Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. Exod. 20. 16.
There was a pious man who said he knew of a plot to overthrow the Government; his conscience made him tell. The plotters he named belonged to a small and already unpopular minority, suspected of taking orders from a foreign power; so he found ready belief. He was believed with especial readiness by certain politicians who had axes of their own to grind and reputable opponents they wanted to discredit.
Our friend proved to have an inexhaustible memory. Each new questioning brought out new facts and new names : Government officials themselves were not above suspicion, and popular hysteria knew no bounds. It seemed you couldn't trust anyone; people you had known and respected for years were ferreted out by the infallible informer, stripped of their livelihood and their freedom. A host of lesser lights sprang up to follow their master in denunciation. Men began to eye their closest friends with suspicion and look for revolution under the bed at night. The frenzy lasted for several years, during which hard-won civil liberties were cast aside, rules of evidence forgotten, slanders accepted as proof.
The man? One Titus Oates. The year? 1678. The conspiracy? The so-called Popish Plot, which for months had English Protestants believing that their innocent Catholic neighbours were about to murder them with fire and sword.
Of course the seventeenth century was very crude and credulous compared to our enlightened times, in which nothing of the sort could possibly happen. But the seventeenth century had one virtue we should do well to remember. It detested a false witness, once it had caught him. Titus Oates, eventually convicted of his murderous perjuries, was whipped from one end of London to the other.
Indeed there is no human loathing more ancient and innate than our loathing of perjury. Primitive men who killed and raped and looted without a second thought regarded a false oath as an offence against the gods, and looked with superstitious horror for a bolt of lightning to strike the blasphemer dead. The Hebrew commandment against false witness was itself only a reflection of still older laws. The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi and the Roman laws of the Twelve Tables both agreed that a false witness against a man accused of crime should receive the punishment of that crime. And to Roman law, though not alas to ours, any man who brought about another's execution through giving false evidence was himself guilty of murder. Lies go hand in hand with language, as anyone who has raised a baby knows; yet the chances are that no sooner had the first Neanderthal invented enough words to mouth a calumny than twenty of his fellows invented the words to condemn him with.
"These six things doth the Lord hate; yea, seven are an abomination unto him : a proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, a false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren." The false witness, the wicked heart, the lying tongue, and the troublemaker were early recognized as aspects of the same man and the same sin. A slander shouted in the law court, a slander whispered in the bedchamber, were different only in that the first had the extra crime of oathbreaking on its conscience. Gradually men perceived that there was more than one way to tell a lie and more than one way to hurt your fellows with it. Aleph says, "I saw John kill his wife on the street comer!" Beth says, "I saw John on the street corner!" Gimel won't say anything at all. Yet all' three of them have seen John on the comer-and know that he did not kill his wife. One lies boldly, one tells an evasive half-truth, one keeps cowardly silence; is there a penny to choose between them? And Daleth the camel dealer, who urges you to buy his swift, strong, young, healthy beast-he means you no harm, he intends only his own gain; but he is hurting you none the less, as you find out when you're on the desert far from the oasis and the sick old camel suddenly caves in.
The Hebrews began to feel that there was something a little smelly about all tampering with the truth. And when Christ came, his fiercest wrath was for the hypocrite, the living lie whose every action is a false witness to his own virtue. Let us make note of the hypocrite; we shall meet him again, every last one of us, any time we care to look into the mirror. The road to Calvary was lined with many of us whited sepulchres-with scribes who claimed knowledge they had not, and Pharisees who claimed holiness they had not, and false witnesses to identify Christ as a subversive radical, and Judas with his lying kiss. But not until Jesus stood before Pilate was the ultimate lie spoken. What did Pilate mean by his "What is truth?" He seems to have been implying a doctrine fashionable in his time -the lie of the sceptic bound hand and foot in despair, who rather than face his own sins will even doubt his own reality; the question that hints that there is no such thing as truth. We must understand Pilate to understand ourselves, for he may have represented the very modern view that truth is after all a relative and subjective affair, an agreed-upon convention, a matter of expedience-and that therefore we are justified in doing anything that seems expedient, even as Pilate.
Throughout Christian history, denunciations of lying have been loud and frequent. Who has been so abhorred as Ananias? And yet we all know the meaning of the words "pious fraud." From the beginning, the devil has loved to tempt the devout to lie for the sake of their good cause-and thereby make it a bad one. One of the first tasks of the Early Church was to separate the true Gospels from the multitudinous invented "eyewitness" accounts in which the faithful lied their heads off for the supposed good of the Church. Fabulous miracles ascribed to the boy Jesus-and more suitable to an infant devil; romantic adventures of Paul with the holy virgin Thecla; forged donations of Constantine, false Isidorian decretals, profound treatises on metaphysics attributed to a Dionysius the Areopagite who never wrote them but was sainted for them-the list is endless. Nor did it end with antiquity; most modern churches have kept up the good work of forging their own praises and their rivals' dispraise, until that clear-sighted and honest Christian Charles Williams found it necessary to write warningly of "the normal calumnies of piety," and to say of a historian, "In defence of his conclusion he was willing to cheat in the evidence- a habit more usual to religious writers than to historical." Let us clean our own house first.
You can usually tell when a hypocrite has been sinning; he denounces that sin in public-and in somebody else. The mere halfhearted sinner may try to wriggle out of his guilt by some verbal quibble; he hasn't really lied to his wife about how he spent the week-end, he just hasn't told her all the truth. But the real, thoroughgoing, incarnate lie of a Pharisee covers his guilt by trumpeting loudly about his virtue; he comes forward boldly and denounces her for lying to Mrs. Jones about that horrid new hat. And if you want to find a man whose whole life is devoted to hypocritical dishonesty and deception, it might be wise to look for one who habitually beats his child. for lying.
As to whether there is such a thing as a white lie-well, no one has yet devised a rule of conduct that can be applied to every imaginable case, and the rule against lying is no exception. Here, as elsewhere, charity and common sense must be our guides. If a man comes to my door waving a gun and announcing that he'll shoot his wife the minute he finds her, I shall certainly tell him I have not seen her for a week, even though I've just finished hiding the poor woman in my cupboard. And it would be an uncharitable sort of truthfulness that, when asked, told a doting mother exactly what it thought of her small son's fiddleplaying. All the same, it is possible that most of our white lies are told, not for charity, but for laziness and for cowardiceto save the work of thinking up a real answer, or to avoid a trivial social discomfort.
The great problem, however, is not the reluctant occasional social lie, but the habitual and automatic lie-the false witness borne unblushingly for personal advantage, until lying becomes a way of life. How does a baby grow up into a Titus Oates?
No doubt he begins to learn in infancy. Suppose little Titus, age four, tries to lie himself out of a scrape. He is rebuked with horror by a self-righteous parent; but the horror, let us assume, arises less from outraged principle than from the selfish desire to keep Titus under the fatherly thumb. As C. S. Lewis has pointed out, parents and schoolmasters object to a lie partly because it is "the only defensive weapon of the child." And Titus' father tells a few whoppers himself. He threatens that the tongue of Titus will shrivel up, the lips of Titus will be sewn together by the devil's darning needle; he pretends that he can tell, by a single penetrating parental glance, whether Titus is truthful.
Nothing outrages our vanity so much as being unmasked by our own children; and yet they must see through us if they are ever to find their own way in the world. Soon enough Titus will know that Father too is a liar. Father lies about sex and his own sexual behaviour, money and his own way of making it, his own importance, and his own holiness. Titus concludes that the lie is the way of the world; and that the people who take what you say at its face value are only children and fools, meant by nature to be deceived.
In abandoning the traditional penalties for a false witness, modern law courts may perhaps be guided by the policeman's natural longing to have a stool pigeon to do his work for him; and the prosecutor's eagerness to build a career on buried men's bones; and most of all, perhaps, by the political usefulness of the frame-up. It is still expedient that one man die for the people. But law courts like that argue a society gone rotten, a society that (like Pilate's Rome, with its smattering of Greek philosophy) has lost not only its respect for truth but even its power of defining truth.
"`What is truth?' said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer." Perhaps we do Pilate an injustice; perhaps, under the fashionable scepticism of the Roman gentleman, he really wanted to know. And perhaps what unsettles the modern mind most is its despair of ever knowing truth amid the conflicting and untrustworthy and very dusty answers we get in our daily life. There are people who believe that not only are there no truths, but there are not even facts-all is a matter of "subjective values." Whatever the merits of this as philosophy, its practical use is often as a method of evasion and rationalization, a means to the loss of faith and loss of honour. We have all heard the arguer who, driven into a corner by relentless proof, slips away with an easy, "Oh, well, it's all in how you think of it, isn't it?"
The denial that truth exists is a good beginning for habitual lying. And if we start confessing our habitual lies, shall we ever be done? There are the lies of gossip, public and private, which make haters out of us; the lies of advertising and salesmanship, which make money out of us; the lies of politicians, who make power out of us. And the lies of the sort of journalist who manufactures a daily omniscience out of the teletype machine and the Encyclopaedia Britannica! And the lies of a professional patriot who assures us that our cause is so just that it doesn't matter what injustice we commit in its name! Two hundred years ago Dr. Johnson wrote
"Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages. A peace will equally leave the warrior and the relater of wars destitute of employment; and I know not whether more is to be dreaded from streets filled with soldiers accustomed to plunder or from garrets filled with scribblers accustomed to lie."
The observation still holds good, except that the scribblers no longer live in garrets. The pay is bigger nowadays-but then, so are the lies.
Greatest and first of man's lies are usually those he tells about himself. Hitler could not have forced the "big lie" technique down the throat of Germany if he had not begun by lying about the goodness and wisdom of Hitler. Stalin could hardly have been cynical about Pravda's misrepresentation of the United States, if he had not earlier grown cynical about Stalin's misrepresentation of Stalin. Well for us if only great men could be great hypocrites, but unfortunately this sort of greatness is possible to us all. Our world has no more typical false witness than the false expert, who makes a career by pretending omniscience about some recondite and perhaps illusory subjectfrom the stars' influence on our destinies to the stars we want to see in our movies next year. And this sort of lying is always "against our neighbour," for such expert knowledge is advanced as a means to power or profit. Stalin's supposed science of history somehow led to the conclusion that Stalin should have absolute rule; and what the astrologer sees in the stars has a way of lining the pockets of the astrologer.
But we are not such as these, are we? We are not crooked politicians or fake fortune tellers or pseudo experts : even in business we hardly ever tamper with the truth for our own advantage.
And yet it is still possible that we tell the most fundamental of lies-that we lie to ourselves about ourselves. Not for profit or power; but for pride. It is possible that, in the secret places of our minds, we deny our sins.
Some may argue that we are honestly unconscious of our sins; that is, that the hypocrite is essentially a truthful man because he is self-deceived into believing what he says. The unconscious mind is a favourite modern scapegoat; whatever may really be in it, many of us have mastered the trick of excusing, as "unconscious drives," behaviour whose true motives we know only too well. No doubt we often bewilder ourselves successfully about our motives. Yet we can usually tell when we have "done those things which we ought not to have done," or "left undone those things which we ought to have done." And unless we face the truth about that, we are lost.
For the only way to get rid of a sin is to admit it. Without honesty, repentance and forgiveness and grace are not possible. Nowadays the conviction of sin is widely misunderstoodsecularists pity Christians, whom they picture as men bowed to the ground under an enormous burden of self-condemnation, men who go around all the time feeling guilty. Actually, of course, as anyone who has experienced conversion knows, the Christian is the only man who does not go around all the time feeling guilty. For him, sin is a burden he can lay down; he can admit, repent, and be forgiven. It is the unfortunate creature who denies the existence of sin in general, or his own in particular, who must go on carrying it for ever.
Alas, it is dreadfully easy for a man to lie to himself about his own offences; that is why Christendom has always approved confessing them to somebody else. And that particular sort of lie becomes a habit more readily than any other. Where does the conscious inner rationalization pass into the unconscious defence mechanism; the willed hypocrisy pass into the unwilled delusion? That is, where is the dividing line between sane lying and insanity? No matter how hard our courts and our committees try to decide that, they can never be quite sure. Perhaps many of the false witnesses end by crossing the dividing line and believing their own tales. We cannot say, nor should we presume to `say; for judging other men's hearts is not our business. But there is one man most of us can be reasonably sure about-the man in the mirror. We do have the job of looking inward and facing the unpleasant truthful witness of our consciences.
The alternative is a horrible one, beginning and ending in pride. At first we may lie about our virtues; we progress to lying about our deserts; in a moment more, we lie about the world's reasons for denying us the good things we so obviously deserve; and ultimately we may feel justified in telling any lie to get those good things-a woman, a job, a victory, or only a moment of safety. Nor can we escape those peripheral lies as long as we cling to the great central lie of the self. The way to freedom, however, was shown us' long ago; it consists in the honest confession and repentance that alone can open our hearts to the Comforter:
"Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him : but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you."
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