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PROVERBS XII, 22.
Lying lips are abomination to the Lord: but they,
that deal truly, are his delight.
NOTWITHSTANDING the advantages of reason, the condition of mankind would be very low and indeed very unhappy, if we did not also excel the rest of the creatures, which inhabit this earth, in a greater power of communicating our thoughts one to another. They have much fewer wants: and are taught by nature, almost immediately, how to supply them. But we are purposely formed to need and to give help in every thing, through the whole of our days: and therefore some ready and extensive method of signifying mutually whatever passes within our minds was peculiarly necessary for us. Without this, no person would have more knowledge of any thing than he could attain of himself: or more assistance in distress from his neighbour, than mere conjecture would direct him to think needful, and unrequested goodness incline him to bestow. The pleasure also, as well as the benefits of society, would be reduced to a narrow compass : and life hang upon our hands joyless and uncomfortable. But our gracious Maker hath furnished us with several ways of doing what we find so requisite. Our actions and gestures declare our meanings, in many cases, both clearly and strongly: and our looks have significancy, inexpressible any other way. The most intelligent of other animals
come not near us in either of these respects. But yet articulate speech, our more distinguishing property, hath, on the whole, much greater pre-eminences belonging to it: and, together with the improvement built upon it, of marking down words with ease in lasting characters, hath raised us to a much higher rank in the scale of beings, than we could otherwise have obtained.
Still unhappily, as every blessing in the world may be fatally misused, so there is hardly any one bad purpose, which language, though granted for the most excellent good purposes, may not be, and hath not been, perverted to serve. But it serves the most such, and the most effectually, by being turned from its original design of giving right information to those, with whom we converse, to the opposite one of leading them wrong: a practice so immoral and mischievous, yet so common; and so often seeming to be not only serviceable to the deceivers themselves, but desensible, or however not very blameable, in respect of such as they deceive; that few things are of more importance, than forming just notions concerning our obligations to veracity. And in doing this, though the principal point is to restrain men from taking over-great liberties, yet they must be guarded also against over-great scrupulousness: both because every precept ought to be represented fairly; and because, if this be not, some will be sufferers by observing, and others feel remorse for transgressing, imaginary duties; while much larger numbers, perceiving the rules given them to be in part too strict, will take occasion from thence to slight them all.
In order then to state this whole subject, I shall,
I. Shew, what things are to be reputed lies, and what not.
II. Consider the pleas, which are made to justify some sorts of lying.
III. Those which are brought to excuse others.
I. The leading question therefore is, what things are to be reputed lies, and what not. Now here,
1. Since actions and gestures, as well as words, may be employed to express what we think: they may be also employed to express what we do not think: which is the essence of a lie. Indeed some of our actions are naturally significative: whereas few of our words have any other import, than arbitrary consent and usage give them; as appears from the different languages of different nations. But then we have never consented to make our actions in general signs of our intentions, as we have our words. And if persons interpret an action of ours to mean this or that, which hath no certain meaning affixed to it, we deceive them not, but they deceive themselves. Nor are we bound, in point of truth, to explain it, in order to prevent this: but in point of charity and humanity we are, if we apprehend, that they may suffer any harm by mistaking, which we can obviate without suffering proportionable harm in their stead. Such actions therefore, as have no determinate sense appropriated to them by agreement, explicit or implied, can be no violations of sincerity: but such as have, are subject to just the same rules with words; and we may be guilty of as gross falsehoods in the former, as in the latter.
2. Words having acquired their significations by the mutual acquiescence of mankind, may change them by the same method. And not only single words may in process of time vary their sense greatly, but combinations of several words may come to have meanings, very different from what the terms, of
which they are composed, uninterpreted by practice, would lead one to apprehend. We all know what it is to be humble, and to be a servant to any one. But a person, who, in the common acceptation of the words, taken separately, cannot say he is either, may safely affirm that he is both, when they are joined together into an usual declaration of mere civility. And in general, whatever form of speech, though false in its primitive sense, is true in that, which custom hath adopted, may be used in it without fault, to those who understand it right: for there can be no lie, where we have no purpose of deceiving. But still, though we may, and possibly in some cases must, comply with such phrases, when once they are established: yet the fewer of them prevail, the better for several reasons.
The high-strained expressions of civility, which are so common, however innocent now, proceeded originally from a mean and fawning and fallacious disposition in those who began them: and tended to nurse up vanity and haughtiness in those, to whom they were addressed. In proportion as they become sayings of course indeed, and lose their meaning, they may lose their mischief. But if others of the same sort are coined from time to time to succeed them, this renews and perpetuates the mischief; besides the further inconveniences of making a language absurd, and imprinting a character of slavishness upon it, under a groundless pretence of refining and polishing it. For none of these flights were admitted amongst the best-bred people of the ancient world, till they had lost their good taste, as well as their virtue.
And as for the other phrases, of which custom hath changed or annihilated the signification, though after this is done, they are no longer lies, yet they were
lies all the while it was doing: and every new step, taken in the same road, will be a new lie, till every body finds it out, and learns the fashionable interpretation of it. And, as these innovations cannot be soon received universally, they embarrass and intangle timorous minds very grievously, and tempt the irresolute to do what they apprehend is not lawful, while, at the same time, they give those, who are not so scrupulous as they should be, dangerous encouragement to become less so than they were. For such, perceiving themselves authorized by general practice, or perhaps being directed by particular orders, to say in some cases things that look extremely like falsehoods, will easily go on to venture upon the most real falsehoods in any case, when they have occasion for them. These liberties therefore should be as sparingly used, and when they must be used, as carefully explained to all who are concerned in them, as possible: and a very serious attention shewn to prevent what a great and excellent man calls our language running into a lie*.
3. As to all figures of speech, fables, allegories, feigned histories, and parables, those for instance of our blessed Saviour, and others in Scripture, intended only to convey instruction more agreeably or efficaciously, there is evidently no room to condemn these, as deceits. And whenever things are either said or written in such a manner, that the intention is visibly different from what the words would else import, this can never be a breach of truth, and may sometimes be a very proper and engaging way of recommending it. But the case is widely different, when persons, with all the marks of seriousness, affirm what they will afterwards despise and ridicule others for be
* Archbishop Tillotson.