75 Faults: On Giving the Lie

To this point, I’ve skillfully sidestepped Montaigne’s discussions of personal fault. But today, Montaigne devotes an essay to lying and I’m going to use it as an opportunity to confess.

I am, at times, a hyperactive, hyperbolic liar. I say at times because I can go very long stretches in my life upholding scrupulous honesty. But once the streak is broken, the webs of lies tend to stretch to great length and complexity. I should heed Montaigne’s section that those who poor memories should stick to the truth, because I have an erratic memory myself … and once a string of lies begins, I find it difficult to unwind it all.

This trait has been self destructive in the extreme and in the end rather pointless. Promising 100 percent honestly seems to me to be a pointless gesture and nearly impossible to keep … but what I must do in the future is take note of and acknowledge my falsehoods as quickly as possible to avoid them from spinning out of control.

But at least I’ve put everyone on notice about this trait. And that’s all that I have to say about the subject for now. As for Montaigne’s essay, I find this paragraph interesting, but I’d like to take it in a different direction:

I have often reflected on what could have given birth to our scrupulously observed custom of taking bitter offence when we are accused of that vice which is more commonplace among us than any of the others, and why for us it should be the ultimate verbal insult to accuse us of lying. Whereupon I find it natural for us to protect ourselves from those failings with which we are most sullied. It seems that by resenting the accusation and growing angry about it we unload some of the guilt; we are guilty, in fact, but at least we condemn it for show.

This is an astute commentary from Montaigne and I find myself applying it not to matters of truth, but to matters of work ethic and procrastination. Like most people who write for a living, I tend to let my ideas and words slow cook before ever letting them appear on a computer screen. To be a writer is to live with some form of procrastination. One of my favorite scenes in Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation” is where Kaufman talks about how he’s going to write now and reward himself with a banana nut muffin … but then can’t stop thinking about the muffin, and simply has to eat one.

But if someone ever challenges an aspect of my work ethic, my back goes up and I become deeply offended … first, because no matter what I may do with my work day on a minute by minute basis, I’m an extremely productive worker. I may waste five hours in a day, but those three hours of prime activity burn with quality work. But the second reason why I take offense is what Montaigne mentions here, I feel a certain level of guilt about the way I work. All procrastinators feel it, maybe even all writers. It goes with the territory — but most of us are fortunate to be judged purely on the quality of our work. When a writing relationship devolves into an analysis of work style, it’s time to find a new job.

Returning to Montaigne’s topic, here’s what he believes is the ultimate harm of lying:

Our understanding is conducted solely by means of the word: anyone who falsifies it betrays public society. It is the only tool by which we communicate our wishes and our thoughts; it is our soul’s interpreter: if we lack that, we can no longer hold together; we can no longer know each other. When words deceive us, it breaks all intercourse and loosens the bonds of our polity.

He’s obviously right — lying destroys public trust and takes the whole “other minds” problem in philosophy to a new level of difficulty. It also makes it really hard to play poker … I don’t actually bluff very much, but I always think that I’m being bluffed. That leads me to take idealistic stands and once you start doing that in poker, you’re ready to bust out.

Those idealistic stands that I mention is what Montaigne has in mind when he talks about “giving the lie.” That phrase refers to the offense taken by being called a liar. Montaigne notes that Greeks and Romans used to do this routinely without starting a brawl:

It often seemed strange and new to me to watch them giving each other the lie and insulting each other without it starting a brawl. Their laws of duty took some other road than ours. Caesar was variously called a thief and a drunkard to his very beard. We can see the freedom of invective which they used against each other (and I mean by they the greatest war-leaders in both those nations) where words were avenged by words alone, with no further consequence.

I’ve never actually been in a fistfight in my life, but I find myself getting into non violent spats all the time over matters of principle. And it seems to be a peculiar family trait that my father held and has been passed on to his children and grandchildren. I often wonder if any of it is really worth the trouble.

To become a better poker player, I’ve learned that you have to pick your spots when it comes to standing up to bullies. Find and exploit his weaknesses, don’t push him all in with jacks just because you’re pretty sure he’s been bluffing a lot. That could be the one time he’s actually holding aces.

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