I can’t stand it.”

But Plato’s admonition stands. No one wants a lie in his soul about the things that are. Yet, the implication remains. It is possible to reject in our souls the order of things. We can refuse to see because we do not want to know the truth in our souls if this truth requires of us what we refuse to give. Ultimately, this lie in our souls is what we “cannot stand.”

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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