Does this dress make me look fat?
Two new books tell the truth about the history of lying
Lies come in many shapes and sizes, from the classic little white variety to the massive degradation of truth so chillingly depicted in George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-four."
Appropriately enough, according to Evelin Sullivan, the Munich-born author of "The Concise Book of Lying," the Germans have a word, "Notlüge," the "lie of necessity," such as the lie told to save yourself or someone else from being arrested by the Gestapo.
There are lies based on kindness - on wanting to spare someone else's feelings, and other lies, less noble, based on wanting to spare one's own feelings. Then, there are lies of self-delusion told to justify bad decisions or bad behavior; fraudulent lies told to gain unfair advantage; and lies told under oath and bearing false witness (the one form heinous enough to be included in the Ten Commandments).
And then there are attitudes toward lying. At one end of the scale, St. Augustine understood the difference between harmful and harmless lies, but still concluded that all lies are sinful. Or Immanuel Kant, who considered lying "the greatest violation of man's duty to himself."
At the other end, we find a motley crew, from Machiavelli, who endorsed lying for expediency and reasons of state, to aesthetes like Oscar Wilde, who championed the much subtler kind of "lying" embodied in fiction, artifice, and irony.
Here, too, we encounter the invidious argument based (however tenuously) on biology, that deception is built into the nature of life itself, part of the evolutionary struggle to survive, hence justifiable. (Following this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, not only lying, but cheating, stealing, and murder, could be viewed as "natural," hence justifiable, tools in the struggle to survive!)
This is just some of the rocky terrain surveyed by two recent books on the vexing subject of lies and lying: "The Liar's Tale," by Jeremy Campbell, a British author and journalist based in Washington, and "The Concise Book of Lying," by Evelin Sullivan, a novelist who teaches technical writing at Stanford University.
Campbell's book takes us on a guided tour of philosophers and thinkers from the ancient Greeks to Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, down to the bizarre gyrations of postmodern deconstructionists. Sullivan's book is also wide-ranging, but more informal, anecdotal, and sprightly. Naturally, the two authors cover some of the same ground, but their approaches and the specific examples they use are dissimilar enough that one can easily read both without experiencing too much in the way of repetition.
Although "The Liar's Tale" bears the livelier title and even has a more intriguing dust-jacket illustration, "The Concise Book of Lying" provides the more enjoyable read. Sullivan's approach is fresher, her prose style more distinctive, e.g.: "The noble lie is followed after a decent span (lest its ermine-trimmed train be trod upon) by that minor infraction labeled the 'white lie' ... not to be confused with its rascally young cousin, the 'fib')."
She draws upon an engagingly eclectic array of literary sources and examples, some of them well off the beaten path. Yet, for all her humor and lightness of touch, she doesn't lose sight of the essentials. Although there may be almost as many reasons for lying as there are liars, she reminds us, the consequences are often serious. And besides, she points out, almost no one likes being lied to. When we discover we've been deceived by someone we'd trusted, the lying "opens a gap and the world becomes a lonelier, sadder place."
Campbell's book, although erudite, intelligent, and crisply written, suffers from the fact that it follows what has by now become a rather too well-worn, albeit intellectually arduous path, taking us through the history of philosophy, aesthetic theory, linguistic theory, evolutionary theory, and (heaven help us) deconstructionist criticism.
For some strange reason, the jacket blurb characterizes the book as a veritable apologia for deceit: "Campbell compellingly argues that deception ... is a natural, inevitable, and relentlessly necessary part of our world," necessary for "human success and enlightenment." Certainly, Campbell traces the various ways of thinking, from ancient Greek sophistry to postmodernist reading theory, that have expanded our appreciation of inventiveness, creativity, and cunning, while undermining some of our more simplistic assumptions about truth.
But far from providing a ringing endorsement, he seems fully aware of the dangers inherent in this way of thinking: "The trouble is," he notes, "that when philosophers develop a theory that entails abandoning the True, the Good, and the Right, for seemingly admirable reasons, people are apt to be vaguely receptive to the abandonment without making an effort to understand the theory in any depth. Trickle-down wisdom is as iffy as trickle-down economics."
Philosophies that devalue truth and candor tend to champion a Nietzschean will to power. Campbell cites Bertrand Russell's prescient warning about the consequences of abandoning the idea of truth: "The concept of 'truth' as something dependent upon facts largely outside human control has been one of the ways in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility," Russell wrote. "When this check upon pride is removed, a further step is taken along the road towards a certain kind of madness - the intoxication with power which invaded philosophy with Fichte, and to which modern men, whether philosophers or not, are prone. I am persuaded that this intoxication is the greatest danger of our time, and that any philosophy which, however unintentionally, contributes to it is increasing the danger of vast social disaster."
Lies may be part and parcel of living in the natural world, but so are earthquakes and tsetse flies. Simply because something is "natural" doesn't always mean it's a good thing.
Merle Rubin writes reviews regularly for the Monitor and The Wall Street Journal.
'Deception is widespread, and it appears in so many different ways, and has so many effects - ranging from the minuscule to fatal - that it can safely be said to be more complicated than anything else we do that carries moral cargo.... People lie because lying pays or at least promises to pay. One may gain something by doing it, or one may keep from losing something. But let the liar beware. What has been said about lunch holds for any lie of consequence: there is no such thing as a free one.'
- From 'The Concise Book of Lying'