Louis CK on The Late Show with David Letterman, The Conan O’Brien Show, The Tavis Smiley Show, and likely his own routine- explains the magic of lying and the problems of teaching his daughter to tell the truth.[i] “Lying fixes everything,” Louis CK explains, “How can you tell you kids that you cannot use this magical thing that fixes everything.” I ruined his joke because he said it differently with a great delivery and perfect use of words. However, although he tells the truth he does make a great apology for lying. I wanted to go another route for my defense, or really my thoughts about lying.
I think on multiple occasions Montaigne wrote about lying in The Essays. The most obvious place to look is in his essay “On Liars.”[ii] He claims that his lack of memory is what keeps him honest, of course, because he could hardly keep lies straight with his poor memory. Alas, honesty as a remedy for a poor faculty!
There is error of course and then there is a lie, one is passive and the other one is active:
I know quite well that grammarians make a distinction between telling untruth and lying. They say that to tell an untruth is to say something that is false, but that we supposed to be true, and the meaning of the Latin mentiri, from which our French word from lying derives, is to go against one’s conscience, and consequently it applies only to those who say the opposite of what they know; and it is of them I am speaking.[iii]
Of course I do not want to read into Montaigne’s essay too deeply but he at least gives some sense of the lying from a non-proscriptive description. Of course, we know how Immanuel Kant feels about lying. It is against pure practical reason, it denies other people’s agency, and of course it fails at becoming a universal maxim. However that is all too boring. There is no reason to delve deeply into Kant or any other philosopher one can imagine, for we already know that the lie is condemned. There is a reason for this, of course, but it is not really interesting for me or really anybody.
As a child and all the way in to adulthood I lied. I had to get that out of they way, of course, but I suppose nobody could say that they had never lied. Most lies were defensive lies or ways to cut short painful encounters. I did not want to be in trouble or yelled at so I made a lie. Of course, we can always talk about the courteous lies, but really that is too well treaded. The reason I would like to even talk about lying is because it is quite interesting.
A lie is really a passive or reactive response. The words may make false statements but it is never active. The statements always must revolve around some truth, of course, to be a sound lie. The lie is always the preferred truth or an approximation of the truth. “I did my homework but I left it at home.” They did not do their homework. I never saw anybody tell a professor, “I did not do my paper because I preferred not to. I was messing around on the Internet and found the craziest pictures and then there was this part of a movie that repeated for an hour. I watched that for a few seconds.” Is the truth preferable in this circumstance? Really both parties know it is a lie. If a professor hears a student make an excuse they play the part too.
The best lies are mostly true. In fact they hint at the truth so thoroughly that they are blatantly honest. However, we are terrible liars, and therefor most lies fall apart immediately. There are people with a condition of a lack of remorse, and they can tell fantastical beautiful lies. They are mostly the rare ones. I am not sure if it coarse and jealousy that I cannot even tell the truth properly without feeling guilty. Guilt is a reactive mode as well.
I am not praising psychopaths at all, nor do I feel comfortable condemning them, but the lie is fascinating. Fiction and religions are not lies in the least bit. Fiction is known to be invented and religions are part of the fabric of societies. Religion are a bricolage myth, they are usually constructed constantly and reassembled. If I wounded someone’s ears by that I am not saying they are false, but merely societies and myths go hand and hand. Each country or politics has a myth that is quite functional to the structures of the organization that it might be impossible to untangle them. Fiction, stories, jokes, songs, some national mythologies, and some religions are active. A lie is not active but always reactive.
I said “always” but that was a misstatement not a lie.
In Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals second essay, he has active response that is forgetting.[iv] If promises are made then the next action to preserve the conscience is to forget, they are tied to each other, and are coupled almost in a single action.[v] “That this problem has been solved to a large extent must seem all the more remarkable to anyone who appreciates the strength of the opposing force, that of forgetfulness”[vi] We have wound our way all the way back to Montaigne and his lack of memories! It would be quite surprising if I did that by accident! No No of course I did not. The promise that is made would be a lie of course if it was not intended to be kept but if it is lost then of course the guilt will dissipate. Guilt and lies are always reactive. If in good conscience we make an error to commit then are forced to forget that error it could hardly be called a true lie. It was a failure but it would be horrible in our day-to-day life to always harassed and bullied by commitments that are impossible to complete, no matter how much we desire to complete them.
[i] If anybody can find a Louis CK approved video link I would love that!!!
[ii] Michel de Montaigne Essays trans and edited J.M. Cohen (New York: Penguin, 1958) p 28-33
[iii] Montaigne Essays p30
[iv] Friedrich Nietzsche The Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo trans and edited Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1989) p 57-58 (II-1)
[v] Nietzsche The Genealogy of Morals p57
[vi] Nietzsche The Genealogy of Morals p57