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´╗┐Title: On the Decay of the Art of Lying
Author: Twain, Mark, 1835-1910
Language: English
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by Mark Twain [Sameul Clemens]


[*] Did not take the prize.

Observe, I do not mean to suggest that the _custom_ of lying has
suffered any decay or interruption--no, for the Lie, as a Virtue, A
Principle, is eternal; the Lie, as a recreation, a solace, a refuge in
time of need, the fourth Grace, the tenth Muse, man's best and surest
friend, is immortal, and cannot perish from the earth while this club
remains. My complaint simply concerns the decay of the _art_ of lying.
No high-minded man, no man of right feeling, can contemplate the
lumbering and slovenly lying of the present day without grieving to see
a noble art so prostituted. In this veteran presence I naturally enter
upon this theme with diffidence; it is like an old maid trying to teach
nursery matters to the mothers in Israel. It would not become to me to
criticise you, gentlemen--who are nearly all my elders--and my
superiors, in this thing--if I should here and there _seem_ to do it, I
trust it will in most cases be more in a spirit of admiration than
fault-finding; indeed if this finest of the fine arts had everywhere
received the attention, the encouragement, and conscientious practice
and development which this club has devoted to it, I should not need to
utter this lament, or shred a single tear. I do not say this to flatter:
I say it in a spirit of just and appreciative recognition. [It had been
my intention, at this point, to mention names and to give illustrative
specimens, but indications observable about me admonished me to beware
of the particulars and confine myself to generalities.]

No fact is more firmly established than that lying is a necessity of our
circumstances--the deduction that it is then a Virtue goes without
saying. No virtue can reach its highest usefulness without careful and
diligent cultivation--therefore, it goes without saying that this one
ought to be taught in the public schools--even in the newspapers. What
chance has the ignorant uncultivated liar against the educated expert?
What chance have I against Mr. Per--against a lawyer? _Judicious_ lying
is what the world needs. I sometimes think it were even better and safer
not to lie at all than to lie injudiciously. An awkward, unscientific
lie is often as ineffectual as the truth.

Now let us see what the philosophers say. Note that venerable proverb:
Children and fools _always_ speak the truth. The deduction is plain
--adults and wise persons _never_ speak it. Parkman, the historian, says,
"The principle of truth may itself be carried into an absurdity." In
another place in the same chapters he says, "The saying is old that
truth should not be spoken at all times; and those whom a sick
conscience worries into habitual violation of the maxim are imbeciles
and nuisances." It is strong language, but true. None of us could _live_
with an habitual truth-teller; but thank goodness none of us has to. An
habitual truth-teller is simply an impossible creature; he does not
exist; he never has existed. Of course there are people who _think_ they
never lie, but it is not so--and this ignorance is one of the very
things that shame our so-called civilization. Everybody lies--every day;
every hour; awake; asleep; in his dreams; in his joy; in his mourning;
if he keeps his tongue still, his hands, his feet, his eyes, his
attitude, will convey deception--and purposely. Even in sermons--but
that is a platitude.

In a far country where I once lived the ladies used to go around paying
calls, under the humane and kindly pretence of wanting to see each
other; and when they returned home, they would cry out with a glad
voice, saying, "We made sixteen calls and found fourteen of them out"
--not meaning that they found out anything important against the
fourteen--no, that was only a colloquial phrase to signify that they
were not at home--and their manner of saying it expressed their lively
satisfaction in that fact. Now their pretence of wanting to see the
fourteen--and the other two whom they had been less lucky with--was that
commonest and mildest form of lying which is sufficiently described as a
deflection from the truth. Is it justifiable? Most certainly. It is
beautiful, it is noble; for its object is, _not_ to reap profit, but to
convey a pleasure to the sixteen. The iron-souled truth-monger would
plainly manifest, or even utter the fact that he didn't want to see
those people--and he would be an ass, and inflict totally unnecessary
pain. And next, those ladies in that far country--but never mind, they
had a thousand pleasant ways of lying, that grew out of gentle impulses,
and were a credit to their intelligence and an honor to their hearts.
Let the particulars go.

The men in that far country were liars, every one. Their mere howdy-do
was a lie, because _they_ didn't care how you did, except they were
undertakers. To the ordinary inquirer you lied in return; for you made
no conscientious diagnostic of your case, but answered at random, and
usually missed it considerably. You lied to the undertaker, and said
your health was failing--a wholly commendable lie, since it cost you
nothing and pleased the other man. If a stranger called and interrupted
you, you said with your hearty tongue, "I'm glad to see you," and said
with your heartier soul, "I wish you were with the cannibals and it was
dinner-time." When he went, you said regretfully, "_Must_ you go?" and
followed it with a "Call again;" but you did no harm, for you did not
deceive anybody nor inflict any hurt, whereas the truth would have made
you both unhappy.

I think that all this courteous lying is a sweet and loving art, and
should be cultivated. The highest perfection of politeness is only a
beautiful edifice, built, from the base to the dome, of graceful and
gilded forms of charitable and unselfish lying.

What I bemoan is the growing prevalence of the brutal truth. Let us do
what we can to eradicate it. An injurious truth has no merit over an
injurious lie. Neither should ever be uttered. The man who speaks an
injurious truth lest his soul be not saved if he do otherwise, should
reflect that that sort of a soul is not strictly worth saving. The man
who tells a lie to help a poor devil out of trouble, is one of whom the
angels doubtless say, "Lo, here is an heroic soul who casts his own
welfare in jeopardy to succor his neighbor's; let us exalt this
magnanimous liar."

An injurious lie is an uncommendable thing; and so, also, and in the
same degree, is an injurious truth--a fact that is recognized by the law
of libel.

Among other common lies, we have the _silent_ lie--the deception which
one conveys by simply keeping still and concealing the truth. Many
obstinate truth-mongers indulge in this dissipation, imagining that if
they _speak_ no lie, they lie not at all. In that far country where I
once lived, there was a lovely spirit, a lady whose impulses were always
high and pure, and whose character answered to them. One day I was there
at dinner, and remarked, in a general way, that we are all liars. She
was amazed, and said, "Not _all_?" It was before "Pinafore's" time so I
did not make the response which would naturally follow in our day, but
frankly said, "Yes, _all_--we are all liars. There are no exceptions."
She looked almost offended, "Why, do you include _me_?" "Certainly," I
said. "I think you even rank as an expert." She said "Sh-'sh! the
children!" So the subject was changed in deference to the children's
presence, and we went on talking about other things. But as soon as the
young people were out of the way, the lady came warmly back to the
matter and said, "I have made a rule of my life to never tell a lie; and
I have never departed from it in a single instance." I said, "I don't
mean the least harm or disrespect, but really you have been lying like
smoke ever since I've been sitting here. It has caused me a good deal of
pain, because I'm not used to it." She required of me an instance--just
a single instance. So I said--

"Well, here is the unfilled duplicate of the blank, which the Oakland
hospital people sent to you by the hand of the sick-nurse when she came
here to nurse your little nephew through his dangerous illness. This
blank asks all manners of questions as to the conduct of that
sick-nurse: 'Did she ever sleep on her watch? Did she ever forget to
give the medicine?' and so forth and so on. You are warned to be very
careful and explicit in your answers, for the welfare of the service
requires that the nurses be promptly fined or otherwise punished for
derelictions. You told me you were perfectly delighted with this nurse
--that she had a thousand perfections and only one fault: you found you
never could depend on her wrapping Johnny up half sufficiently while he
waited in a chilly chair for her to rearrange the warm bed. You filled
up the duplicate of this paper, and sent it back to the hospital by the
hand of the nurse. How did you answer this question--'Was the nurse at
any time guilty of a negligence which was likely to result in the
patient's taking cold?' Come--everything is decided by a bet here in
California: ten dollars to ten cents you lied when you answered that
question." She said, "I didn't; _I left it blank!_" "Just so--you have
told a _silent_ lie; you have left it to be inferred that you had no
fault to find in that matter." She said, "Oh, was that a lie? And _how_
could I mention her one single fault, and she is so good?--It would have
been cruel." I said, "One ought always to lie, when one can do good by
it; your impulse was right, but your judgment was crude; this comes of
unintelligent practice. Now observe the results of this inexpert
deflection of yours. You know Mr. Jones's Willie is lying very low with
scarlet-fever; well, your recommendation was so enthusiastic that that
girl is there nursing him, and the worn-out family have all been
trustingly sound asleep for the last fourteen hours, leaving their
darling with full confidence in those fatal hands, because you, like
young George Washington, have a reputa--However, if you are not going to
have anything to do, I will come around to-morrow and we'll attend the
funeral together, for, of course, you'll naturally feel a peculiar
interest in Willie's case--as personal a one, in fact, as the

But that was not all lost. Before I was half-way through she was in a
carriage and making thirty miles an hour toward the Jones mansion to
save what was left of Willie and tell all she knew about the deadly
nurse. All of which was unnecessary, as Willie wasn't sick; I had been
lying myself. But that same day, all the same, she sent a line to the
hospital which filled up the neglected blank, and stated the _facts,_
too, in the squarest possible manner.

Now, you see, this lady's fault was _not_ in lying, but in lying
injudiciously. She should have told the truth, _there,_ and made it up
to the nurse with a fraudulent compliment further along in the paper.
She could have said, "In one respect this sick-nurse is perfection--when
she is on the watch, she never snores." Almost any little pleasant lie
would have taken the sting out of that troublesome but necessary
expression of the truth.

Lying is universal--we _all_ do it. Therefore, the wise thing is for us
diligently to train ourselves to lie thoughtfully, judiciously; to lie
with a good object, and not an evil one; to lie for others' advantage,
and not our own; to lie healingly, charitably, humanely, not cruelly,
hurtfully, maliciously; to lie gracefully and graciously, not awkwardly
and clumsily; to lie firmly, frankly, squarely, with head erect, not
haltingly, tortuously, with pusillanimous mien, as being ashamed of our
high calling. Then shall we be rid of the rank and pestilent truth that
is rotting the land; then shall we be great and good and beautiful, and
worthy dwellers in a world where even benign Nature habitually lies,
except when she promises execrable weather. Then--But am I but a new and
feeble student in this gracious art; I cannot instruct _this_ club.

Joking aside, I think there is much need of wise examination into what
sorts of lies are best and wholesomest to be indulged, seeing we _must_
all lie and we _do_ all lie, and what sorts it may be best to avoid--and
this is a thing which I feel I can confidently put into the hands of
this experienced Club--a ripe body, who may be termed, in this regard,
and without undue flattery, Old Masters.

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