The Power of Lying

by Miguel Balbuena

In a column written on January 8 for the London-based newspaper Financial Times, John Thornhill seemed to suggest that having the capacity to lie is what distinguishes humans from non-human animals.

Furthermore, In his piece he made it sound as if lying is not such an easy game to play.

“Lying is a complicated business involving the masking of intention, an understanding of context and human psychology, and the coexistence of two versions of reality, one true, one false,” Thornhill wrote.

Then, he went on to quote Max Tegmark, a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as having said, in his book “Life 3.0,” that consciousness enables meaning, and meaning is tied to the ability to appreciate subjective experiences, which this scientist called sentience. From here Tegmark postulated changing the categorization of the human species from Homo sapiens to Homo sentiens.

“Truth, it has been said, is the first casualty of war,” wrote the 1st Viscount Snowden in 1916, when he was a member of the British House of Commons. Later on, the Nazis even established a government agency, the German Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, which perfected lying to an exact science in World War II and its run-up. It was headed by Joseph Goebbels between 1933 and 1945. Another Nazi politician, Hermann Goering, the creator of the Gestapo, said: “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked.”

But even in peacetime, it is alleged that lying in a massive scale can be encouraged.

“Lie, lie, that something is left.” This quote was on the blackboard when I came into my classroom after lunch break, during my senior year in high school, for what was supposed to be a religion lecture. The professor, Luis Fernando Figari, who wrote it, said authoritatively that the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire had penned this quote.

Voltaire was one of the major figures of the French Age of Reason – along with Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot and Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert. It seemed incongruous to me that Voltaire, having been an advocate for reason, all of a sudden would have started promoting lying as a way of life; as a general, systematic principle.

I had been sympathetic to Voltaire since my junior year when my world history professor, Humberto Arredondo, told my class that this philosopher had used humor in his writings to undermine the oppressive Bourbon absolutist monarchy to the point that King Louis XVI blamed him for having “destroyed” the royal dynastic rule over the masses.

Figari went on to suggest that students’ parents had complained about him to the school’s principal. He didn’t disclosed the nature of the grievances against him nor the specific identity of his accusers. The funny thing is that Voltaire never said verbatim what Figari attributed to him.

In fact, in his letter to Nicolas-Claude Thieriot on Oct. 21, 1736, Voltaire literally wrote, “Lie, my friends, lie; I will repay you one day.’

But the context of the letter explained everything. Earlier on, Voltaire had produced the play “The prodigal son.” As he wanted its audience to appraise it on its merits, not being biased by knowing who its author was, he sent letters to his best buddies Berger and Thieriot, who were in the secret, asking them to keep concealed the playwright’s name from the public.

By distorting Voltaire’s explicit text and hiding its context, Figari – while claiming to be defending himself from parents’ defamation – was himself defaming Voltaire either consciously or by gross negligence by not having verify his sources.

After he was done with Voltaire, he did the same thing to Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes.

“They bark Sancho, sign that we move forward” was the second quote that Figari had chalked on the blackboard to respond to his unnamed critics. He attributed it to Alonso Quixano, the main character of Cervantes’ book “Don Quixote de la Mancha”.

It turns out that this phrase is not in any of Cervantes’ publications.

About the author: Miguel Balbuena is a writer in the academic, scientific, journalistic and literary fields (in the fiction and non-fiction genres).

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