Why You Should Learn to Lie
One of my readers from Australia recently wrote:
My girlfriend (who is basically my wife, we’ve lived together for 4 years now) said what I thought was the oddest thing two nights ago just as I was about to get into bed beside her. She said, “You should lie more.” I’ve never heard a woman say that before and it shocked me, as it goes completely against what I’ve been led to believe (by media, relationship counseling etc) that women always want a man to tell the truth. We discussed it and when she explained her rationale I could totally see where she was coming from, whereby she reckoned I have been hurting people in the past year by being too honest and telling them exactly what I think (particularly some friends), thus jeopardizing my relationships with them, when it would have been much better for all concerned if I simply told a little lie.
To which I replied with Mark Twain’s essay, “On the Decay of the Art of Lying”:
Observe, I do not mean to suggest that the custom of lying has suffered any decay or interruption–no, for the Lie, as a Virtue, A Principle, is eternal; the Lie, as a recreation, a solace, a refuge in time of need, the fourth Grace, the tenth Muse, man’s best and surest friend, is immortal, and cannot perish from the earth while this club remains. My complaint simply concerns the decay of the art of lying. No high-minded man, no man of right feeling, can contemplate the lumbering and slovenly lying of the present day without grieving to see a noble art so prostituted. In this veteran presence I naturally enter upon this theme with diffidence; it is like an old maid trying to teach nursery matters to the mothers in Israel. It would not become to me to criticize you, gentlemen–who are nearly all my elders–and my superiors, in this thing–if I should here and there seem to do it, I trust it will in most cases be more in a spirit of admiration than fault-finding; indeed if this finest of the fine arts had everywhere received the attention, the encouragement, and conscientious practice and development which this club has devoted to it, I should not need to utter this lament, or shred a single tear. I do not say this to flatter: I say it in a spirit of just and appreciative recognition. (It had been my intention, at this point, to mention names and to give illustrative specimens, but indications observable about me admonished me to beware of the particulars and confine myself to generalities.)
No fact is more firmly established than that lying is a necessity of our circumstances–the deduction that it is then a Virtue goes without saying. No virtue can reach its highest usefulness without careful and diligent cultivation–therefore, it goes without saying that this one ought to be taught in the public schools–even in the newspapers. What chance has the ignorant uncultivated liar against the educated expert? What chance have I against Mr. Per–against a lawyer? Judicious lying is what the world needs. I sometimes think it were even better and safer not to lie at all than to lie injudiciously. An awkward, unscientific lie is often as ineffectual as the truth.
What Twain is talking about is a small part of what Confucians call the virtue of li (one would like to add the ‘e’ to get ‘lie’): the norms of correct social behavior, the norms of how we get along with one another. For the Confucian, this includes religious rights, filial piety, loyalty, and many other aspects or ordinary life in a community; but, like Twain, who playfully emphasizes that “you…are nearly all my elders—and my superiors, in this thing” (this thing being lying), the Confucian recognizes that in much of our daily life truth and truthfulness are not the most important goods. Your friends, your beloved, your teachers, your parents: all of them require that you tell lies—some larger, some smaller: some demand that you tell lies (in my experience, mothers are prone to this), others merely depend upon it (as I depend upon my wife to lie to me about my appearance, now and then, and she relies on me to do the same).
So I think Mark Twain would tell my Australian friend that he has work to do in two areas: Firstly, learn to lie when it’s appropriate, as his girlfriend suggests; and secondly (and for Twain, just as importantly), learn to lie well. Because a clumsy lie will be even more offensive than the truth—just as baldfaced flattery is more offensive than somewhat abrupt frankness. Canadians remind me of Australians, in many ways; but one difference I am not surprised to encounter is that Australians might be more upfront and candid while Canadians, as Hemingway once pointed out, “have the easy social graces” that come with a willingness to massage the truth, to find the right—hopefully harmless—falsehood.
Photo by pedrosimoes7
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