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A Discourse on Lying

The Boston Quarterly Review, April, 1840

A Discourse on Lying

Art. II.  A Discourse on Lying.    By the Editor.

"But  all liars shall have their part in the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone."  Revelation, xxi. 8.

What the writer of the book called the Revelation meant by the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, I pretend not to determine. The probability is, that he used this lake as what he deemed the most fitting imagery to represent the torment which awaits, here or hereafter, those who are sinners in the greatest deo-rce. He probably meant no more by it than that the punishment of such would be exceedingly severe. In order to be exceedingly severe, the severest that we can conceive, it need not be the result of material lire and brimstone. Spiritual tortures are altogether severer than any material tortures imaginable. The crudest punishment you can inflict on the guilty is to make them see that they are guilty, and then leave them to the misery of their own reflections.

What will be, according to my text, the precise punishment of all liars, I therefore cannot undertake to say, nor do I, in fact, wish to say. I trouble myself very little about the punishment which awaits the wicked, either as to its quality or its quantity. That which, in my eyes, gives to sin its horror, and admonishes me to eschew it, is not the punishment it involves. It is not the suffering that it brings along with it, that makes it so revolting. To a rnind rightly constituted it would still be full of horror, though it involved no suffering, either in this world or in that which is to come. It is enough that it is sin. Pain, however great it may be, if it be but coupled with a sense of right, we can endure without even a murmur; whether of body or mind, it unmans us only when we feel that we are wrong, that we have been false to ourselves, false to our friends, to our country, to our principles, to our race, to our God.

I do not, therefore, propose to speak of the punishment which awaits liars. I have introduced this passage from the Revelation merely because it appears to me to teach very clearly this much, to wit, that all liars are sinners. This is all that need be said. If we have any just conceptions of true worth before God, we shall ask for no other reason for discontinuing or avoiding a given practice, than the simple fact that it is sinful. Lying, when shown to be a sin, is sufficiently condemned ; and the mind that has any sense of rectitude will avoid it for that reason, and for that reason alone. The punishment which awaits the liar may be more or less intense ; it may be the loss of character in the eyes of the world, it may be the loss of self-respect, the agony of unending remorse ; or it may be the tortures of a literal lake of lire and brimstone ; but the true reason for regarding it with horror is the simple fact, that it is sin, that it is contrary to the law of God, to that law written on the tablets of the human heart, as well as to that which we find engrossed in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

It is of lying, and not of its peculiar punishment, that I propose to speak,  of the sin rather than of its consequences ; because it is always on the sin, rather than on its consequences, that I would fix my own attention or that of others. That lying is a sin, doubtless, all are ready to admit;  and yet it is  a sin of very frequent occurrence. I apprehend that very few of us have any just conception of either its enormity or its frequency. We are not sufficiently careful to ascertain in what the lie actually consists. We regard it too often as consisting solely in the words we use, and we flatter ourselves that we are not guilty of it, when we have not put it into a form of words. We deceive, mislead people, and yet if the words we have used be literally true, we fancy we have not lied. The New-York merchant, of whom they relate a certain anecdote, probably did not regard himself as a liar. The merchant had applied to an Insurance Office for a policy of insurance on a ship he had at sea, and which he was expecting soon to arrive. Some difference arising between him and the agent of the office, the policy was delayed until the merchant received news from his ship, that it and cargo were lost. He immediately sent his boy to notify the office, that if they had not made out the policy talked of, they need not do it, for he had heard from his ship. The office concluding from this, that the news he had heard were favorable, sent him word back that the policy was ready, and immediately made it out, and thus subjected itself to the loss of the ship and its cargo. Now what the merchant said was literally true, and yet it was a lie, because it was so said as naturally to deceive.

The lie does not consist in the words we use. Elijah upbraiding the priests of Baal, and ridiculing them for their trust in that false god, said unto them, " Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth and must be awaked." The words here used are false. What Elijah said was not true, and he did not believe it true ; and yet he did not lie, because he did not intend to deceive, and because he did not deceive. He speaks ironically, and by so speaking discloses more clearly than he could in any other form of speech, the absurdity of worshipping a dumb idol as a god, or the creature in place of the Creator.    So when  we  say of a fleet animal, " he is swift as the wind," or of a raiment remarkable for its whiteness, "it is whiter than snow," or of any extraordinary swiftness of motion, " it is quicker than lightning;" we say what is literally false; but we are not liars, because there is no deception, and no intention of deception. The metaphors we use, the strong hyperboles we adopt, have their established value, and are understood in the same manner by both the speaker and the hearer.

The lie consists, so far as it concerns the liar, in the fact of his intending to deceive or mislead ; in relation to others, it consists in the fact, that he does deceive or mislead. A man tells me no lie, if he in no way deceives me, or misleads me; but he is nevertheless a liar, if he intended to do it, and is as guilty as he would have been, had he deceived me. If he has intended to deceive me, or deceived me knowingly, although all his words strictly construed are true, he is just as much a liar, as though he had told me a plump falsehood, in  just so many words.

I am pursuing a thief. I ask you which way he went. You say nothing, but you point your finger in a certain direction, which is the wrong one, and thus I am led to followr it. In this case you have lied to me, just as much as though you had told me in words, that the thief went in the direction, which you knew he had not gone. Words, actions, manners, no matter which or what, that do deceive, and are intended to deceive, or which are intended to deceive, whether they do deceive or not, are falsehoods, lies. Let no one then think that he has steered clear of the lie, because he has succeeded in using a form of words not literally false. Looks, manners, deeds, lie as well as words, and often more effectually.

The worst form of lying is not that which is generally the most censured. The common falsehoods, as to occurrences and events, are bad enough, but they are by no means the worst. Mere vulgar lying deserves contempt, and usually receives it ; and very soon prevents the one who is  guilty of it from doing any harm, save to his own soul. His credit is soon gone, his want of honesty is soon found out, and henceforth he can deceive nobody, for nobody trusts him.

The worst species of lying are those not usually christened with that name. One instance of the worst sort of lying, on a large scale, has been witnessed during the current year.*(Footnote: * This discourse was written and preached in this city in the winter of 1837-38, while the Massachusetts Legislature were discussing the subject of the suspension and resumption of payments by the banks. The conduct of the banks, and more especially of the business community, during the summer of 1837, and the winter following, violating, as it did, all moral principle, and threatening the very existence of the republic by its general baseness, cannot be too frequently exhibited to the general abhorrence of mankind.) Many people have had in their hands small pieces of paper called Bank Bills, on which is a promise made by certain high-minded and honorable gentlemen, called the president and directors of the bank, to pay the bearer at their banking house, during banking hours, on demand, a certain amount of money. I need not say that this promise has for nearly a year, to say the least, been only a splendid lie,  a lie, which the banks, the honorable and high-minded president and directors, tell every time they issue their bills, or notes. And this is not all. Men of the highest standing in society, and the loudest in their pretensions to decency, intelligence, virtue, religion, have greatly applauded the lie ; and grave senators in our own goodly city are daily discussing the matter, whether an end ought, or ought not, to be put to this lying ; and the probability is that the majority will decide, that the public good demands its continuance. It is astonishing that a community, making some pretensions to being a moral and religious community, can tolerate, much more applaud such falsehood. Nothing can be more corrupting to the morals of our youth, or better calculated to banish truth and honesty from the land.

Communities, corporations, banks, copartnerships, are as much bound to tell the truth, as the simple individual. No man's moral sense, if he have any, can fail to be shocked, outraged at the doctrine, that companies, corporations, communities, states, nations, have a right to lie. They may have the power to go unpunished; the bank president, who signs a promise to pay, that he knows his bank will not pay according to the stipulations, may go unwhipt of justice ; but he is a sinner of as black a dye as any liar in the land, and he will one day be seen and treated as such.

There is another kind of lying, which is usually called policy, skill, or wisdom, or good management, that deserves in like manner to be animadverted upon. It is a kind of lying which parties make use of to carry into execution the plans they have devised, and to possess themselves of the power they crave. There is no political party on earth, that has gained strength enough to be spared from ridicule, that dares let all its acts be known, and all the arts it makes use of be seen in their real character. Back of the fairest professions you shall find low ambition, gross selfishness, and vulgar tricks. Where the end proposed is good, you shall still find the professions held out are false, and the means adopted are unworthy. The Democrat loves the dear people, and is horrified, when any one expresses any distrust of the people ; and yet, if one be what is called a party leader, you may be sure that he dreads no greater misfortune, than that of having the people see exactly what he is, and what he is doing. The good of the party requires that he should work in the dark, and that he should manage the people and bring them into his views by means, which he is nowise ambitious that they should understand.

The Whig, too, is outraged, when he is told that he is laboring to advance the interests of the business part of the community at the expense of the rest. He goes for the whole people. He is shocked at the mendacity and party managements of his Democratic brethren. He is loud in praise of honesty, of open and fair dealing, and he would have none but high-minded and honorable gentlemen entrusted with office; none but moral and religious ineans adopted to secure success ; while at the same time he pays liberally for the publication of falsehood, holds his secret meetings, spares no efforts to flatter or coerce the people into the support of his party,  no efforts to misrepresent the causes of evils he may deplore, or to charge upon his opponents, what he and his friends have secretly brought about; and he will hold up for the highest offices in the gift of a free people men, who, to say the least, are no saints. Both parties will call that the will of the people, which both know is only the will of some few party leaders, and claim the sanction of the popular voice, for what they have every reason to believe the people have never examined, never deliberated upon. Both parties have their secret wires, which they pull to make the puppets dance to their will ; and everywhere both have a concealed agency, which produces the results they ascribe to the spontaneous will of the people.

Now, parties should be open and honest; and any party that should undertake to deceive the people, though in its belief for the people's good, or to carry its ends by any other management or policy than that of truth and honesty, ought to be damned to everlasting infamy; and every party leader, who prides himself on his skill, his adroitness in building up his party and securing its success, ought to be looked upon as one of those liars, who are to have their part in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone. The people have for ages been managed by adroit politicians, and lied to by parties and statesmen, and it is time that both they and politicians and statesmen, learn that there is no allowable policy, no admissible management, but that of telling the truth and acting honestly. Politics till then will be a tissue of falsehood, and governments will be but splendid lies. In this country above all, should we frown upon all intrigue, and contemn all concealment, all political management.

There is another species of lying, perhaps more iniquitous still, more disastrous in its consequences upon both the one who lies and upon the community, upon Humanity, than any other species of lying known. And the kind of lying, 1 now allude to, is never mentioned under that name. It is called sometimes caution, circumspection; generally, prudence. The man who is guilty of it is rarely censured. lie enjoys the confidence of his fellow-men, and may be counted one of the most respectable members of the community. His word is always taken, and the slightest hint from him would prevent all the respectable portion of the community from coming into a Hall like this, to hear such notions of morality as I am in the habit of dealing out. I have reference now to your sleek man of the world, who acquiesces in public opinion, never violates the general sense of the decorous, and who is never known to advance a new, a singular, or an unpopular opinion; who keeps his own thoughts to himself, and never ventures to question those of others. He is constant at the most popular church in the city; he pays a large pew-tax; is .very intimate with his minister, with whom he always agrees ; and yet he is one who does not believe a word of the creed of the church he supports, or the doctrine of the minister he hears. There is, perhaps, another church in the city, organized on principles which he wholly approves, embodying, as he believes, a great, a glorious, and a world-regenerating truth ; and it enjoys the labors of a man, as minister, whose views in all respects coincide with his own, for whose moral and intellectual worth he has the greatest esteem ; yet he never attends that church; he never listens to that minister; and perhaps seldom speaks of him, without a sneer or a shrug of his shoulders. Why ? That church is not in the fashion, and that minister is perhaps a plain, blunt-spoken man, who tells the truth in a homely w7ay ; and moreover is a man who has some notions, which, because they are only half understood by the public, are generally condemned.

Now, this is the worst species of lying that I am acquainted with. Whoever appears to the public what he is not to himself, and in himself, is a liar of the worst description. To tell the truth, to act in accordance with one's honest, intimate convictions of right, is the most imperative duty. These sleek men of the world, who seem to approve whatever is popular, and to discountenance whatever is unfashionable, are perhaps not aware of the practical falsehoods they are daily telling, and the great injury they are doing to the cause of moral and religious progress. They perhaps are not aware of the many trials to which they expose the Avarm-hearted friends of Humanity, nor the many hitter tears they do cause them to shed. They think not of the lone few, scattered up and down in the earth, contending single-handed against the hosts of error, and borne down by the overwhelming iloods of obloquy and abuse, insult and ridicule, perpetually heaped upon them. They think not, that owing to their cowardice and treachery, the cause they inwardly approve is suffered to languish, and its bold and generous friends to die  broken-hearted.

The world is full of errors and evils, which are seen and admitted by thousands, who yet stand entirely aloof from the Son of Man, who comes forth to redeem it from their curse. This very Son of Man is, by the very men who wish him success, passed by without even a look of recognition, or with a look of cold contempt, or of more chilling compassion. If they speak of him, it is with a sort of pity for his weakness, and a regret that he will be so imprudent ; or with the sage advice, that he had much better give up the idea of advocating a cause the public do not approve, or cannot appreciate. They shake their heads at his supposed want of worldly wisdom, and thank themselves that they have been more prudent.

One of the most trying things which I can conceive for him, who is laboring in the great work of human progress, is to be daily passing among men, who really agree with him, and who yet will not raise a voice for him ; but leave the public to infer that they disapprove his course. It is a wound received in the house of his friends, and it festers into his soul. Yet this trial awaits every man, who is not satisfied with things as they are, and who undertakes to make them better. Mankind do not ever seem willing to own their redeemers, till they have crucified them.

Everybody knows that the Church needs reforming, that its dogmas need revising, and that the world has now much more light than it had in the days of Luther and Calvin ; everybody knows that the old Doctrines of Grace, as they are called, are exceedingly ungracious, and need new vamping ; but they are retained, because nobody is willing to speak out to the world, honestly, what he believes. Craven priests are working upon the sensibilities of women and children, and by the use of well assorted machinery, which they know well how to apply, are producing various excitements and calling them the works of the Holy Spirit, when they are perfectly aware of the imposition they are practising ; and he, who undertakes to oppose or expose them, is overpowered by the clamors of a noisy multitude, and his voice lost in the general din. Thousands see these things, and inwardly deplore them. Yet openly, publicly, they breathe not a syllable against them. They virtually sustain them. Yet they might easily put a stop to them, would they but speak out, and be true to themselves.

The community is banding itself together in huge associations,  each controlled by a few head-strong, hot-heated zealots, or cool, shrewd, calculating aspirants, by means of which the grossest tyranny is practised, and the freedom of conscience, guarantied us by our free institutions, reduced to a practical nullity. These sleek men of the world, these wise and prudent men, see and apprehend the evil, and yet say nothing, offer no opposition to them ; but join them, fall into the current, and swell the tide of evil which is to deluge the land. They are thus liars, and with all liars must have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone.
I may be thought severe. But I mean not to "be more so than the cause of truth, "virtue, and religion demands. A man may tell me an oidinary falsehood, and I can pass it over. But when a man will be false to principle, when he will "ive his iniluence to what he does not believe, and withhold it from what he does believe, I know no excuse for him. He is a traitor to himself, a traitor to God, a traitor to man, and he ought to loathe himself; and, in his moments of sober reflection, no doubt does loathe himseli, and feel that he is a miserable wretch, unfit to live.
There are many things which befall us in this life, that it is painful to bear ; but there is nothing more intolerable, nothing which more completely unmans us, than to hear a voice ever and anon rising from the depths of conscience asking, " "What right hast thou to hold up thy head among men, to talk of religion, of virtue, of principle ? Thou art a liar, a base, cowardly hypocrite ! " The greatest insult, one man is capable of offering another, is to call him a liar, to charge him with uttering a falsehood ; and what is it then, when we must call ourselves liars, fasten the charge of falsehood upon ourselves ; when we cannot think of truth without having the damning conclusion forced upon us, that we have outraged it ? Think of a Judas betraying his Master. Well may he who has betrayed the truth go out and hang himself, or fall asunder and have his bowels gush out.

Falsehood always proceeds from cowardice. Every liar is a coward, possesses a craven spirit,  according to the old notions, a "white liver." The man of true courage, will no more swerve from the truth, than he will flee from the enemy in the day of battle. He will die a thousand deaths, sooner than he will utter a falsehood. He would sooner take fire and brimstone than a lie on his tongue. He feels that if he should lie, his honor, in his own estimation, would be forfeited forever, and that ever after, there would ring in his ears, " Thou art a liar." It is the base, sordid, vulgar spirit, the coward soul, that utters falsehood, to whom all just self-respect, and all noble qualities are wanting.

The true man is always a hero. In the hour of trial, in the hour of danger, you know where to find him, Where the fire is hottest, and blows fall thickest and heaviest, there you find him, and always will find him. He deserts his standard never, and holds it with a firm grasp in death. If we would be men, be what our forms and lineaments promise, we must be heroes. We must dare always to utter the truth, whether its utterance be in words or in deeds. We must be always true to our inward convictions, and if the world be opposed to them, no matter ; we must take our stand on them, and trust that in due time the world will come round to us. We must shun falsehood as the most deadly poison, and be true to the God within us, let it cost us what it may.

If there be anything wanting in this age, it is men,  men of chaste minds, intrepid spirits, heroic souls, that dare stand up and speak from the fulness of their own hearts, and go forth and act in obedience to their own convictions. Let us be men ; let us be true ; be faithful to God, to man ; be what we seem ; and then, though the world around us may crumble, we shall find ourselves safe on the Rock of Ages.