Why is lying considered to be immoral? From which interpersonal frames do our values arise? James Lewis turns to Michel de Montaigne's short essay On Liars, in order to establish lying's relation to friendship, value and society at large, asking: what exactly is so heinous about the sin of lying?
The essays of Michel de Montaigne can be strange literary artefacts. Often his discussions meander through apparently inane topics with little notable insight or clarity. But in some cases, these incidental musings are his preferred context amidst which to nest substantial philosophical claims – claims which, taken together, can be seen to constitute some systematic unity and bear a striking resemblance to ideas popular in contemporary philosophy, more than four-hundred years on. Here I will offer a commentary of Montaigne’s short essay On Liars. I will point out the philosophical diamond, explain why we should be careful when mining it from the surrounding rough, and show how it sits with another of Montaigne’s pertinent philosophical views – one taken from another essay, On Friendship. The question, to which this key thought contributes an answer, is the question of what exactly is so heinous about the sin of lying. The answer, which I will defend as attributable to Montaigne, is a modern one in that it emphasises that the possibility of holding even the deepest of values requires trust in others, trust in the interpersonal frames from which our values arise.
On Liars begins with an exaggerated, slightly unsettling confession of Montaigne’s own weakness of memory: ‘in this I am most rare and singular, and deserve to gain name and fame thereby’ (28). He hastens to stress, though, that his countrymen of the time are wrong to associate poor memory with poor judgement, and it would be a worse mistake still – far worse – to associate poor memory with being a poor friend. In defiance, says Montaigne, ‘I am nothing if not a good friend’ (28). Already, a distinction has been set up between defects that are ‘involuntary’, and those that are ‘wilful’; a distinction that will echo back when his ruminations get as far as the essay’s eponymous subject matter. To be clear, Montaigne is here implying that when we are judged as friends, only those of our defects that are wilful should be counted against us.
In the subsequent passages the idea that having a bad memory is not incompatible with being a good friend grows into the implication that bad memory is in fact conducive to friendship. Two reasons are given. Firstly, forgetfulness works as a censor on overly long speech, presumably allowing one to be better at listening to friends and other speakers. Secondly, forgetfulness in general gives rise to something like forgivingness: citing Cicero, Montaigne invites the reader to think of his virtue in having ‘a short memory for the injuries I have received’ (30-31). Perhaps these witty reflections would not bear much scrutiny, but I would like to note that in these two pages leading up to the introduction of the topic of lying, Montaigne is not only concerned to discuss the topic of forgetfulness, he is also subtly constructing an evaluative framework that judges human characteristics primarily by their role in relationships with others, specifically by whether they are conducive to friendship.
The essay segues innocuously to a discussion of lying via the observation, ‘Not without reason is it said that no one who is not conscious of having a sound memory should set up to be a liar’ (30). From which juncture, in the remaining four pages Montaigne proceeds to make six points:
1) He notes the distinction between wilful lies and accidental ones, restricting his remarks to the former
2) He sets up a distinction between lying by altering some known facts and lying by inventing a whole fictional story. On appraisal, he finds the latter to be an easier trick to pull off, but not itself without danger
3) He states the extent of the wrongness of lying
4) He boasts that he could never bring himself to lie, even on pain of some grave and immediate danger
5) He recounts a long anecdote of violent trouble ensuing from the discovery of a spy in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor
6) Finally, and without introduction, Montaigne tells a barely connected anecdote of a papal ambassador unwittingly revealing his own improper political loyalties
The diamond I alluded to earlier, is that of point number 3. There lies the one idea with highly interesting philosophical content, set amongst the rough. The claim is encased on the one side by distinctions that, I suspect, lack the requisite rigour to pique the interest of philosophers concerned with understanding the phenomena of lying; and on the other, by complicated anecdotes that serve no obvious role in elucidating this thought (number 3), which I am claiming is central to the essay.
Here is the relevant passage: ‘Lying is indeed an accursed vice. We are men, and we have relations with one another only by speech. If we recognized the horror and gravity of an untruth, we should more justifiably punish it with fire than any other crime.’ (31)
At the risk of stating the obvious, if this passage is taken seriously, it sounds ridiculous. Surely other crimes - killing, torturing, abusing, destroying, stealing, subjugating, for example - are far worse than the act of merely saying something one knows to be false. And to eradicate any doubt that it is an absurd claim that Montaigne is making, he is quite clear that the type of lying that he is bemoaning is not some general dishonesty to one's conscience that might be a necessary feature of all these other wrongs. Rather, the example that he presents later in the same paragraph illustrates the inanity of his point: ‘I have a decent lad as my tailor, whom I have never heard to utter a single truth, even when it would have been to his advantage’ ( 31).
I will now spend the second half of this article trying to build up a way of taking Montaigne's point seriously, as more than mere flippant rhetoric and as one face of a powerfully insightful philosophical position that can be found in his work.
First of all, it is important to stress again that the context of point 3 - the very tone of On Liars - is one in which Montaigne is evaluating the defects of forgetfulness and lying in terms of how these characteristics affect one's status as a friend. I noted above the ways that forgetfulness was presented in relation to friendship; the evidence for thinking that lying is being treated from a like perspective is a little less obvious, but is to be found at points 1 and 4 in my schema. Point 1 reiterates a distinction made in the first part of On Liars that played the role originally of marking out those traits [namely wilful ones] that are significant to the appraisal of friends, from those [accidental ones] that are not. This reiteration serves, to some degree, to provide thematic continuity and to preserve the evaluative framework. Point 4 is Montaigne's line: ‘I am by no means sure that I could induce myself to tell a brazen and deliberate lie even to protect myself from the most obvious and extreme danger’ (31). The interpretation that I am suggesting is that this boast should be construed as continuous with the boasts of the first half of the essay in which Montaigne endeavoured to defend his status as ‘nothing if not a good friend’, by explaining the innocence of forgetfulness. Point 4 should thus be understood as saying, 'I never lie: after all, I am nothing if not a good friend.'
At one point in his later essay On Friendship, Montaigne tells a story taken from Plutarch about Caius Blossius, who said of his friend, Caius Grocchus, that he [Blossius] would do everything for him [Grocchus]. When questioned on whether this willingness extended to setting fire to the city's temple's if Grocchus instructed it, Blossius said that Grocchus would never instruct him to do that. But when pressed on if Grocchus had given such an instruction: ‘“Then I should have obeyed him,” said he’ (98). Montaigne endorses Blossius's provocative answer. This story is the paradigm example of Montaigne's sophisticated philosophical view that it is our relationships to those closest to us that are primary to our capacity to hold dear all those other things that we do hold dear. Seen in a good light, that thesis represents a highly distinctive contribution to philosophical discourse about the intersubjective nature of value, particularly when taken along with Montaigne's further discussion about the qualities of those intimate, value-founding friendships and relationships. For instance, it is only by recognising the primacy that friendship bears to other values that one can make sense of some other of Montaigne's remarks, such as:
‘In the friendship I speak of [the minds of friends] mix and blend one into the other in so perfect a union that the seam which has joined them is effaced and disappears.’ (97)
‘They were friends before they were citizens, friends to one another before they were either friends or enemies to their country, or friends to ambition or revolt.’ (98)
‘Of a perfect society, friendship is the peak.’ (92)
For present purposes, it will not matter to determine whether this relation of primacy between friendship and value is one in which friendship constitutes value, or facilitates value, or structures or informs value, or to determine what any of those terms might actually mean, or even to ascertain whether Montaigne himself provides any clues to the answers of these questions. Of course, if the thesis that I am attributing to Montaigne is an interesting one at all, then it must be possible to elaborate on it by answering these questions, but for now let it suffice to suppose that some such theory could be constructed and that Montaigne did subscribe to this view [albeit in a vague form, perhaps].
Returning then to the claim in On Liars [point 3] that lying is the worst of crimes, recall that Montaigne's first reason for the accursedness of lying was that ‘we are men, and we have relations with one another only by speech’. (Incidentally, let's charitably take 'speech' to mean all communicative interaction, verbal and otherwise). Recall too that in points 5 and 6, the examples that Montaigne provides to further his lamentation of the heinous sin of lying are instances of a spy and a duplicitous ambassador. Note that these are instances of systematic deceit, in which the liars in question do not merely pass on a single known falsity as a truth. They rather present themselves under false personas, as people other than who they are. Crucially, they stand in false relations to the people around them: in their speech they present their values as being one way, but behind the mask, they hold contrary values, which will motivate betrayal. The thought is that no conceivable crime is worse than this type of deceit, because insofar as we are being deceived in this manner, our very capacity to hold and to trust our other values is undermined.
To finish, here are two short examples that might lend a little bit of credibility to the philosophical view I am attributing to Montaigne, which is admittedly a fairly tenuous one. First, think of George Eliot's 1861 novel Silas Marner, in which the protagonist is betrayed by his closest friend William Dane. Dane frames Marner as a thief, which results in Marner's exile from the tiny Calvinist community that had hitherto formed his entire social world. Marner's response to the event is to disavow his own religious conviction itself, which had previously encompassed his moral and spiritual worldview. Eliot's masterful tale is then the tale of a man coming gradually to re-form relationships with others that can renew his spirit. Perhaps this can count as a piece of literary evidence for Montaigne's view about the primacy of friendship to the system of our other values.
Second, and lastly, think of Mark Kennedy, the undercover police officer who infiltrated environmentalist activist groups in the UK for seven years under the alias Mark Stone, but who was outed as a traitor in 2011. During Kennedy's time undercover, to those around him he was a comrade in arms, a close friend and, to several, a lover. Those relationships of trust, intimacy and love were formed under the false pretence that he was somebody that he was not. In fact, in the black and white terms of which activist politics often admits, those relationships were formed under the pretence that he was 'one of us', though he was actually, always, 'one of them'.
When Montaigne speaks of the horror and gravity of an untruth being most deserving of our fire, we should think of the kind of untruth told to Silas Marner and told by Mark Kennedy: systematic deceit of close friends. Allowing for this perspective on Montaigne's thought, I submit, shows his dramatic vision of the importance of interpersonal trust and intimacy for the possibility of value. Perhaps this vision is a little less easily dismissed, and a little more pertinent to philosophy, than the whimsy and speculation that surround it.