Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/August 1892/Veracity

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COMPLETE truthfulness is one of the rarest of virtues. Even those who regard themselves as absolutely truthful are daily guilty of over-statements and under-statements. Exaggeration is almost universal. The perpetual use of the word "very," where the occasion does not call for it, shows how widely diffused and confirmed is the habit of misrepresentation. And this habit sometimes goes along with the loudest denunciations of falsehood. After much vehement talk about "the veracities," will come utterly unveracious accounts of things and people—accounts made unveracious by the use of emphatic words where ordinary words alone are warranted: pictures of which the outlines are correct but the lights and shades and colors are doubly and trebly as strong as they should be.

Here, among the countless deviations of statement from fact, we are concerned only with those in which form is wrong as well as color those in which the statement is not merely a perversion of the fact but, practically, an inversion of it. Chiefly, too, we have to deal with cases in which personal interests of one or other kind are the prompters to falsehood:—now the desire to inflict injury, as by false witness; now the desire to gain a material advantage; now the desire to escape a punishment or other threatened evil; now the desire to get favor by saying that which pleases. For in mankind at large, the love of truth for truth's sake, irrespective of ends, is but little exemplified.

Here let us contemplate some of the illustrations of veracity and unveracity—chiefly unveracity—furnished by various human races.

The members of wild tribes in different parts of the world, who, as hunters or as nomads, are more or less hostile to their neigbors, are nearly always reprobated by travelers for their untruthfulness; as are also the members of larger societies consolidated by conquest under despotic rulers.

Says Burton of the Dakotas—"The Indian, like other savages, never tells the truth." Of the Mishmis, Griffith writes—"They have so little regard for truth, that one can not rely much on what they say." And a general remark, à propos of the Kirghiz, is to the same effect. "Truth, throughout Central Asia, is subservient to the powerful, and the ruler who governs leniently commands but little respect."

Of the settled societies, the first to be named is the Fijian. Williams tells us that—

"Among the Fijians the propensity to lie is so strong, that they seem to have no wish to deny its existence. . . . Adroitness in lying is attained by the constant use made of it to conceal the schemes and plots of the Chiefs, to whom a ready and clever liar is a valuable acquisition. . . . 'A Fijian truth' has been regarded as a synonym for a lie."

Of kindred nature, under kindred conditions, is the trait displayed by the people of Uganda.

"In common with all savage tribes, truth is held in very low estimation, and it is never considered wrong to tell lies; indeed, a successful liar is considered a smart, clever fellow, and rather admired."

So, too, was it among the ancient semi-civilized peoples of Central America. De Laet says of certain of them, living under a despotic and bloody regime—"they are liars, like most of the Indians." And concerning the modern Indians, who may be supposed to have preserved more or less the character of their progenitors, Dunlop writes:—

"I never have found any native of Central America, who would admit that there could be any vice in lying; and when one has succeeded in cheating another, however gross and infamous the fraud may be, the natives will only remark, ’Que hombre vivo’ (What a clever fellow)."

A like fact is given by Mr. Foreman in his work on the Philippine Islands. He says the natives do not "appear to regard lying as a sin, but rather as a legitimate, though cunning, convenience."

The literatures of ancient semi-civilized peoples yield evidence of stages during which truth was little esteemed, or rather, during which lying was tacitly or openly applauded. As we saw in a recent chapter (§ 127) deception, joined with atrocity, was occasionally inculcated in the early Indian literature as a means to personal advancement. "We have proof in the Bible that, apart from the lying which constituted false witness, and was to the injury of a neighbor, there was among the Hebrews but little reprobation of lying. Indeed it would be remarkable were it otherwise, considering that Jahveh set the example; as when, to ruin Ahab, he commissioned "a lying spirit" (1 Kings, xxii, 22) to deceive his prophets; or as when, according to Ezekiel, xiv, 9, he threatened to use deception as a means of vengeance.

"If the prophet he deceived when he hath spoken a thing, I the Lord have deceived that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand upon him, and will destroy him from the midst of my people Israel."

Evidently from a race-character which evolved such a conception of a deity's principles, there naturally came no great regard for veracity. This we see in sundry cases; as when Isaac said Rebecca was not his wife but his sister, and nevertheless received the same year a bountiful harvest: "the Lord blessed him" (Genesis, xxvi, 12); or as when Rebecca induced Jacob to tell a lie to his father and defraud Esau—a lie not condemned but shortly followed by a divine promise of prosperity; or as when Jeremiah tells a falsehood at the king's suggestion. Nor do we find the standard much changed in the days of Christ and after: instance the case of Paul, who, apparently rather piquing himself on his "craft and guile," elsewhere defends his acts by contending that "the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory." (Romans, iii, 7.)

Much regard for veracity was hardly to be expected among the Greeks. In the Iliad the gods are represented not only as deceiving men but as deceiving one another. The chiefs "do not hesitate at all manner of lying." Pallas Athene is described as loving Ulysses because he is so deceitful; and, in the words of Mahaffy, the Homeric society is full of guile and falsehood."[2] Nor was it widely otherwise in later days. The trait alleged of the Cretans—"always liars"—though it may have been more marked in them than in Greeks at large, did not constitute an essential difference. Mahaffy describes Greek conduct in the Attic age as characterized by "treachery" and "selfish knavery," and says that Darius thought a Greek who kept his word a notable exception.

Evidence of the relation between chronic hostilities and utter disregard of truth, is furnished throughout the history of Europe. In the Merovingian period—"the era of blood"—oaths taken by rulers, even with their hands on the altar, were forthwith broken; and Salvian writes—"If a Frank forswear himself, where's the wonder, when he thinks perjury but a form of speech, not of crime?" After perpetual wars during the two hundred years of the Carolingian period, with Arabs, Saracens, Aquitanians, Saxons, Lombards, Slavs, Avars, Normans, came the early feudal period, of which H. Martin says:—

"The tenth [century] may pass for the era of fraud and deceit. At no other epoch of our history does the moral sense appear to have been so completely effaced from the human soul as in that first period of feudalism."

And then, as an accompaniment and consequence of the internal conflicts which ended in the establishment of the French monarchy, there was a still-continued treachery: the aristocracy in their relations with one another "were without truth, loyalty, or disinterestedness. . . . Neither life nor character was safe in their hands," Though Mr. Lecky ascribes the mediæval "indifference to truth" to other causes than chronic militancy, yet he furnishes a sentence which indirectly yields support to the induction here made, and is the more to be valued because it is not intended to yield such support. He remarks that ' ' where the industrial spirit has not penetrated, truthfulness rarely occupies in the popular mind the same prominent position in the catalogue of virtues "as it does among those" educated in the habits of industrial life."

Nor do we fail to see at the present time, in the contrasts between the Eastern and Western nations of Europe, a like relation of phenomena.

Reflection shows, however, that this relation is not a direct one. There is no immediate connection between bloodthirstiness and the telling of lies. Nor because a man is kind-hearted does it follow that he is truthful. If, as above implied, a life of amity is conducive to veracity, while a life of enmity fosters unveracity, the dependencies must be indirect. After glancing at some further facts, we shall understand better in what ways these traits of life and character are usually associated.

In respect of veracity, as in respect of other virtues, I have again to instance various aboriginal peoples who have been thrust by invading races into undesirable habitats; and have there been left either in absolute tranquillity or free from chronic hostilities with their neighbors. Saying of the Kois that they all seem to suffer from chronic fever (which sufficiently shows why they are left unmolested in their malarious wilds) Morris tells us that—

"They are noted for truthfulness, and are quite an example in this respect to the civilized and more cultivated inhabitants of the plains."

According to Shortt, in his Hill Ranges of Southern India

"A pleasing feature in their [Sowrahs] character is their complete truthfulness. They do not know how to tell a lie. They are not sufficiently civilized to be able to invent."

I may remark in passing that I have heard other Anglo-Indians assign lack of intelligence as the cause of this good trait a not very respectable endeavor to save the credit of the higher races. Considering that small children tell lies, and that lies are told, if not in speech yet in acts, by dogs, considerable hardihood is shown in ascribing the truthfulness of these and kindred peoples to stupidity. In his Highlands of Central India, Forsyth writes:—

"The aborigine is the most truthful of beings, and rarely denies either a money obligation or a crime really chargeable against him."

Describing the Râmósîs, Sinclair alleges that—

"They are as great liars as the most civilized races, differing in this from the Hill tribes proper, and from the Parwârîs, of whom I once knew a Brâhman to say: 'The Kunabîs, if they have made a promise, will keep it, but a Mahâr [Parwari] is such a fool that he will tell the truth without any reason at all.'"

And this opinion expressed by the Brahman, well illustrates the way in which their more civilized neighbors corrupt these veracious aborigines; for while Sherwill, writing of another tribe, says—"The truth is by a Sonthal held sacred, offering in this respect a bright example to their lying neighbors the Bengalis," it is remarked of them by Man that—

"Evil communications are exercising their baneful influences over them, and soon, I fear, the proverbial veracity of the Sonthal will cease to become a byword."

In The Principles of Sociology, vol. ii, §§ 437 and 574, I gave the names of others of these Indian hill-tribes noted for veracity—the Bodo and Dhimáls, the Carnatic aborigines, the Todas, the Hos; and here I may add one more, the Puluyans, whose refuge is "hemmed in on all sides by mountains, woods, backwaters, swamps, and the sea," and who "are sometimes distinguished by a rare character for truth and honor, which their superiors in the caste scale might well emulate." So too is it in a neighboring land, Ceylon. Wood-Veddahs are described as "proverbially truthful and honest." From other regions there comes kindred evidence. Of some Northern Asiatic peoples, who are apparently without any organization for offense or defense, we read:—"To the credit of the Ostiaks and Samoieds it must be said, that they are eminently distinguished for integrity and truthfulness."

But now we have to note facts which make us pause. There are instances of truthfulness among peoples who are but partially peaceful, and among others who are anything but peaceful. Though characterized as "mild, quiet, and timid," the Hottentots have not infrequent wars about territories; and yet, in agreement with Barrow, Kolben says—

The Word of a Hottentot "is sacred: and there is hardly any Thing upon Earth they look upon as a fouler Crime than Breach of Engagement."

Morgan, writing of the Iroquois, states that "the love of truth was another marked trait of the Indian character." And yet, though the Iroquois league was formed avowedly for the preservation of peace, and achieved this end in respect of its component nations, these nations carried on hostilities with their neighbors. The Patagonian tribes have frequent fights with one another, as well as with the aggressive Spaniards; and yet Snow says—"A lie with them is held in detestation." The Khonds, too, who believe that truthfulness is one of the most sacred duties imposed by the gods, have "sanguinary conflicts" between tribes respecting their lands. And of the Kolîs, inhabiting the highlands of the Dekhan, we read that though "manly, simple and truthful," they are "great plunderers" and guilty of "unrelenting cruelty."

What is there in common between these truthful and pacific tribes and these truthful tribes which are more or less warlike? The common trait is that they are not subject to coercive rule. That this is so with tribes which are peaceful, I have shown elsewhere (Principles of Sociology, ii, §§ 573-4); and here we come upon the significant fact that it is so, too, with truthful tribes which are not peaceful. The Hottentots are governed by an assembly deciding by a majority, and the head men have but little authority. The Iroquois were under the control of a council of fifty elected sachems, who could be deposed by their tribes; and military expeditions, led by chiefs chosen for merit, were left to private enterprise and voluntary service. Among the Patagonians there was but feeble government: followers deserting their chiefs if dissatisfied. Writing of the Khonds' "system of society" Macpherson says—"The spirit of equality pervades its whole constitution, society is governed by the moral influence of its natural heads alone, to the entire exclusion of the principle of coercive authority."

In the remarks of sundry travelers, we find evidence that it is the presence or absence of despotic rule which leads to prevalent falsehood or prevalent truth.

Reference to the Reports on the Discovery of Peru of Xeres and Pizarro (pp. 68-9, 85-6, 114-120), makes it manifest that the general untruthfulness described was due to the intimidation the Indians were subject to. So, too, respecting the Mexicans, the Franciscan testimony was—"They are liars, but to those who treat them well they speak the truth readily." A clear conception of the relation between mendacity and fear was given to Livingstone by his experiences. Speaking of the falsehood of the East Africans he says

"But great as this failing is among the free, it is much more annoying among the slaves. One can scarcely induce a slave to translate anything truly: he is so intent on thinking of what will please."

And he further remarks that "untruthfulness is a sort of refuge for the weak and oppressed."

A glance over civilized communities at once furnishes verification. Of European peoples, those subject to the most absolute rule, running down from their autocrat through all grades, are the Russians; and their extreme untruthfulness is notorious. Among the Egyptians, long subject to a despotism administered by despotic officials, a man prides himself on successful lying, and will even ascribe a defect of his work to failure in deceiving some one. Then we have the case of the Hindus, who, in their early days irresponsibly governed, afterwards subject for a long period to the brutal rule of the Mahometans, and since that time to the scarcely-less brutal rule of the Christians, are so utterly untruthful that oaths in Courts of Justice are of no avail, and lying is confessed to without shame. Histories tell like tales of a mendacity which, beginning with the ruled, infects the rulers. Writing of the later feudal period in France, Michelet says: "It is curious to trace from year to year the lies and tergiversations of the royal false coiner"; but nowadays political deceptions in France, though still practiced, are nothing like so gross. Nor has it been otherwise among ourselves. If with the "universal and loathsome treachery of which every statesman of every party was continually guilty," during Elizabeth's reign, while monarchical power was still but little qualified, we contrast the veracity of statesmen in recent days, we see a kindred instance of the relations between the untruthfulness which accompanies tyranny and the truthfulness which arises along with increase of liberty.

Hence such connections as we trace between mendacity and a life of external enmity, and between veracity and a life of internal amity, are not due to any direct relations between violence and lying and between peacefulness and truth-telling; but are due to the coercive social structure which chronic external enmity develops, and to the non-coercive social structure developed by a life of internal amity. To which it should be added that under the one set of conditions there is little or no ethical, or rather pro-ethical, reprobation of lying; while under the other set of conditions the pro-ethical reprobation of lying, and in considerable measure the ethical reprobation, become strong.

  1. From The Principles of Ethics, vol. i, by Herbert Spencer. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1892.
  2. Marvelous are the effects of educational bias. Familiarity with the doings of these people, guilty of so many "atrocities," characterized by such "revolting cruelty of manners," as Grote says, who were liars through all grades from their gods down to their slaves, and whose religion was made up of gross and brutal superstitions, distinguishes one of our leading statesmen; and, joined to familiarity with the doings of other Greeks, is thought by him to furnish the best possible preparation for life of the highest kind. In a speech at Eton, reported in The Times, of 16 March, 1891, Mr. Gladstone said—"If the purpose of education is to fit the human mind for the efficient performance of the greatest functions, the ancient culture, and, above all, Greek culture, is by far the best, the most lasting, and the most elastic instrument that can possibly be applied to it." Other questions aside, one might ask with puzzled curiosity which of Mr. Gladstone's creeds, as a statesman, it is which we must ascribe to the influence of Greek culture—whether the creed with which he set out as a Tory when fresh from Oxford, or the extreme radical creed which he has adopted of late years?