Lies and Deception
What advice would the ancients give us about dealing with liars?
“To lie deliberately is to blaspheme — the liar commits deceit, and thus injustice. And likewise to lie without realizing it. Because the involuntary liar disrupts the harmony of nature — its order. He is in conflict with the way the world is structured. As anyone is who deviates toward what is opposed to the truth — even against his will. Nature gave him the resources to distinguish between true and false. And he neglected them, and now can’t tell the difference.”
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.1
“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.” — Ecclesiastes 1:9
It is obvious that interacting with someone who lies is hazardous, whether in one’s personal life or in business. A loose attachment to the truth makes an individual untrustworthy in any context. Someone who lies about small matters is prone to lying about much more serious issues. It is almost impossible to lie “just this one time” and it becomes a vice that is increasingly difficult to break as time goes on.
Often ignored is the fact that there are two types of liars. There are liars who know that they are lying. And then there are liars who actually believe their lies. The latter are far more dangerous. As the renowned twentieth century philosopher George Costanza often said, “it’s not a lie if you believe it”.
Michel de Montaigne was a French philosopher who lived in the 16th century and left us with a treasure trove of wisdom in his essays. Covering a wide range of topics, Montaigne presented numerous quotes and excerpts from ancient philosophers along with his own observations written during his retirement years.
In Of Liars, Montaigne observes the difficulty facing liars who know they are lying:
“It is not unreasonably said that anyone who does not feel sufficiently strong in memory should not meddle with lying. I know very well that the grammarians make this distinction between telling a lie and lying: that telling a lie means saying something false but which we have taken for true; and that lying … implies going against our conscience, and thus applies only to those who say what is contrary to what they know: those of whom I am speaking.
Now liars either invent everything out of whole cloth, or else disguise and alter something fundamentally true. When they disguise and change a story, if you put them back onto it often enough they find it hard not to get tangled up. For since the thing as it has become lodged first in the memory and has imprinted itself there by way of consciousness and knowledge, it is difficult for it not to present itself to the imagination, dislodging the falsehood, which cannot have so firm and secure a foothold.
Likewise, the circumstances that were learned first, slipping into the mind every moment, tend to weaken the memory of the false or corrupted parts that have been added. In what liars invent completely, inasmuch as there is no contrary impression which clashes with the falsehood, they seem to have the less reason to fear making a mistake. Nevertheless even this, since it is an empty thing without a grip, is prone to escape any but a very strong memory.” [emphasis added]
What is Montaigne trying to tell us? Liars often have trouble keeping their lies straight, but if they invent a scenario from whole cloth, the lie is more likely to hold up than if they take a fundamental truth and alter it. In other words, a constructed narrative that is entirely fictional can be easier to keep straight. The problem is that such lies might be more difficult to believe. Lies based on manipulation of some underlying truth may be easier for others to believe but harder to keep straight.
But liars who do not know that they are lying can have an easier time. Since the lies they tell are true for them, they need not remember their lies. They have internalized a false narrative as “their truth” and therefore can repeat the lie and retain consistency over time with fewer problems.
Montaigne considers lying to be among the most serious of vices:
“In truth, lying is an accursed vice. We are men, and hold together, only by our word. If we recognized the horror and the gravity of lying, we would persecute it with fire more justly than other crimes. I find that people ordinarily fool around chastising harmless faults in children very inappropriately, and torment them for thoughtless actions that leave neither imprint nor consequences. Only lying, and a little below it obstinacy, seem to me to be the actions whose birth and progress one should combat insistently. They grow with the child.”
There is a very good chance that a habitual liar has a form of antisocial personality disorder characterized by deception, lack of empathy, and aggressive behavior. It is best to quickly disassociate from such individuals. As Montaigne notes, lying becomes ingrained in a person’s mind at a young age. Chances are that if you have encountered a liar as an adult, they have had decades of practice perfecting their craft and are either resistant to or entirely incapable of change.
I can say from very recent personal experience that individuals with deep-seated antisocial personality disorders can lie with extreme impunity and not a trace of decency or conscience. If you are willing to invent lies from whole cloth, have a high level of intelligence and no conscience, there are few limits to the evil you can do and the pain you can inflict on others, even if they were formerly close family members.
Marcus Aurelius and Michel de Montaigne would tell you to steer clear of liars at almost any cost. If you must deal with a liar, never allow their malign actions to cause you to join them in the gutter, even if doing so is your natural instinct. A stoic outlook, no matter how difficult, is the only nondestructive course to take.
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