How much less companionable than silence is the language of falsehood.
– St Augustine, City of God, XIX, vii; Montaigne cites Pliny from J. L. Vives’ note.
An unpopular essay
We shall now proceed to discuss the nature of lying. Actually, this is a selfish act; it’s a way to remind myself that I need to read Montaigne’s works more often because his writing is extraordinary, folks. And I wanted to say it again. Besides, I haven’t written a non-review for quite some time.
This essay on liars derives from Quintilian’s notion that a liar should have a good memory. With that idea in mind, Montaigne starts pondering the opposite case – something I can relate to. He explains that his lack of memory is often perceived as ingratitude, since if he forgets about something, it must be because it is unimportant to him.
I certainly do forget things easily but I simply do not treat with indifference any charge laid on me by my friends. Let them be satisfied with my misfortune, without turning it into precisely the kind of malice which is the enemy of my natural humour.
As I mentioned on another review, Montaigne’s prose is clear and often humorous. When he starts explaining the drawbacks and benefits of having a bad memory, examples of the latter are: I remember less any insults received – a fortunate man – and Books and places which I look at again always welcome me with a fresh new smile – I’m lucky too. The author also resorts to historical events to illustrate his points of view, which is another treat for the reader since they are not only informative, but also rather amusing at times, considering the solemnity of his century. Complex philosophical meditations interspersed with anecdotes that show a witty sense of humor. That’s gold, Jerry.
The concept of memory is the bridge Montaigne provides to start discussing the main theme. After giving an explanation of the distinction between “to tell an untruth” and “to lie”, he focuses on the liar per se: the kind of person either makes up the whole story or else disguises and pollutes some source of truth. According to the author:
Lying is an accursed vice. It is only our words which bind us together and make us human. […] It seems to me that the only faults which we should vigorously attack as soon as they arise and start to develop are lying and, a little below that, stubbornness. Those faults grow up with the children. Once let the tongue acquire the habit of lying and it is astonishing how impossible it is to make it give it up.
Montaigne doesn’t delve deeper into the infamous art of deception so, among other things, the essay omits to mention the vast array of methods we are in possession of. A fib, a lie, disinformation, a noble lie, defamation, half-truth, a white lie. My favorite, the barefaced lie: one knows or sense the truth and – fluctuating between calm and eagerness – contemplates the other person’s liking for invention.
Some people say it all depends on the context. Some lies are inevitable, since if we all say what goes through our minds, the world would be even more chaotic. In that sense, certain false statements have a diplomatic nature (I know). However, some pieces of fiction involve other feelings; those are the kinds of lies that are usually unnecessary, like expressing love or friendship when one doesn’t mean it. Montaigne doesn’t refer to those samples of wasted time.
My imagination has given me the most vivid memories that never existed. I have a tendency to long for things which never ever happened. Not trying to find a human being unable to lie might be the first attempt to break the habit.
Montaigne’s wit and wisdom are exceptional. There’s one gorgeous line that I must reiterate: It is only our words which bind us together and make us human. Deconstructing that statement might offer an entire new panorama.
In any case, if falsehood is your only language, silence is ambiguous; perpetual absence will suffice.