The Boundaries of Truth

IT is pretty much taken for granted by decent folk that the truth should be told in all circumstances. ‘It is never permissible to lie’ has been, ever since the Christian era came in, the common opinion, if not the common practice. And yet, which one of us has never lied, I will not say against his conscience, but for the very sake of his conscience? Conventional religion has been assumed to be our sole guide, while our actual conduct is usually based on the different, and more explicit, code of honor. Honor is not religion, though with real religion it has always been at peace; civilized manners are not religion, though, again, they have always been at peace with it. In the matter of lying, both honor and civilized manners have a great deal to say; and the fact that we realize this subconsciously is responsible for a great many minor perplexities.

Strictly speaking, in Candide’s ‘best of possible worlds’ lies should not pass human lips. There are many people who stick to the literal interpretation of the precept: ladies, for example, who retire to the back porch before they permit their maids to tell the unwelcome caller that they are‘out.’ There, presumably, they gaze at the blue sky, and congratulate themselves on their unimpeachable veracity. Yet even scrupulous people allow their servants to say they are out when they are in, because ‘out’ is conventionally understood to mean many things. On the other hand, Mr. Chesterton tells us that, under certain conditions, mere silence is the most damnable lie of all. The matter is not so simple as it seems: its intricacies may become a morass for the unwary, and an enchanted garden for the casuist.

Very few people, I fancy, would say, after deliberation, that no lie was ever justified. To be sure, I once heard a serious young man protest that Shakespeare had damned Desdemona by allowing her, at her last gasp, to exculpate Ot hello. I have also known people who objected vehemently to the late Mark Twain because he said so many things that were not so. But there are occasions when lies are taken for granted, even by the law. A man on trial for his life is supposed to tell the truth, but not if it will incriminate him. A wife is not dragged to the witness-stand against her will to testify against her husband — no one would legitimately expect anything but perjury from her. I do not see much difference between legally permitting a man to say ‘Not guilty’ when he is guilty, and legally permitting him to lie. Is there any solitary maiden lady who would not willingly give the midnight marauder to understand that her husband was just coming down the stairs, armed to the teeth? A man is not supposed, except by an extinct type of Puritan, to ‘give away’ the lady who has made sacrifices for him; and even the extinct type of Puritan would hardly expect you to tell your hostess that her dinner-party had been dull. From this heterogeneous group of examples, one may infer that there are lies and lies; and while it is never permissible to lie, it is sometimes quite unpermissible to do anything else.

Most lies of the decenter sort are social. ‘The admixture of a lie doth ever give pleasure,’said the moralist Bacon. There is certainly very little defense for the lie that does not give pleasure. It is to save other people’s feelings, not our own, that we tell lies. Let me put a case quite bluntly. How, without lying, is a man to thank his small niece properly for the necktie which she has selected for his Christmas present? No one wants merely to be thanked for one’s trouble; everyone wants to be told that his taste has been perfect. Now that the late Phillips Brooks’s handsome evasion of fact has become historic, who ever dares not to praise a baby explicitly? I confess that it goes against the grain with me to say that I have enjoyed something which I have detested; and I have frequently accepted invitations (especially over the telephone) because my tongue would not twist itself round the phrase ‘another engagement’ when the other engagement was non-existent. But I have never had the slightest compunction about saying that I was sorry I had another engagement, when I did have another engagement and was not sorry.

I know only one person whom I could count on not to indulge herself in these conventional falsehoods, and she has never been able, so far as I know, to keep a friend. The habit of literal truth-telling, frankly, is self-indulgence of the worst. Nothing could be more delightful, in an evil sense, than telling certain people that their Christmas presents, their babies, and their hospitalities are all horrors which defy description; especially if one could count it a virtue to one’s self to say those things starkly. But one cannot keep that weapon only for one’s foes: the only excuse for saying inexcusable things is that one always says them. Roughly speaking, one’s friends are the people of whom one thinks, habitually, pleasant things. But even friends can be annoying, or unbeautiful, or dull. And it is of the essence of those manners which are morals not to tell them so if one can help it. ‘Faithful are the wounds of a friend’ — and must sometimes be dealt. But no stabbing over non-essentials! And above all, no stabbing when it is a pleasure to stab. Sometimes these truth-tellers congratulate themselves that their praise is immensely enhanced by its rarity. There, I fancy, they are mistaken: for in the first place, praise that is too long on the way loses its savor; and in the second, they acquire, I have noticed, a censorious habit of mind that prevents them from praising at all.

No: in the course of mere conventional living, a certain amount of lying must be done. ‘How do you do?’‘I am very well, thank you.’ You may have indigestion, and in that case you have lied. Yet is it your business to make your acquaintance uncomfortable by telling him the facts in the case? Certain things are true of any man personally which have nothing to do with his social existence: personally, if he has a toothache, he has it; socially, he has not a toothache unless he mentions it. Then, there are lies which are not verbal at all — lies of implication. The early Puritans who objected to paint and powder, objected to them, I fancy, on perfectly catholic grounds — it was immoral to make yourself attractive, and paint and powder were literally meretricious. On the same principle, to this day, a nun cuts off her hair. The modern feeling against paint and powder—for it does in some quarters survive — is rather, I imagine, on the score of dishonesty. You are not supposed to disguise a beautiful complexion if you really have it. But if you have not a good complexion, you are deceiving people — you are acting a lie—by making yourself look as if you had. The ground of the objection has shifted.

Some author — is it Mr. Kipling? — says of one of his heroines that she was as honest as her own front teeth. I know a great many people who are as honest as their own front teeth are false; and certainly no one expects them to go about calling attention to the skill of their dentist. Perhaps some sophist will say that between wearing false hair and declaring one’s false hair to be one’s own, there is all the difference in the world. I protest that it is tacit falsehood to wear it at all — unless one does it after the fashionless fashion of an ancient lady I knew in my childhood who, quite bald at the age of ninety-five, hung two wads of chestnut hair across her head, like saddle-bags, on a black velvet ribbon. And such tacit falsehoods are all in the spirit of the conventional politeness we use daily. To rouge a pale face may be vanity; but to thank a stupid hostess for the pleasure she has not given, is loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. I am inclined to think that even rouge is more often than not altruistic in intention. One does not wish, for the sake of society, to be either a fright or a brute. Certain things are demanded of every man who meets the world on its own ground. From the moment he has ‘accepted with pleasure,’ he has agreed to play the game; and it is as unfair of him to give or take the wrong cues as it would be for the castle to insist on making the knight’s move. No: we need not go out of our way to lie; but we must not, even to be clever, tell the truth when an innocent lie is innocently demanded of us.

It occurs to me that my examples of conventional falsehood are largely feminine. So, I fancy, they should be. One of the reasons, surely, why women have been credited with less perfect veracity than men is that the burden of conventional falsehood falls chiefly on them. A man expects his wife to do this kind of thing for him. It is she who accepts or refuses their common invitations, directs their joint social manœuvres, encounters the world for them both on the purely social side. He is not expected to do it any more than he is expected to order the dinner. There is more straight-from-the-shoulder talk, I imagine, among men by themselves than among women by themselves; but that is partly because women slip out of the social harness less frequently and less easily. A man among men is perhaps (I speak under correction) more inveterately his personal self; a woman among women more inveterately her social self. It may be that it is easier to wear the harness constantly than to gall one’s shoulders afresh each day with putting it on. I am inclined to think that women are as honest with their intimate friends as are men; but — they have had an age-long training in the penalties of making one’s self unpleasant. So many low motives are imputed to women — and most of them, at the present day, quite unjustly— that they are driven to the lesser mendacities for the sake of getting some justice done them. When Mr. A. asks Mrs. B. if she does not think Mrs. C. beautiful, she is almost bound to say that she does, though she does not. Otherwise, she will be taken for a jealous fool. One lie is better than two; and it is better to be thought a fool when you are not, than jealous and a fool when you are neither.

Comparatively few people, however, will cavil at these mendacities, which are indeed ψϵυδη ἀψϵυδη— as mechanical and uncalculated as a gentleman’s ‘I beg your pardon’ when a lady has insisted on colliding with him in the street. Truth is not so difficult to bound on that side; for most people recognize the social exigency, and if you are praising someone’s unskilful cook on one day, the chances are that she will be congratulating you on your amateur gardening the next. We simply have to be polite, as our race and clime understand politeness; and no one except a naïf is really going to take this sort of thing seriously. It is perhaps regrettable that we do not carry courtesy even further; for nothing makes people so worthy of compliments as occasionally receiving them. One is more delightful for being told one is delightful —just as one is more angry for being told one is angry. Let us pass, however, to more debatable ground.

There is an old refrain which runs, ‘Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies.’ I am inclined to think that it is full of social philosophy. Most of us, probably, have put up our hardest fights for veracity on occasions when questions have been asked us that never should have been asked. ‘Refuse to answer,’ says the ghost of that extinct Puritan whom we have evoked. An absurd counsel: for, as we all know, to most of these questions no answer is the most explicit answer of all. If the Devil has given you wit enough, you may contrive to keep the letter of the commandment. But usually that does not happen. I dare say many moralists will not agree with me; but I hold that a question put by some one who has no right, from any point of view, to the information demanded, deserves no truth. If a casual gossip should ask me whether my unmarried great-aunt lived beyond her means, I should feel justified in saying that, she did not, although it might be the private family scandal that she did. There are inquiries which are a sort of moral burglary.

The indiscreet questioner — and by indiscreet questions I mean questions which it is not conceivably a man’s duty either to the community or to any individual to answer — is a marauder, and there is every excuse for treating him as such. I am sure that every reader remembers, in his own experience, such questions, and counts among his acquaintance at least one such questioner. Let him say whether, in these conditions, he has felt it his moral duty to hand over information, any more than he would consider it his moral duty to hand over his plate to a thief. I am not speaking of cases where the temptation to lie is merely the temptation to save one’s face: it is not permissible to lie merely to save one’s face. But it is sometimes permissible to lie to save another person’s face — as it was pardonable, surely, in Desdemona to declare that Othello had not murdered her.

In regard to the lie of exaggeration, a word should perhaps parenthetically be said. We all know the child who has seen two elephants in the garden eating the roses. We also know the delightful grown-up who ‘embroiders’ his narratives. He will never tell the same adventure twice with the same details. The fact remains that, he may each time leave you with precisely the same impression of the adventure in its entirety. It is quite possible that you trust him exceedingly. Of course it is also possible that his ben trovato is never vero. You will have to determine after long experience of him whether he is fundamentally false, or merely has a sense of style. Personally, I know exaggerators of both kinds: people whose lies are only picturesque adjectives, and people whose picturesque adjectives are only lies. There is a subtle distinction between the two. At the risk of being at loggerheads with the rhetoricians, one must say that truth goes deeper than words, and that there is not much in a truthfulness which is only phrase-deep.

The old ladies who are shivering on the back porch will disapprove of me for saying these things, almost as much as I disapprove of them for being on the back porch. To speak frankly, I have not found that the people who cling to the letter are always the people who cling to the spirit of the law. Some of the men and women who will not say in so many words the thing which is not, will deliberately give a false impression. They are not the servants of truth; they are the parasites of truth. The ladies I have referred to may be technically ‘out’; but they are really ‘out,’ only to the undesired visitor—exactly as much as if they had stopped in their own sitting-rooms. (Remember, please, that I am not speaking of the people who receive the unwelcome caller rather than permit a maid to fib — they are in a very different case.) I should not instinctively go to these people for an accurate account of a serious situation. Any one whose conscience is satisfied with that kind of loyalty to fact knows very little about the spirit of truth.

I do not jeer at literal accuracy: I think it an excellent safeguard for all of us. The person who has never indulged in a literal falsehood is the less likely to have indulged in a real one. Generally speaking, words followfacts with a certain closeness. Not always, however. I may truthfully say that my teeth are my own, if I have paid for them; but I shall none the less give a wrong impression to the engaging creature who has asked me if they are false. Substitute serious equivalents for that kind of veracious reply, and you will see what I mean. I am not at all sure that, where there is room for doubt, the people I have cited will not largely take the benefit of the doubt to themselves. I am not sure, for example, that the formula ’I will not tell any one’ stands to them for anything but a fallible human prophecy — something apt to be set at naught by the God who maketh diviners mad. I strongly suspect that mere loyalty will never make them hold their tongues. And I am quite sure that they will often be silent when silence is the most damnable lie of all. For, in their technical sense, silence can never be a lie.

In this short distance, we have come near to the heart of the matter. Remember that the only lie forbidden in the Decalogue is false witness against one’s neighbor. I may feel real respect for the lady on the porch, — when I think that it may be hailing, I feel positive awe, — but I should not like to make her the recipient of an intimate confidence. Such a person is wholly at the mercy of the unscrupulous. To be, for one’s self, at the mercy of the unscrupulous, suggests, I admit, the saint; to be, for one’s friends, at the mercy of the unscrupulous, suggests the cad. It is not, for the normal person, a pleasant thing to lie: it is much easier to record the truth quite automatically. There is in each of us who have been decently brought up a natural antipathy to saying ‘the thing which is not .’ The basis of truth is so much the finest basis on which to meet one’s fellow-men! I have much sympathy with the unpopular people who cannot bring themselves, even in a ball-room, to ‘play the game.' Of all ugly things to be, perhaps a liar is the ugliest. And yet, and yet — We may not go into Victor Hugo’s rapture over the nun in Les Misérables who gave the mendacious answer to Javert; but which of us wishes she had told the inspector that Jean Valjean was actually in the room? Fortunately, such crucial instances are rare; and usually we can benefit our friends most by telling the truth about, them — if it were not so, they would not be beloved. It is a poor cause which has to be lied for regularly. But in the rare case like that of Sœur Simplice, let us hope that we, too, should lie, and be as sure as she of making our peace with Heaven.

For one’s self alone, it is a question whether any lie could bring such luxury as that of telling the simple truth. To lie to save one’s self is the mark of the beast; to lie to save another person may make one distrust the cosmos, but at least it is a purer fault. For it seems to be agreed on by all codes that the unselfish motive is a mightily purging element. On the whole, I should say that the person who likes to lie should never, in any circumstances, be allowed to. Leave the lying to the people who hate it. You will not find them indulging often.

Perhaps the greatest conflict for Puritan youth has always come when it faced for the first time the unfamiliar shape of Honor. Honor and John Calvin have fought on many a strange battlefield for the young soul, and the young soul must often have wondered which was friend and which was foe.

Honor and wit, foredamned they sit,

sings Kipling in an atavistic moment. Which of us has not at some time or other shudderingly understood him? And yet it is only the fortuitous trappings of Honor which can so disturb. For the truest thing about Honor is that, like Charity, it ‘seeks not itself’; and Honor in the mediæval sense was the darling child of the Church. Honor does not break its word; it protects the weak against itself, and against others; it keeps its engagements. It is more immediately concerned with its duty to humanity than with its duty to God; which is doubtless why the Puritan mystic saw it as a foe. The code of honor is the etiquette-book of the Christian; and the people who have attacked it are the people who have considered that Christians needed no etiquette. By our ancestors who were bred in the cold and windy times of the Reformation it was held to deal chiefly with duelling, gaming, and illicit affairs. ‘The debt of honor,’‘the affair of honor’—what do even these corrupted phrases mean except that the gentleman has found more ways to bind himself than the laws of the land afford? I do not know that Honor ever compelled a man to gamble or to provoke a quarrel; but if he has gambled or if he has quarreled — if he has undertaken to play the lamentable game —he must not skulk behind a policeman, like a cry-baby or a sans-culotte, because things have not gone his way. If he has broken, he must pay.

Part of the code of honor begins only when the Christian precept has been broken. Is it so bad a thing, in a fallible world, to be told what to do after you have once done something wrong? The Catechism, as a practical guide, is wofully incomplete without, the code of the gentleman as an appendix. If you had sinned, the Puritan told you to repent; and he was quite right. But there is work left for the sinner after the repenting has been done. Both Honor and the Catechism will do their best to keep you out of a mess. The difference comes later: for after you have got into a mess, the Catechism leaves you to God, while Honor shows you how, if you have done ill to fellow beings, to repair that ill and not extend it.

Honor is a matter of practical politics— frightfully unpractical politics, in another sense, they often are. A cynical young woman once said to me that she found cads more interesting than gentlemen, because you could always tell what a gentleman would do in a given situation, whereas you could never tell, in any situation, what a cad would do. Cads may or may not be the proper sport of cynical young women; but to the average busy creature the gentleman is wholly delightful in that he is wholly predicable. The Christian is not predicable, for the simple reason that he has been given a counsel of perfection. You know that any given Christian will, by the day of his majority, have done some, at least, of the things which the Catechism has expressly warned him not to do. ‘The way that can be walked upon is not the perfect way,’ said Lao-tse long ago. The Church does not believe that you have always done everything that your sponsors in baptism so cheerfully said you would do. The confessional is itself the greatest confession that the Church has ever made. One of the most convenient things about Honor is that its explicit code is limited; and you can say of some men when they die that they have never for a moment ceased to be gentlemen. Honor is of the world, worldly — and some people have distorted that magnificent fact into an accusation. That is what Mr. Kipling has done in ‘Tomlinson.’

All this about Honor is not so much a digression as an approach. For if few people will quarrel with the lies of implication and of convention, and most people pray to be delivered from the lie of self-defense, the lie ‘of obligation ’ cannot be juggled away; and it is the lie of obligation which Honor commands. Honor has never permitted, still less commanded, a lie for personal gain or satisfaction of any kind; but there are cases when the gentleman must lie if he is to be a gentleman. The gentleman does not betray the friend who has trusted him, even though he may bitterly object to having that friend’s secrets on his hands. From that supreme obligation lies sometimes of necessity result. I said just now that Honor and John Calvin must often have fought for the young soul; and it does not take an over-vivid imagination to conceive cases. Religion (in spite of the Decalogue) has tended to lump all lies together as the offspring of the Devil, while the code of the gentleman has always set aside a few lies as consecrated and de rigueur But the gentleman, I venture to say, has always told those lies in the spirit in which a man lays down his life for his friend. For no gentleman lies, on any occasion, with unmixed pleasure. He feels, rather, as if he had put on rags.

It is easier—as some sociologists do — to plot the curves of a desire than to fix the boundaries of truth. The domain of truth is not world-wide: that, we know. They must be home-keepers indeed— perpetually cradled — who need never lie. Literal truth is imprisoned in a palace, like the Pope in the Vatican, affecting to be the ruler of the world. Even the faithful know that the claim is vain. The lies of obligation and convention are not, in the deepest sense, unveracious; for they are not preëminently intended to deceive. We expect them of other civilized beings, and expect other civilized beings to expect them of us. Speaking such falsehoods, and such falsehoods only, we are still on truth’s own ground. The lie told for the liar’s own sake marks the moment when a man has passed from beneath her standard, across her shadowy sphere of influence, and is already hot-foot into the jungle.