A Lie Never Justifiable by H. Clay TrumbullA Study in Ethics

A LIE NEVER JUSTIFIABLE A Study in Ethics BY H. CLAY TRUMBULL 1856 PREFACE. That there was need of a book on the subject of which this treats, will be evidenced to those who examine its contents. Whether this book meets the need, it is for those to decide who are its readers. The circumstances
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A Study in Ethics





That there was need of a book on the subject of which this treats, will be evidenced to those who examine its contents. Whether this book meets the need, it is for those to decide who are its readers.

The circumstances of its writing are recited in its opening chapter. I was urged to the undertaking by valued friends. At every step in its progress I have been helped by those friends, and others. For much of that which is valuable in it, they deserve credit. For its imperfections and lack, I alone am at fault.

Although I make no claim to exhaustiveness of treatment in this work, I do claim to have attempted a treatment that is exceptionally comprehensive and thorough. My researches have included extensive and varied fields of fact and of thought, even though very much in those fields has been left ungathered. What is here presented is at least suggestive of the abundance and richness of the matter available in this line.

While not presuming to think that I have said the last word on this question of the ages, I do venture to hope that I have furnished fresh material for its more intelligent consideration. It may be that, in view of the data here presented, some will settle the question finally for themselves–by settling it right.

If the work tends to bring any considerable number to this practical issue, I shall be more than repaid for the labor expended on it; for I have a profound conviction that it is the question of questions in ethics, now as always.



August 14,1893




Is a Lie Ever Justifiable?–Two Proffered Answers.–Inducements and Temptations Influencing a Decision.–Incident in Army Prison Life.–Difference in Opinion.–Killing Enemy, or Lying to Him.–Killing, but not Lying, Possibility with God.–Beginning of this Discussion.–Its Continuance.–Origin of this Book.



Standards and Practices of Primitive Peoples.–Sayings and Doings of Hindoos.–Teachings of the Mahabharata.–Harischandra and Viswamitra, the Job and Satan of Hindoo Passion-Play.–Scandinavian Legends.–Fridthjof and Ingeborg.–Persian Ideals.–Zoroastrian Heaven and Hell.–“Home of Song,” and “Home of the Lie.”–Truth the Main Cardinal Virtue with Egyptians.–No Hope for the Liar.–Ptah, “Lord of Truth.”–Truth Fundamental to Deity.–Relatively Low Standard of Greeks.–Incidental Testimony of Herodotus.–Truthfulness of Achilles.–Plato.–Aristotle.–Theognis.–Pindar.–Tragedy of Philoctetes.–Roman Standard.–Cicero.–Marcus Aurelius.–German Ideal.–Veracity a Primitive Conception.–Lie Abhorrent among Hill Tribes of India.–Khonds.–Sonthals.–Todas.–Bheels.–Sowrahs.– Tipperahs.–Arabs.–American Indians.–Patagonians.–Hottentots.– East Africans.–Mandingoes.–Dyaks of Borneo,–“Lying Heaps.”–Veddahs of Ceylon.–Javanese.–Lying Incident of Civilization.–Influence of Spirit of Barter.–“Punic Faith.”–False Philosophy of Morals.



Principles, not Rules, the Bible Standard.–Two Pictures of Paradise.–Place of Liars.–God True, though Men Lie.–Hebrew Midwives.–Jacob and Esau.–Rahab the Lying Harlot.–Samuel at Bethlehem.–Micaiah before Jehoshaphat and Ahab.–Character and Conduct.–Abraham.–Isaac.–Jacob.–David.–Ananias and Sapphira.–Bible Injunctions and Warnings.



Importance of a Definition.–Lie Positive, and Lie Negative.–Speech and Act.–Element of Intention.–Concealment Justifiable, and Concealment Unjustifiable.–Witness in Court.–Concealment that is Right.–Concealment that is Sinful.–First Duty of Fallen Man.–Brutal Frankness.–Indecent Exposure of Personal Opinion.–Lie Never Tolerable as Means of Concealing.–False Leg or Eye.–Duty of Disclosure Conditioned on Relations to Others.–Deception Purposed, and Resultant Deception.–Limits of Responsibility for Results of Action.–Surgeon Refusing to Leave Patient.–Father with Drowning Child.–Mother and Wife Choosing.–Others Self-Deceived concerning Us.–Facial Expression.–“A Blind Patch.”–Broken Vase.–Closed Shutters in Midsummer.–Opened Shutters.–Absent Man’s Hat in Front Hall.–When Concealment is Proper.–When Concealment is Wrong.–Contagious Diseases.–Selling a Horse or Cow.–Covering Pit.–Wearing Wig.–God’s Method with Man.–Delicate Distinction.– Truthful Statements Resulting in False Impressions.–Concealing Family Trouble.–Physician and Inquiring Patient.–Illustrations Explain Principle, not Define it.



Quaker and Dry-goods Salesman.–Supposed Profitableness of Lying.–Plea for “Lies of Necessity.”–Lying not Justifiable between Enemies in War-time.–Rightfulness of Concealing Movements and Plans from Enemy.–Responsibility with Flag of Truce.–Difference between Scout and Spy.–Ethical Distinctions Recognized by Belligerents.–Illustration: Federal Prisoner Questioned by Confederate Captors.–Libby Prison Experiences.–Physicians and Patients.–Concealment not Necessarily Deception.–Loss of Reputation for Truthfulness by Lying Physicians.–Loss of Power Thereby.–Impolicy of Lying to Insane.–Dr. Kirkbride’s Testimony.–Life not Worth Saving by Lie.–Concealing One’s Condition from Robber in Bedroom.–Questions of Would-be Murderer.–“Do Right though the Heavens Fall.”–Duty to God not to be Counted out of Problem.–Deserting God’s Service by Lying.–Parting Prayer.



Wide Differences of Opinion.–Views of Talmudists.–Hamburger’s Testimony.–Strictness in Principle.–Exceptions in Practice.–Isaac Abohab’s Testimony.–Christian Fathers not Agreed.–Martyrdom Price of Truthtelling.–Justin Martyr’s Testimony.–Temptations of Early Christians.–Words of Shepherd of Hermas.–Tertullian’s Estimate.–Origen on False Speaking.–Peter and Paul at Antioch.– Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great.–Deceit in Interests of Harmony.–Chrysostom’s Deception of Basil.–Chrysostom’s Defense of Deceit.–Augustine’s Firmness of Position.–Condemnation of Lying.–Examination of Excuses.–Jerome’s Weakness and Error.–Final Agreement with Augustine.–Repetition of Arguments of Augustine and Chrysostom.–Representative Disputants.–Thomas Aquinas.–Masterly Discussion.–Errors of Duns Scotus.–John Calvin.–Martin Luther.– Ignatius Loyola.–Position of Jesuits.–Protestants Defending Lying. –Jeremy Taylor.–Errors and Inconsistencies.–Wrong Definitions.– Misapplication of Scripture.–Richard Rothe.–Character, Ability, and Influence. in Definition of Lie.–Failure to Recognize.–Error Love to God as Only Basis of Love to Man.–Exceptions in Favor of Lying.–Nitzsch’s Claim of Wiser and Nobler Methods than Lying in Love.–Rothe’s Claim of Responsibility of Loving Guardianship–No Countenance of Deception in Example of Jesus.–Prime Error of Rothe. –Opinions of Contemporary Critics.–Isaac Augustus Dorner.– Character and Principles.–Keen Definitions.–High Standards.– Clearness and Consistency.–Hans Lassen Martensen.–Logic Swayed by Feeling.–Right Premises and Wavering Reasonings.–Lofty Ideals.– Story of Jeanie Deans.–Correct Conclusions.–Influence of Personal Peculiarities on Ethical Convictions.–Contrast of Charles Hodge and James H. Thornwell.–Dr. Hodge’s Correct Premises and Amiable Inconsistencies.–Truth the Substratum of Deity.–Misconceptions of Bible Teachings.–Suggestion of Deception by Jesus Christ.–Error as to General Opinion of Christians.–Dr. Hodge’s Conclusions Crushed by his Premises.–Dr. Thornwell’s Thorough Treatment of Subject.– Right Basis.–Sound Argument.–Correct Definitions.–Firmness for Truth.–Newman Smyth’s Manual.–Good Beginning and Bad Ending.– Confusion of Terms.–Inconsistencies in Argument.–Loose Reasoning. –Dangerous Teachings.–James Martineau.–Fine Moral Sense.–Conflict between Feeling and Conviction.–Safe Instincts.–Thomas Fowler.– Higher Expediency of Veracity.–Importance to General Good.–Leslie Stephen.–Duty of Veracity Result of Moral Progress.–Kant and Fichte.–Jacobi Misrepresented.–False Assumptions by Advocates of Lie of Necessity.–Enemies in Warfare not Justified in Lying.–Testimony of Cicero.–Macaulay on Lord Clive’s Treachery.–Woolsey on International Law.–No Place for Lying in Medical Ethics.–Opinions and Experiences of Physicians.–Pliny’s Story of Roman Matron.–Victor Hugo’s Sister Simplice.–Words of Abbe Sicard.–Tact and Principle.–Legal Ethics.–Whewell’s View.–Opinion of Chief-Justice Sharswood.–Mistakes of Dr. Hodge.–Lord Brougham’s Claim.–False Charge against Charles Phillips.–Chancellor Kent on Moral Obligations in Law and in Equity.–Clerical Profession Chiefly Involved.–Clergymen for and against Lying.–Temptation to Lies of Love.–Supreme Importance of Sound Principle.–Duty of Veracity to Lower Animals.–Dr. Dabney’s View.–Views of Dr. Newman Smyth.–Duty of Truthfulness an Obligation toward God.–Lower Animals not Exempt from Principle of Universal Application.–Fishing.–Hunting.–Catching Horse.–Professor Bowne’s Psychological View.–No Place for Lying in God’s Universe.–Small Improvement on Chrysostom’s Argument for Lying.–Limits of Consistency in Logical Plea.–God, or Satan.



One All-Dividing Line.–Primal and Eternal Difference.–Lie Inevitably Hostile to God.–Lying Separates from God.–Sin _per se_.–Perjury Justifiable if Lying be Justifiable.–Lying–Lying Defiles Liar, apart from Questions of Gain in Lying.–Social Evils Resultant from Lying.–Confidence Essential to Society.–Lying Destructive of Confidence.–Lie Never Harmless.





Whether a lie is ever justifiable, is a question that has been in discussion, not only in all the Christian centuries, but ever since questions concerning human conduct were first a possibility. On the one hand, it has been claimed that a lie is by its very nature irreconcilable with the eternal principles of justice and right; and, on the other hand, it has been asserted that great emergencies may necessitate a departure from all ordinary rules of human conduct, and that therefore there may be, in an emergency, such a thing as the “lie of necessity.”

It is not so easy to consider fairly a question like this in the hour when vital personal interests pivot on the decision, as it is in a season of rest and safety; yet, if in a time of extremest peril the unvarying duty of truthfulness shines clearly through an atmosphere of sore temptation, that light may be accepted as diviner because of its very power to penetrate clouds and to dispel darkness. Being forced to consider, in an emergency, the possible justification of the so-called “lie of necessity,” I was brought to a settlement of that question in my own mind, and have since been led to an honest endeavor to bring others to a like settlement of it. Hence this monograph.

In the summer of 1863 I was a prisoner of war in Columbia, South Carolina. The Federal prisoners were confined in the common jail, under military guard, and with no parole binding them not to attempt an escape. They were subject to the ordinary laws of war. Their captors were responsible for their detention in imprisonment, and it was their duty to escape from captivity, and to return to the army of the government to which they owed allegiance, if they could do so by any right means. No obligations were on them toward their captors, save those which are binding at all times, even when a state of war suspends such social duties as are merely conventional.

Only he who has been a prisoner of war in a Southern prison in midsummer, or in a Northern prison in the dead of winter, in time of active hostilities outside, can fully realize the heart-longings of a soldier prisoner to find release from his sufferings in confinement, and to be again at his post of duty at the front, or can understand how gladly such a man would find a way, consistent with the right, to escape, at any involved risk. But all can believe that plans of escape were in frequent discussion among the restless Federal prisoners in Columbia, of whom I was one.

A plan proposed to me by a fellow-officer seemed to offer peculiar chances of success, and I gladly joined in it. But as its fuller details were considered, I found that a probable contingency would involve the telling of a lie to an enemy, or a failure of the whole plan. At this my moral sense recoiled; and I expressed my unwillingness to tell a lie, even to regain my personal liberty or to advantage my government by a return to its army. This opened an earnest discussion of the question whether there is such a thing as a “lie of necessity,” or a justifiable lie. My friend was a pure-minded man of principle, ready to die for his convictions; and he looked at this question with a sincere desire to know the right, and to conform to it. He argued that a condition of war suspended ordinary social relations between the combatants, and that the obligation of truth-speaking was one of the duties thus suspended. I, on the other hand, felt that a lie was necessarily a sin against God, and therefore was never justifiable.

My friend asked me whether I would hesitate to kill an enemy who was on guard over me, or whom I met outside, if it were essential to our escape. I replied that I would not hesitate to do so, any more than I would hesitate at it if we were over against each other in battle. In time of war the soldiers of both sides take the risks of a life-and-death struggle; and now that we were unparoled prisoners it was our duty to escape if we could do so, even at the risk of our lives or of the lives of our captors, and it was their duty to prevent our escape at a similar risk. My friend then asked me on what principle I could justify the taking of a man’s life as an enemy, and yet not feel justified in telling him a lie in order to save his life and secure our liberty. How could it be claimed that it was more of a sin to tell a lie to a man who had forfeited his social rights, than to kill him. I confessed that I could not at that time see the reason for the distinction, which my moral sense assured me was a real one, and I asked time to think of it. Thus it was that I came first to face a question of the ages, Is a lie ever justifiable? under circumstances that involved more than life to me, and when I had a strong inducement to see the force of reasons in favor of a “lie of necessity.”

In my careful study, at that time, of the principles involved in this question, I came upon what seemed to me the conclusion of the whole matter. God is the author of life. He who gives life has the right to take it again. What God can do by himself, God can authorize another to do. Human governments derive their just powers from God. The powers that be are ordained of God. A human government acts for God in the administering of justice, even to the extent of taking life. If a war waged by a human government be righteous, the officers of that government take life, in the prosecution of the war, as God’s agents. In the case then in question, we who were in prison as Federal officers were representatives of our government, and would be justified in taking the lives of enemies of our government who hindered us as God’s agents in the doing of our duty to God and to our government.

On the other hand, God, who can justly take life, cannot lie. A lie is contrary to the very nature of God. “It is impossible for God to lie.”[1] And if God cannot lie, God cannot authorize another to lie. What is unjustifiable in God’s sight, is without a possibility of justification in the universe. No personal or social emergency can justify a lie, whatever may be its apparent gain, or whatever harm may seem to be involved in a refusal to speak it. Therefore we who were Federal prisoners in war-time could not be justified in doing what was a sin _per se_, and what God was by his very nature debarred from authorizing or approving. I could see no way of evading this conclusion, and I determinedly refused to seek release from imprisonment at the cost of a sin against God.

[Footnote 1: Heb. 6: 18]

At this time I had no special familiarity with ethics as a study, and I was unacquainted with the prominence of the question of the “lie of necessity” in that realm of thought. But on my return from army service, with my newly awakened interest in the subject, I came to know how vigorous had been its discussion, and how varied had been the opinions with reference to it, among philosophic thinkers in all the centuries; and I sought to learn for myself what could be known concerning the principles involved in this question, and their practical application to the affairs of human life. And now, after all these years of study and thought, I venture to make my contribution to this phase of Christian ethics, in an exhibit of the facts and principles which have gone to confirm the conviction of my own moral sense, when first I was called to consider this question as a question.



The habit of lying is more or less common among primitive peoples, as it is among those of higher cultivation; but it is of interest to note that widely, even among them, the standard of truthfulness as a duty is recognized as the correct standard, and lying is, in theory at least, a sin. The highest conception of right observable among primitive peoples, and not the average conformity to that standard in practice, is the true measure of right in the minds of such peoples. If we were to look at the practices of such men in times of temptation, we might be ready to say sweepingly with the Psalmist, in his impulsiveness, “I said in my haste, All men are liars!”[1] But if we fixed our minds on the loftiest conception of truthfulness as an invariable duty, recognized by races of men who are notorious as liars, we should see how much easier it is to have a right standard than to conform to it.

[Footnote 1: Psa. 116: II.]

A careful observer of the people of India, who was long a resident among them,[1] says: “More systematic, more determined, liars, than the people of the East, cannot, in my opinion, be found in the world. They often utter falsehoods without any apparent reason; and even when truth would be an advantage, they will not tell it…. Yet, strange to say, some of their works and sayings represent a falsehood as almost the unpardonable sin. Take the following for an example: ‘The sin of killing a Brahman is as great as that of killing a hundred cows; and the sin of killing a hundred cows is as great as that of killing a woman; the sin of killing a hundred women is as great as that of killing a child in the womb; and the sin of killing a hundred [children] in the womb is as great as that of telling a lie.'”

[Footnote 1: Joseph Roberts, in his _Oriental Illustrations_, p. 580.]

The Mahabharata is one of the great epics of ancient India. It contains a history of a war between two rival families, or peoples, and its text includes teachings with reference to “everything that it concerned a cultivated Hindoo to know.” The heroes in this recorded war, between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, are in the habit of lying without stint; yet there is evidence that they recognized the sin of lying even to an enemy in time of war, and when a decisive advantage might be gained by it. At a point in the combat when Yudhishthira, a leader of the Pandavas, was in extremity in his battling with Drona, a leader of the Kauravas, the divine Krishna told Yudhishthira that, if he would tell Drona (for in these mythical contests the combatants were usually within speaking distance of each other) that his loved “son Aswatthanea was dead, the old warrior would immediately lay down his arms and become an easy prey.” But Yudhishthira “had never been known to tell a falsehood,” and in this instance he “utterly refused to tell a lie, even to secure the death of so powerful an enemy.” [1] Although it came about that Drona was, as a matter of fact, defeated by treachery, the sin of lying, even in time of war, and to an enemy, is clearly brought out as a recognized principle of both theory and action among the ancient Hindoos.

[Footnote 1: See Wheeler’s _History of India_, I., 321.]

There is a famous passion-play popular in Southern India and Ceylon, which illustrates the Hindoo ideal of truthfulness at every risk or cost. Viswamitra, the tempter and accuser as represented in the Vedas, appears in the council of the gods, face to face with Indra. The question is raised by Indra, who is the most virtuous sovereign on earth. He asks, “What chief of mortals is there, who has never told a lie?” Harischandra, king of Ayodiah (Oude) is named as such a man. Viswamitra denies it. It is agreed (as in the testing of Job, according to the Bible story) that Viswamitra may employ any means whatsoever for the inducing of Harischandra to lie, unhindered by Indra or any other god. If he succeeds in his effort, he shall secure to himself all the merit of the good deeds of Harischandra; but if Harischandra cannot be induced to lie, Viswamitra must add half his merit to that of Harischandra.[1]

[Footnote 1: Arichandra, the Martyr of Truth: A Tamil Drama translated into English by Muta Coomara Swamy; cited in Conway’s _Demonology and Devil Lore_, II., 35-43.]

First, Viswamitra induces Harischandra to become the custodian of a fabulous treasure, with a promise to deliver it up when called for. Then he brings him into such a strait that he must give up to Viswamitra all his possessions, including that treasure and his kingdom, in order to retain his personal virtue. After this, Viswamitra demands the return by Harischandra of the gold which has been already surrendered, claiming that its surrender was not according to the contract. In this emergency Viswamitra suggests, that if Harischandra will only deny that he owes this amount to his enemy the debt shall at once be canceled. “Such a declaration I can never make,” says Harischandra. “I owe thee the gold, and pay it I will.”

From this time forward the efforts of Viswamitra are directed to the inducing of Harischandra to say that he is not in debt to his adversary; but in every trial Harischandra refuses to tell a lie. His only son dies in the desert. He and his wife are in poverty and sorrow; while all the time he is told that his kingdom and his treasures shall be restored to him, if he will tell only one lie. At last his wife is condemned to death on a false accusation, and he is appointed, by the sovereign of the land where she and he have been sold as slaves, to be her executioner. She calls on him to do his duty, and strike off her head. Just then Viswamitra appears to him, saying: “Wicked man, spare her! Tell a lie even now, and be restored to your former state!”

Harischandra’s answer is: “Even though thou didst offer to me the throne of Indra, I would not tell a lie.” And to his wife, Chandravati, he says encouragingly: “This keen saber will do its duty. Thou dead, thy husband dies too–this selfsame sword shall pierce my breast…. Yes, let all men perish, let all gods cease to exist, let the stars that shine above grow dim, let all seas be dried up, let all mountains be leveled to the ground, let wars rage, blood flow in streams, let millions of millions of Harischandras be thus persecuted; yet let truth be maintained, let truth ride victorious over all, let truth be the light,–truth alone the lasting solace of mortals and immortals.”

As Harischandra strikes at the neck of Chandravati, “the sword, instead of harming her, is transformed into a necklace of pearls, which winds itself around her. The gods of heaven, all sages, and all kings, appear suddenly to the view of Harischandra,” and Siva, the first of the gods, commends him for his fidelity to truth, and tells him that his dead son shall be brought again to life, and his kingdom and treasures and honors shall be restored to him. And thus the story of Harischandra stands as a rebuke to the Christian philosopher who could suppose that God, or the gods, would co-work with a man who acted on the supposition that there is such an anomaly in the universe as “a lie of necessity.”

The old Scandinavian heroes were valiant in war, but they held that a lie was not justifiable under any pressure of an emergency. Their Valhalla heaven was the home of those who had fought bravely; but there was no place for liars in it. A fine illustration of their conception of the unvarying duty of truthfulness is given in the saga of Fridthjof. Fridthjof, heroic son of Thorstein, loved Ingeborg, daughter of his father’s friend, King Bele. Ingeborg’s brother Helge, successor to his father’s throne, opposed the match, and shut her up within the sacred enclosure of the god Balder. Fridthjof ventured within the forbidden ground, in order to pledge to her his manly troth. The lovers were pure in purpose and in act, but, if their interview were known, they would both be permanently harmed in reputation and in standing. A rumor of their secret meeting was circulated, and Fridthjof was summoned before the council of heroes to answer to the charge. If ever a lie were justifiable, it would seem to be when a pure woman’s honor was at stake, and when a hero’s happiness and power for good pivoted on it. Fridthjof tells to Ingeborg the story of his sore temptation when, in the presence of the council, Helge challenges his course.

“‘Say, Fridthjof, Balder’s peace hast thou not broken, Not seen my sister in his house while Day Concealed himself, abashed, before your meeting? Speak! yea or nay!’ Then echoed from the ring Of crowded warriors, ‘Say but nay, say nay! Thy simple word we’ll trust; we’ll court for thee,–Thou, Thorstein’s son, art good as any king’s. Say nay! say nay! and thine is Ingeborg!’ ‘The happiness,’ I answered, ‘of my life On one word hangs; but fear not therefore, Helge! I would not lie to gain the joys of Valhal, Much less this earth’s delights. I’ve seen thy sister, Have spoken with her in the temple’s night, But have not therefore broken Balder’s peace!’ More none would hear. A murmur of deep horror The diet traversed; they who nearest stood Drew back, as I had with the plague been smitten.”[1]

[Footnote 1: Anderson’s _Viking Tales of the North_, p. 223.]

And so, because Fridthjof would not lie, he lost his bride and became a wanderer from his land, and Ingeborg became the wife of another; and this record is to this day told to the honor of Fridthjof, in accordance with the standard of the North in the matter of truth-telling.

In ancient Persia, the same high standard prevailed. Herodotus says of the Persians: “The most disgraceful thing in the world, they think, is to tell a lie; the next worse, to owe a debt; because, among other reasons, the debtor is obliged to tell lies.”[1] “Their sons are carefully instructed, from their fifth to their twentieth year, in three things alone,–to ride, to draw the bow, and to speak the truth.”[2] Here the one duty in the realm of morals is truth-telling. In the famous inscription of Darius, the son of Hystaspes, on the Rock of Behistun,[3] there are repeated references to lying as the chief of sins, and to the evil time when lying was introduced into Persia, and “the lie grew in the provinces, in Persia as well as in Media and in the other provinces.” Darius claims to have had the help of “Ormuzd and the other gods that may exist,” because he “was not wicked, nor a liar;” and he enjoins it on his successor to “punish severely him who is a liar or a rebel.”

[Footnote 1: Rawlinson’s _Herodotus_, Bk. I., sec. 139.]

[Footnote 2: _Ibid_., Bk. I., sec. 136.]

[Footnote 3: Sayce’s _Introduction to Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther_, pp. 120-137.]

The Zoroastrian designation of heaven was the “Home of Song;” while hell was known as the “Home of the Lie.”[1] There was in the Zoroastrian thought only two rival principles in the universe, represented by Ormuzd and Ahriman, as the God of truth, and the father of lies; and the lie was ever and always an offspring of Ahriman, the evil principle: it could not emanate from or be consistent with the God of truth. The same idea was manifest in the designation of the subordinate divinities of the Zoroastrian religion. Mithra was the god of light, and as there is no concealment in the light, Mithra was also god of truth. A liar was the enemy of righteousness.[2]

[Footnote 1: Mueller’s _Sacred Books of the East_, XXXI., 184.]

[Footnote 2: Mueller’s _Sacred Books of the East_, XXIII., 119 f., 124 f., 128, 139. See reference to Jackson’s paper on “the ancient Persians’ abhorrence of falsehood, illustrated from the Avesta,” in _Journal of Am. Oriental Soc_., Vol. XIII., p. cii.]

“Truth was the main cardinal virtue among the Egyptians,” and “falsehood was considered disgraceful among them.”[1] Ra and Ma were symbols of Light and Truth; and their representation was worn on the breastplate of priest and judge, like the Urim and Thummim of the Hebrews.[2] When the soul appeared in the Hall of Two Truths, for final judgment, it must be able to say, “I have not told a falsehood,” or fail of acquittal.[3] Ptah, the creator, a chief god of the Egyptians, was called “Lord of Truth.”[4] The Egyptian conception of Deity was: “God is the truth, he lives by truth, he lives upon the truth, he is the king of truth.”[5] The Egyptians, like the Zoroastrians, seemed to count the one all-dividing line in the universe the line between truth and falsehood, between light and darkness.

[Footnote 1: Wilkinson’s _Ancient Egyptians_, I., 299; III., 183-185.]

[Footnote 2: Exod. 39: 8-21; Lev. 8: 8.]

[Footnote 3: Bunsen’s _Egypt’s Place in Universal History_, V., 254.]

[Footnote 4: Wilkinson’s _Anc. Egyp_., III., 15-17.]

[Footnote 5: Budge’s _The Dwellers on the Nile_, p. 131.]

Among the ancient Greeks the practice of lying was very general, so general that writers on the social life of the Greeks have been accustomed to give a low place relatively to that people in its estimate of truthfulness as a virtue. Professor Mahaffy says on this point: “At no period did the nation ever attain that high standard which is the great feature in Germanic civilization. Even the Romans, with all their coarseness, stood higher in this respect. But neither in Iliad nor in Odyssey is there, except in phrases, any reprobation of deceit as such.” He points to the testimony of Cicero, concerning the Greeks, who “concedes to them all the high qualities they choose to claim save one–that of truthfulness.”[1] Yet the very way in which Herodotus tells to the credit of the Persians that they allowed no place for the lie in their ethics[2] seems to indicate his apprehension of a higher standard of veracity than that which was generally observed among his own people. Moreover, in the Iliad, Achilles is represented as saying: “Him I hate as I do the gates of Hades, who hides one thing in his heart and utters another;” and it is the straightforward Achilles, rather than “the wily and shiftful Ulysses,” who is the admired hero of the Greeks.[3] Plato asserts, and argues in proof of his assertion, that “the veritable lie … is hated by all gods and men.” He includes in the term “veritable lie,” or “genuine lie,” a lie in the soul as back of the spoken lie, and he is sure that “the divine nature is incapable of a lie,” and that in proportion as the soul of a man is conformed to the divine image, the man “will speak, act, and live in accordance with the truth.”[4] Aristotle, also, while recognizing different degrees of veracity, insists that the man who is in his soul a lover of truth will be truthful even when he is tempted to swerve from the truth. “For the lover of truth, who is truthful where nothing is at stake [or where it makes no difference], will yet more surely be truthful where there is a stake [or where it does make a difference]; for he will [then] shun the lie as shameful, since he shuns it simply because it is a lie.”[5] And, again, “Falsehood abstractly is bad and blamable, and truth honorable and praiseworthy; and thus the truthful man being in the mean is praiseworthy, while the false [in either extreme, of overstating or of understating] are both blamable, but the exaggerating man more so than the other.”[6]

[Footnote 1: Mahaffy’s _Social Life in Greece_, pp. 27, 123. See also Fowler’s _Principles of Morals_, II., 219-221.]

[Footnote 2: _Hist_., Bk. I., sec. 139.]

[Footnote 3: Professor Fowler seems to be quite forgetful of this fact. He speaks of Ulysses as if he had precedence of Achilles in the esteem of the Greeks. See his _Principles of Morals_, II., 219.]

[Footnote 4: Plato’s _Republic_, II., 382, a, b.]

[Footnote 5: Aristotle’s _Eth. Nic_., IV., 13, 1127, a, b.]

[Footnote 6: _Ibid_., IV.]

Theognis recognizes this high ideal of the duty and the beauty of truthfulness, when he says: “At first there is a small attractiveness about a lie, but in the end the gain it brings is both shameful and harmful. That man has no fair glory, in whose heart dwells a lie, and from whose mouth it has once issued.”[1]

[Footnote 1: Theognis, 607.]

Pindar looks toward the same standard when he says to Hiero, “Forge thy tongue on the anvil of truth;”[1] and when he declares emphatically, “I will not stain speech with a lie.”[2] So, again, when his appeal to a divinity is: “Thou that art the beginning of lofty virtue, Lady Truth, forbid thou that my poem [or composition] should stumble against a lie, harsh rock of offense.”[3] In his tragedy of the Philoctetes, Sophocles makes the whole play pivot on the remorse of Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, over his having lied to Philoctetes (who is for the time being an enemy of the Greeks), in order to secure through him the killing of Paris and the overthrow of Troy. The lie was told at the instigation of Ulysses; but Neoptolemus repents its utterance, and refuses to take advantage of it, even though the fate of Troy and the triumph of Greek arms depend on the issue. The plain teaching of the tragedy is that “the purposes of heaven are not to be served by a lie; and that the simplicity of the young son of truth-loving Achilles is better in the sight of heaven, even when it seems to lead to failure, than all the cleverness of guileful Ulysses.”[4]

[Footnote 1: Pythian Ode, I, 86.]

[Footnote 2: Olympian Ode, 4, 16.]

[Footnote 3: Bergk’s _Pindar_, 183 [221].]

[Footnote 4: Professor Lamberton]

It is admitted on all hands that the Romans and the Germans had a high ideal as to the duty of truthfulness and the sin of lying.[1] And so it was in fact with all peoples which had any considerable measure of civilization in former ages. It is a noteworthy fact that the duty of veracity is often more prominent among primitive peoples than among the more civilized, and that, correspondingly, lying is abhorred as a vice, or seems to be unknown as an expedient in social intercourse. This is not always admitted in the theories of writers on morals, but it would seem to be borne out by an examination into the facts of the case. Lecky, in his study of “the natural history of morals,”[2] claims that veracity “usually increases with civilization,” and he seeks to show why it is so. But this view of Lecky’s is an unfounded assumption, in support of which he proffers no evidence; while Herbert Spencer’s exhibit of facts, in his “Cyclopaedia of Descriptive Sociology,” seems to disprove the claim of Lecky; and he directly asserts that “surviving remnants of some primitive races in India have natures in which truthfulness seems to be organic; that not only to the surrounding Hindoos, higher intellectually and relatively advanced in culture, are they in this respect far superior, but they are superior to Europeans.”[3]

[Footnote 1: See Fowler’s _Principles of Morals_, II., 220; also Mahaffy’s _Social Life in Greece_, p. 27. Note, for instance, the high standard as to truthfulness indicated by Cicero, in his “Offices,” III., 12-17, 32. “Pretense and dissimulation ought to be banished from the whole of life.” “Reason … requires that nothing be done insidiously, nothing dissemblingly, nothing falsely.” Note, also, Juvenal, Satire XIII., as to the sin of a lie purposed, even if not spoken; and Marcus Aurelius in his “Thoughts,” Book IX.: “He … who lies is guilty of impiety to the same [highest] divinity.” “He, then, who lies intentionally is guilty of impiety, inasmuch as he acts unjustly by deceiving; and he also who lies unintentionally, inasmuch as he is at variance with the universal nature, and inasmuch as he disturbs the order by fighting against the nature of the world; for he fights against it, who is moved of himself to that which is contrary to truth, for he had received powers from nature through the neglect of which he is not able now to distinguish falsehood from truth.”]

[Footnote 2: _History of European Morals_, I., 143.]

[Footnote 3: See Spencer’s _Principles of Sociology_, II., 234 ff.; also his _Inductions of Ethics_, p. 405 f.]

Among those Hill Tribes of India which have been most secluded, and which have retained the largest measure of primitive life and customs, fidelity to truth in speech and act is still the standard, and a lie is abhorrent to the normal instincts of the race. Of the Khonds of Central India it is said that they, “in common with many other wild races, bear a singular character for truthfulness and honesty;”[1] and that especially “the aborigine is the most truthful of beings.”[2] “The Khonds believe that truthfulness is one of the most sacred of duties imposed by the gods.”[3] “They are men of one word.”[4] “The truth is by a Sonthals held sacred.” [5] The Todas “call falsehood one of the worst of vices.”[6] Although it is said by one traveler that the Todas “practice dissimulation toward Europeans, yet he recognizes this as a trait consequent on their intercourse with Europeans.”[7] The Bheels, which were said to be “a race of unmitigated savages, without any sense of natural religion.” [8] and “which have preserved their rude habits and manners to the present day,” are “yet imbued with a sense of truth and honor strangely at contrast with their external character.”[9] Bishop Heber says that “their word is more to be depended on than that of their conquerors.”[10] Of the Sowrahs it is said: “A pleasing feature in their character is their complete truthfulness. They do not know how to tell a lie.”[11] Indeed, as Mr. Spencer sums up the case on this point, there are Hill Tribes in India “originally distinguished by their veracity, but who are rendered less veracious by contact with the whites. ‘So rare is lying among these aboriginal races when unvitiated by the ‘civilized,’ that of those in Bengal, Hunter singles out the Tipperahs as ‘the only Hill Tribe in which this vice is met with.'”[12]

[Footnote 1: Glasfurd, cited in _Cycl. of Descrip. Sociol_., V., 32.]

[Footnote 2: Forsyth, _Ibid_.]

[Footnote 3: Macpherson, cited in _Ibid_.]

[Footnote 4: _Ibid_.]

[Footnote 5: Sherwill, cited in _Ibid_.]

[Footnote 6: Harkness, cited in _Cycl. of Descrip. Sociol_., V., 31.]

[Footnote 7: Spencer’s _Principles of Sociology_, II., 234.]

[Footnote 8: Marshman, cited in _Cycl. of Descrip. Sociol_., V., 31.]

[Footnote 9: Wheeler, cited in _Ibid_.]

[Footnote 10: Cited in _Ibid_.]

[Footnote 11: Shortt, cited in _Ibid_.]

[Footnote 12: Spencer’s _Principles of Sociology_, II., 234 ff.]

The Arabs are more truthful in their more primitive state than where they are influenced by “civilization,” or by dealings with those from civilized communities.[1] And the same would seem to be true of the American Indians.[2] Of the Patagonians it is said: “A lie with them is held in detestation.” [3] “The word of a Hottentot is sacred;” and the good quality of “a rigid adherence to truth,” “he is master of in an eminent degree.”[4] Dr. Livingstone says that lying was known to be a sin by the East Africans “before they knew aught of Europeans or their teaching.”[5] And Mungo Park says of the Mandingoes, among the inland Africans, that, while they seem to be thieves by nature,” one of the first lessons in which the Mandingo women instruct their children is _the practice of truth_.” The only consolation of a mother whose son had been murdered, “was the reflection that the poor boy, in the course of his blameless life, _had never told a lie_.”[6] Richard Burton is alone among modern travelers in considering lying natural to all primitive or savage peoples. Carl Bock, like other travelers, testifies to the unvarying truthfulness of the Dyaks in Borneo,[7] and another observant traveler tells of the disgrace that attaches to a lie in that land, as shown by the “lying heaps” of sticks or stones along the roadside here and there. “Each heap is in remembrance of some man who has told a stupendous lie, or failed in carrying out an engagement; and every passer-by takes a stick or a stone to add to the accumulation, saying at the time he does it, ‘For So-and-so’s lying heap.’ It goes on for generations, until they sometimes forget who it was that told the lie, but, notwithstanding that, they continue throwing the stones.”[8] What a blocking of the paths of civilization there would be if a “lying heap” were piled up wherever a lie had been told, or a promise had been broken, by a child of civilization!

[Footnote 1: Denham, and Palgrave, cited in _Cycl. of Des. Social_., V., 30,31.]

[Footnote 2: See Morgan’s _League of the Iroquois_, p. 335; also Schoolcraft, and Keating, on the Chippewas, cited in _Cycl. of Descrip. Sociol_., VI., 30.]

[Footnote 3: Snow, cited in _Ibid_.]

[Footnote 4: Kolben, and Barrow, cited in _Cycl. of Descrip. Sociol_., IV., 25.]

[Footnote 5: _Cycl. of Descrip. Sociol_., IV., 26.]

[Footnote 6: _Cycl. of Descrip. Social_., IV., 27.]

[Footnote 7: _Head Hunters of Borneo_, p. 209. See also Boyle, cited in Spencer’s _Cycl. of Descrip. Social_., III., 35.]

[Footnote 8: St. John’s _Life in the Forests of the Far East_, I., 88 f.]

The Veddahs of Ceylon, one of the most primitive of peoples, “are proverbially truthful.”[1] The natives of Java are peculiarly free from the vice of lying, except in those districts which have had most intercourse with Europeans.[2]

[Footnote 1: Bailey, cited in Spencer’s _Cycl. of Descrip. Social_., III., 32.]

[Footnote 2: Earl, and Raffles, cited in _Ibid_., p. 35.]

It is found, in fact, that in all the ages, the world over, primitive man’s highest ideal conception of deity has been that of a God who could not tolerate a lie; and his loftiest standard of human action has included the readiness to refuse to tell a lie under any inducement, or in any peril, whether it be to a friend or to an enemy. This is the teaching of ethnic conceptions on the subject. The lie would seem to be a product of civilization, or an outgrowth of the spirit of trade and barter, rather than a natural impulse of primitive man. It appeared in full flower and fruitage in olden time among the commercial Phoenicians, so prominently that “Punic faith” became a synonym of falsehood in social dealings.

Yet it is in the face of facts like these that a writer like Professor Fowler baldly claims, in support of the same presupposed theory as that of Lecky, that “it is probably owing mainly to the development of commerce, and to the consequent necessity, in many cases, of absolute truthfulness, that veracity has come to take the prominent position which it now occupies among the virtues; though the keen sense of honor, engendered by chivalry, may have had something to do in bringing about the same result.”[1]

[Footnote 1: _Principles of Morality_, II., 220.]



In looking at the Bible for light in such an investigation as this, it is important to bear in mind that the Bible is not a collection of specific rules of conduct, but rather a book of principles illustrated in historic facts, and in precepts based on those principles,–announced or presupposed. The question, therefore, is not, Does the Bible authoritatively draw a line separating the truth from a lie, and making the truth to be always right, and a lie to be always wrong? but it is, Does the Bible evidently recognize an unvarying and ever-existing distinction between a truth and a lie, and does the whole sweep of its teachings go to show that in God’s sight a lie, as by its nature opposed to the truth and the right, is always wrong?

The Bible opens with a picture of the first pair in Paradise, to whom God tells the simple truth, and to whom the enemy of man tells a lie; and it shows the ruin of mankind wrought by that lie, and the author of the lie punished because of its telling.[1] The Bible closes with a picture of Paradise, into which are gathered the lovers and doers of truth, and from which is excluded “every one that loveth and doeth a lie;”[2] while “all liars” are to have their part “in the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone; which is the second death.”[3] In the Old Testament and in the New, God is represented as himself the Truth, to whom, by his very nature, the doing or the speaking of a lie is impossible,[4] while Satan is represented as a liar and as the “father of lies.”[5]

[Footnote 1: Gen. 2, 3.]

[Footnote 2: Rev. 22.]

[Footnote 3: Rev. 21: 5-8.]

[Footnote 4: Psa. 31:5; 146:6; John 14:6; Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18; 1 John 5:7.]

[Footnote 5: John 8:44.]

While the human servants of God, as represented in the Bible narrative, are in many instances guilty of lying, their lies are clearly contrary to the great principle, in the light of which the Bible itself is written, that a lie is always wrong, and that it cannot have justification in God’s sight. The idea of the Bible record is that God is true, though every man were a liar.[1] God is uniformly represented as opposed to lies and to liars, and a lie in his sight is spoken of as a lie unto him, or as a lie against him. In the few cases where the Bible narrative has been thought by some to indicate an approval by the Lord of a lie, that was told, as it were, in his interest, an examination of the facts will show that they offer no exception to the rule that, by the Bible standard, a lie is never justifiable.

[Footnote 1: Rom. 3:4.]

Take, for example, the case of the Hebrew midwives, who lied to the officials of Pharaoh, when they were commanded to kill every Hebrew male child;[1] and of whom it is said that “God dealt well with the midwives;… and … because the midwives feared God,… he made them houses.”[2] Here it is plain that God commended their fear of him, not their lying in behalf of his people, and that it was “because the midwives feared God” not because they lied, “that he made them houses.” It was their choice of the Lord above the gods and rulers of Egypt that won them the approval of the Lord, even though they were sinners in being liars; as in an earlier day it was the approval of Jacob’s high estimate of the birthright, and not the deceits practiced by him on Esau and his father Isaac, that the Lord showed in confirming a blessing to Jacob.[3]

[Footnote 1: Exod. 1: 15-19.]

[Footnote 2: Exod. I: 20, 21.]

[Footnote 3: Gen. 25: 27-34; 27; 1-40; 28: 1-22]

So, also, in the narrative of Rahab, the Canaanitish young woman, who concealed the Israelitish spies sent into her land by Joshua, and lied about them to her countrymen, and who was commended by the Lord for her faith in this transaction.[1] Rahab was a harlot by profession and a liar by practice. When the Hebrew spies entered Jericho, they went to her house as a place of common resort. Rahab, on learning who they were, expressed her readiness, sinner as she was, to trust the God of Israel rather than the gods of Canaan; and because of her trust she put herself, with all her heathen habits of mind and conduct, at the disposal of the God of Israel, and she lied, as she had been accustomed to lie, to her own people, as a means of securing safety to her Hebrew visitors. Because of her faith, which was shown in this way, but not necessarily because of her way of showing her faith, the Lord approved of her spirit in choosing his service rather than the service of the gods of her people. The record of her approval is, “By faith Rahab the harlot perished not with them that were disobedient, having received the spies with peace.”[2]

[Footnote 1: Josh. 2: 1-21.]

[Footnote 2: Heb. II: 31.]

It would be quite as fair to claim that God approved of Rahab’s harlotry, in this case, as to claim that he approved of her lying. Rahab was a harlot and a liar, and she was ready to practice in both these lines in the service of the spies. She was not to be commended for either of those vices; but she was to be commended in that, with all her vices, she was yet ready to give herself just as she was, and with her ways as they were, to Jehovah’s side, in the crisis hour of conflict between him and the gods of her people. It was the faith that prompted her to this decision that God commended; and “by faith” she was preserved from destruction when her people perished.

Another case that has been thought to imply a divine approval of an untrue statement, is that of Samuel, when he went to Bethlehem to anoint David as Saul’s successor on the throne of Israel, and, at the Lord’s command, said he had come to offer a sacrifice to God.[1] But here clearly the narrative shows no lie, nor false statement, made or approved. Samuel, as judge and prophet, was God’s representative in Israel. He was accustomed to go from place to place in the line of his official ministry, including the offering at times of sacrifices of communion.[2] When, on this occasion, the Lord told Samuel of his purpose of designating a son of Jesse to succeed Saul on the throne, and desired him to go to Bethlehem for further instructions, Samuel was unnecessarily alarmed, and said, in his fear, “How can I go? if Saul hear it, he will kill me.” The Lord’s simple answer was, “Take an heifer with thee, and say, I am come to sacrifice to the Lord. And call Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will shew thee what thou shalt do: and thou shalt anoint unto me him whom I name unto thee.”

[Footnote 1: 1 Sam. 16: 1-3.]

[Footnote 2: 1 Sam. 7: 15-17; 9: 22-24; 11: 14,15; 20:29.]

In other words, the Lord said to Samuel, I want you to go to Bethlehem as my representative, and offer a sacrifice there. Say this fearlessly. In due time I will give you other directions; but do not borrow trouble on account of them. Do your duty step by step. Speak out the plain truth as to all that the authorities of Bethlehem have any right to know; and do not fear any harm through my subsequent private revelations to you. In these directions of the Lord there is no countenance of the slightest swerving from the truth by Samuel; nor is there an authorized concealment of any fact that those to whom Samuel was sent had any claim to know.

Still another Bible incident that has been a cause of confusion to those who did not see how God could approve lying, and a cause of rejoicing to those who wanted to find evidence of his justification of that practice, is the story of the prophet Micaiah, saying before Jehoshaphat and Ahab that the Lord had put a lying spirit into the mouths of all the false prophets who were at that time before those kings.[1] Herbert Spencer actually cites this incident as an illustration of the example set before the people of Israel, by their God, of lying as a means of accomplishing a desired end.[2] But just look at the story as it stands!

[Footnote 1: 1 Kings 22: 1-23; 2 Chron. 18: 1-34.]

[Footnote 2: _The Inductions of Ethics_, p. 158.]

Four hundred of Ahab’s prophets were ready to tell him that a campaign which he wanted to enter upon would be successful. Micaiah, an honest prophet of the Lord, was sent for at Jehoshaphat’s request, and was urged by the messenger to prophesy to the same effect as Ahab’s prophets. Micaiah replied that he should give the Lord’s message, whether it was agreeable or not to Ahab. He came, and at first he spoke satirically as if he agreed with the other prophets in deeming the campaign a hopeful one. It was as though he said to the king, You want me to aid you in your plans, not to give you counsel from the Lord; therefore I will say, as your prophets have said, Go ahead, and have success. It was evident, however, to Ahab, that the prophet’s words were not to be taken literally, but were a rebuke to him in Oriental style, and therefore he told the prophet to give him the Lord’s message plainly. Then the prophet gave a parable, or a message in Oriental guise, showing that these four hundred prophets of Ahab were speaking falsely, as if inspired by a lying spirit, and that, if Ahab followed their counsel, he would go to his ruin.

To cite this parable as a proof of Jehovah’s commendation of lying is an absurdity. Jehovah’s prophet Micaiah was there before the king, telling the simple truth to the king. And, in order to meet effectively the claim of the false prophets that they were inspired, he related, as it were, a vision, or a parable, in which he declared that he had seen preparations making in heaven for their inspiring by a lying spirit. This was, as every Oriental would understand it, a parliamentary way of calling the four hundred prophets a pack of liars; and the event proved that all of them were liars, and that Micaiah alone, as Jehovah’s prophet, was a truth-teller. What folly could be greater than the attempt to count this public charge against the lying prophets as an item of evidence in proof of the Lord’s responsibility for their lying–which the Lord’s prophet took this method of exposing and rebuking!

There are, indeed, various instances in the Bible story of lies told by men who were in favor with God, where there is no ground for claiming that those lies had approval with God. The men of the Bible story are shown as men, with the sins and follies and weaknesses of men. Their conduct is to be judged by the principles enunciated in the Bible, and their character is to be estimated by the relation which they sustained toward God in spite of their human infirmities.

Abraham is called the father of the faithful,[1] and he was known as the friend of God.[2] But he indulged in the vice of concubinage,[3] in accordance with the loose morals of his day and of his surroundings; and when he was down in Egypt he lied through his distrust of God, apparently thinking that there was such a thing as a “lie of necessity,” and he brought upon himself the rebuke of an Egyptian king because of his lying.[4] But it would be folly to claim that God approved of concubinage or of lying, because a man whom he was saving was guilty of either of these vices. Isaac also lied,[5] and so did Jacob;[6] but it was not because of their lies that these men had favor with God. David was a man after God’s own heart[7] in his fidelity of spirit to God as the only true God, in contrast with the gods of the nations round about Israel; but David lied,[8] as David committed adultery.[9] It would hardly be claimed, however, that either his adultery or his lying in itself made David a man after God’s own heart. So all along the Bible narrative, down to the time when Ananias and Sapphira, prominent among the early Christians, lied unto God concerning their very gifts into his treasury, and were struck dead as a rebuke of their lying.[10]

[Footnote 1: Josh. 24:3; Isa. 51: 2; Matt. 3: 9; Rom. 4:12; Gal. 3:9]

[Footnote 2: 2 Chron. 20: 7; Isa. 41: 8; Jas. 2: 23.]

[Footnote 3: Gen. 16: 1-6.]

[Footnote 4: Gen. 12: 10-19.]

[Footnote 5: Gen. 26: 6-10.]

[Footnote 6: Gen. 27: 6-29.]

[Footnote 7: 1 Sam. 11: 1-27]

[Footnote 8: 1 Sam. 21: 1,2.]

[Footnote 9: 2 Sam. 11: 1-27.]

[Footnote 10: Acts 5: 1-11.]

The whole sweep of Bible teaching is opposed to lying; and the specific injunctions against that sin, as well as the calls to the duty of truth-speaking, are illustrative of that sweep. “Ye shall not steal; neither shall ye deal falsely, nor lie one to another,”[1] says the Lord, in holding up the right standard before his children. “A lying tongue” is said to be “an abomination” before the Lord.[2] “A faithful witness will not lie: but a false witness breatheth out lies,”[3] says Solomon, in marking the one all-dividing line of character; and as to the results of lying he says, “He that breatheth out lies shall not escape,”[4] and “he that breatheth out lies shall perish.”[5] And he adds the conclusion of wisdom, in view of the supposed profit of lying, “A poor man is better than a liar;”[6] that is, a truth-telling poor man is better than a rich liar.

[Footnote 1: Lev. 19:11.]

[Footnote 2: Prov. 6:16, 17.]

[Footnote 3: Prov. 14:5.]

[Footnote 4: Prov. 19:5.]

[Footnote 5: Prov. 19:9.]

[Footnote 6: Prov. 19:22.]

The inspired Psalms are full of such teachings: “The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies.”[1] “They delight in lies.”[2] “The mouth of them that speak lies shall be stopped.”[3] “He that speaketh falsehood shall not be established before mine [the Psalmist’s] eyes.”[4] And the Psalmist prays, “Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips.”[5] In the New Testament it is much the same as in the Old. “Lie not one to another; seeing that ye have put off the old man with his doings,”[6] is the apostolic injunction; and again, “Speak ye truth each one with his neighbor: for we are members one of another.”[7] There is no place for a lie in Bible ethics, under the earlier dispensation or the later.

[Footnote 1: Psa. 58:3.]

[Footnote 2: Psa. 62:4.]

[Footnote 3: Psa. 63:11.]

[Footnote 4: Psa. 101: 7.]

[Footnote 5: Psa. 120: 2.]

[Footnote 6: Col. 3: 9.]

[Footnote 7: Eph. 4: 25.]



It would seem to be clear that the Bible, and also the other sacred books of the world, and the best moral sense of mankind everywhere, are united in deeming a lie incompatible with the idea of a holy God, and consistent only with the spirit of man’s arch-enemy–the embodiment of all evil. Therefore he who, admitting this, would find a place in God’s providential plan for a “lie of necessity” must begin with claiming that there are lies which are not lies. Hence it is of prime importance to define a lie clearly, and to distinguish it from allowable and proper concealments of truth.

A lie, in its stricter sense, is the affirming, by word or by action, of that which is not true, with a purpose of deceiving; or the denying, by word or by action, of that which is true, with a purpose of deceiving. But the suppressing or concealing of essential facts, from one who is entitled to know them, with a purpose of deceiving, may practically amount to a lie.

Obviously a lie may be by act, as really as by word; as when a man is asked to tell the right road, and he silently points in the wrong direction. Obviously, also, the intention or purpose of deceiving is in the essence of the lie; for if a man says that which is not true, supposing it to be true, he makes a misstatement, but he does not lie; or, again, if he speaks an untruth playfully where no deception is wrought or intended, as by saying, when the mercury is below zero, that it is “good summer weather,” there is no lie in the patent untruth.

So far all are likely to be agreed; but when it comes to the question of that concealment which is in the realm of the lie, as distinct from right and proper concealment, there is more difficulty in making the lines of distinction clear to all minds. Yet those lines can be defined, and it is important that they should be.

A witness on the stand in a court of law is bound by his oath, or his affirmation, to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” in the testimony that he gives in response to the questions asked of him. If, therefore, in the course of his testimony, he declares that he received five dollars for his share in a certain transaction, when in reality he received five hundred dollars, his concealment of the fact that he received a hundred times as much as he admits having received, is practically a lie, and is culpable as such. Any intentional concealment of essential facts in the matter at issue, in his answers to questions asked of him as a witness, is a lie in essence.

But a person who is not before a court of justice is not necessarily bound to tell all the facts involved to every person whom he addresses, or who desires to have him do so; and therefore, while a concealment of facts which ought to be disclosed may be equivalent to a lie, there is such a thing as the concealment of facts which is not only allowable, but which is an unmistakable duty. And to know when concealment is right, and when it is wrong, is to know when concealment partakes of the nature of a lie, and when it is a totally different matter.

Concealment, so far from being in itself a sin, is in itself right; it is only in its misuse that it becomes reprehensible in a given case. Concealment is a prime duty of man; as truly a duty as truth-speaking, or chastity, or honesty. God, who cannot lie to his creatures, conceals much from his creatures. “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but the things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever,”[1] says the author of Deuteronomy; and the whole course of God’s revelation to man is in accordance with this announced principle of God’s concealment of that which ought to be concealed. He who is himself the revelation of God says to his chosen disciples, even when he is speaking his latest words to them before his death: “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now;”[2] and he conceals what, as yet, it is better for them should remain concealed.

[Footnote 1: Deut. 29: 29.]

[Footnote 2: John 16:12.]

There is a profound meaning in the suggestion, in the Bible story of man’s “fall,” that, when man had come to the knowledge of good and evil, the first practical duty which he recognized as incumbent upon himself, was the duty of concealment;[1] and from that day to this that duty has been incumbent on him. Man has a duty to conceal his besetting impurities of thought and inclinations to sin; to conceal such of his doubts and fears as would dishearten others and weaken himself by their expression; to conceal his unkindnesses of spirit and his unjust prejudices of feeling; to conceal, in fact, whatever of his innermost personality is liable to work harm by its disclosure, and to a knowledge of which his fellows have no just claim. In the world as it is, there is more to be concealed than to be disclosed in every individual life; and concealment rather than disclosure is the rule of personal action.

[Footnote 1: Gen. 3:6, 7.]

Absolute and unrestricted frankness in social intercourse would be brutal. The speaking of the whole truth at all times and to everybody could have neither justification nor excuse between man and man. We have no right to tell our fellows all that we think of them, or fear for them, or suspect them of. We have no right to betray the confidences of those who trust us, or to disclose to all the fact that we have such confidences to conceal. We have no right to let it be generally known that there are such peculiar struggles within us as make our lives a ceaseless battle with temptations and fears and doubts. There is such a thing as an indecent exposure of personal opinions, and as a criminal disclosure of the treasures of the inner life.[1] How to conceal aright that which ought to be concealed, is one of the vital questions of upright living.

[Footnote 1: See 2 Kings 20: 12-19.]

The duty of right concealment stands over against the sin of lying. Whatever ought to be concealed, should be concealed, if concealment is a possibility without sinning. But the strongest desire for concealment can never justify a lie as a means of concealment; and concealment at the cost of a lie becomes a sin through the means employed for its securing. On the other hand, when disclosure is a duty, concealment is sinful, because it is made to stand in the way of the performance of a duty. Concealment is not in itself wrong, but it may become wrong through its misuse. Lying is in itself wrong, and it cannot be made right through any seeming advantage to be gained by it.

Concealment which is right in one instance may be wrong in another instance, the difference being in the relations of the two parties in the case. A man who has lost a leg or an eye may properly conceal from others generally the fact of his loss by any legitimate means of concealment. His defect is a purely personal matter. The public has no claim upon him for all the facts in the premises. He may have an artificial limb or an artificial eye, so constructed as to conceal his loss from the ordinary observer. There is nothing wrong in this. It is in the line of man’s primal duty of concealment. But if a man thus disabled were applying for a life-insurance policy, or were an applicant for re-enlistment in the army, or were seeking employment where bodily wholeness is a requisite, it would be his duty to make known his defect; and the concealment of it from the parties interested would be in the realm of the lie.

So, again, if a man were proposing marriage, or were entering into confidential relations with a partner in business, or were seeking financial aid from a bank, he would have no right to conceal from the party interested many a fact which he could properly conceal from the public.

A man who would be justified in concealing from the general public his mental troubles, or his business embarrassments, or his spiritual perplexities, could not properly conceal the essential facts in the case from his chosen adviser in medicine, or in law, or in matters of religion. It is a man’s duty to disclose the whole truth to him who has a right to know the whole truth. It is a man’s right, and it may become his duty, to conceal a measure of the truth from one who is not entitled to know that portion of the truth, so far as he can properly make concealment. But as a lie is never justifiable, it is never a proper means of concealment; and if concealment be, in any case, a mode of lying, it is as bad as any other form of lying.

But concealment, even when it is of facts that others have no right to know, may cause others to be deceived, and deliberate deceit is one form of a lie. How, then, can concealment that is sure to result in deception be free from the sin that invariably attaches to a lie in any form, or of any nature whatsoever?

Concealment which is for the _purpose_ of deception, is one thing; concealment which is only for the purpose of concealment, but which is sure to _result_ in deception, is quite another thing. The one is not justifiable, the other may be. In the one case it is a man’s purpose to deceive his fellow-man; in the other case it is simply his purpose to conceal what his fellow-man has no right to know, and that fellow-man receives a false impression, or deceives himself, in consequence.

We may, or we may not, be responsible for the obvious results of our action; and the moral measure of any action depends on the measure of our responsibility in the premises. A surgeon, who is engaged in an important and critical operation, is told that he is wanted elsewhere in a case of life and death. If he sees it to be his duty to continue where he is because he cannot safely leave this case at this time, he obviously is not responsible for results which come because of his absence from the side of the other sufferer. A man is by a river bank when a boy is sinking before his eyes. If the man were to reach out his arms to him, the boy might be saved. But the man makes no movement in the boy’s behalf, and the boy drowns. It might seem as though that man were responsible for that boy’s death; but when it is known that the man is at that moment occupied in saving the life of his own son, who is also struggling in the water, it will have to be admitted that the father is not responsible for the results of his inaction in another sphere than that which is for the moment the sphere of his imperative duty.

If a wife and mother has to choose between her loving ministry to her sick husband and to her sick child, and she chooses that which she sees to be the more important duty of the hour, she is not responsible for any results that follow from her inability to be in two places at the same time. A man with a limited income may know that ten families are in need of money, while he can give help to only two of them. Even though others starve while he is supplying food to all whom he can aid, he is not responsible for results that flow from his decision to limit his ministry to his means.

In all our daily life, our decision to do the one duty of the hour involves our refusal to do what is not our duty, and we have no responsibility for the results which come from such a refusal. So in the matter of the duty of concealment, if a man simply purposes the concealment from another of that which the other has no right to know, and does not specifically affirm by word or act that which is not true, nor deny by act or word that which is true, he is in no degree responsible for the self-deception by another concerning a point which is no proper concern of that other person.

Others are self-deceived with reference to us in many things, beyond our responsibility or knowledge. We may be considered weaker or stronger, wiser or more simple, younger or older, gladder or sadder, than we are; but for the self-deception on that point by the average observer we are not responsible. We may not even be aware of it. It is really no concern of ours–or of our neighbor’s. It is merely an incident of human life as it is. We may have an aching tooth or an aching heart, and yet refrain from disclosing this fact in the expression of our face. In such a case we merely conceal what is our own possession from those who have no claim to know it. Even though they deceive themselves as to our condition in consequence of our looks, we are not responsible for their self-deception, because they are not possessed of all the facts, nor have they any right to them, nor yet to a fixed opinion in the case.

If a man were to have a patch put on his coat, he might properly have it put on the under side of the coat instead of the outer side, thus making what is called “a blind patch,” for the purpose of concealing the defect in his garment. Even though this course might result in a false impression on the mind of the casual observer, the man would not be blameworthy, as he would be if he had pursued the same course with a purpose of deceiving a purchaser of the coat. So, again, in the case of a mender of bric-a-brac: it would be right for him to cement carefully the parts of a broken vase for the mere purpose of concealing its damaged condition from the ordinary eye, but not for the purpose of deceiving one who would be a purchaser.

A man whose city house is closed from the public in the summer season, because of his absence in the country, has a perfect right to come to that house for a single night, without opening the shutters and lighting up the rooms in intimation of his presence. He may even keep those shutters closed while his room is lighted, for the express purpose of concealing the fact of his presence there, and yet not be responsible for any false impression on the minds of passers-by, who think that the proprietor is still in the country, and that the city house is vacant. On the other hand, if the house be left lighted up all through the night, with the shutters open, while the inmates are asleep, for the very purpose of concealing from those outside the fact that no one in the house is awake and on guard, the proprietor is not responsible for any self-deception which results to those who have no right to know the facts in the case.

And so, again, in the matter of having a man’s hat or coat on the rack in the front hall, while there are only women in the house, the sole purpose of the action may be the concealment of the real condition of affairs from those who have no claim to know the truth, and not the deliberate deception of any party in interest. In so far as the purpose is merely the concealment from others of the defenseless condition of the house the action is obviously a proper one, notwithstanding its liability to result in false impressions on the minds of those who have no right to an opinion in the case.

While a man would be justified in concealing, without falsehood, the fact of a bodily lack or infirmity on his part which concerned himself alone, he would not be justified in concealing the fact that he was sick of a contagious disease, or that his house was infected by a disease that might be given to a caller there. Nor would he be justified in concealing a defect in a horse or a cow in order to deceive a man into the purchase of that animal as a sound one, any more than he would be justified in slightly covering an opening in the ground before his house, so as to deceive a disagreeable visitor into stumbling into that hole.

It would be altogether proper for a man with a bald head to conceal his baldness from the general public by a well-constructed wig. It would likewise be proper for him to wear a wig in order to guard his shining pate against flies while at church in July, or against danger from pneumonia in January, even though wide-awake children in the neighboring pews deceived themselves into thinking that he had a fine head of natural hair. But if that man were to wear that wig for the purpose of deceiving a young woman, whom he wished to marry, as to his age and as to his freedom from bodily defects, it would be quite a different matter. Concealment for the mere purpose of concealment may be, not only justifiable, but a duty. Concealment for the purpose of deception is never justifiable.

It would seem that this is the principle on which God acts with reference to both the material and the moral universe. He conceals facts, with the result that many a man is self-deceived, in his ignorance, as to the size of the stars, and the cause of eclipses, and the processes of nature, and the consequences of conduct, in many an important particular. But man, and not God, is responsible for man’s self-deception concerning points at which man can make no claim to a right to know all the truth.

It is true that this distinction is a delicate one, but it is a distinction none the less real on that account. A moral line, like a mathematical line, has length, but neither breadth nor thickness. And the line that separates a justifiable concealment which causes self-deception on the part of those who are not entitled to know the whole truth in the matter, and the deliberate concealment of truth for the specific purpose of deception, is a line that runs all the way up from the foundations to the summit of the universe. This line of distinction is vital to an understanding of the question of the duty of truth-speaking, and of the sin of lying.

An effort at right concealment may include truthful statements which are likely, or even sure, to result in false impressions on the mind of the one to whom they are addressed, and who in consequence deceives himself as to the facts, when the purpose of those statements is not the deception of the hearer. A husband may have had a serious misunderstanding with his wife that causes him pain of heart, so that his face gives sign of it as he comes out of the house in the morning. The difficulty which has given him such mental anxiety is one which he ought to conceal. He has no right to disclose it to others. Yet he has no right to speak an untruth for the purpose of concealing that which he ought to conceal.

It may be that the mental trouble has already deprived him of sleep, and has intensified his anxiety over a special business matter that awaits his attention down town, and that all this shows in his face. If so, these facts are secondary but very real causes of his troubled look, as he meets a neighbor on leaving his house, who says to him: “You look very much troubled this morning. What’s the matter with you?” Now, if he were to say in reply, “Then my looks belie me; for I have no special trouble,” he would say what was not true. But he might properly say, “I think it is very likely. I didn’t sleep well last night, and I am very tired this morning. And I have work before me to-day that I am not easy about.” Those statements being literally true, and being made for the purpose of concealing facts which his questioner has no right to know, their utterance is justifiable, regardless of the workings of the mind of the one who hears them. They are made in order to conceal what is back of them, not in order to deceive one who is entitled to know those primary facts.

If, again, a physician in attendance on a patient sees that there is cause for grave anxiety in the patient’s condition, and deems it important to conceal his fears, so far as he can without untruthfulness, he may, in answer to direct questions from his patient, give truthful answers that are designed to conceal what he has a right to conceal, without his desiring to deceive his patient, and without his being responsible for any self-deception on his patient’s part that results from their conversation. The patient may ask, “Doctor, am I very sick?” The doctor may answer truthfully, “Not so sick as you might be, by a good deal.” He may give this answer with a cheerful look and tone, and it may result in calming the patient’s fears.

If, however, the patient goes on to ask, “But, doctor, do you think I’m going to die?” the doctor may respond lightly, “Well, most of us will die sooner or later, and I suppose you are not to be exempt from the ordinary lot of mortals.” “But,” continues the patient, “do you think I am going to die of this disease?” Then the doctor can say, seriously and truthfully, “I’m sure I don’t know. The future is concealed from me. You may live longer than I do. I certainly hope you are not going to die yet awhile, and I’m going to do all I can to prevent it.” All this would be justifiable, and be within the limits of truthfulness. Concealment of the opinions of the physician as to the patient’s chances of life, and not the specific deception of the patient, is the object of these answers.

In no event, however, would the physician be justified in telling a lie, any more than he would be in committing any other sin, as a means of good. He is necessarily limited by the limits of right, in the exercise of his professional skill, and in the choice of available means. He is in no wise responsible for the consequences of his refusal to go beyond those limits.

Concealment may be, or may not be, of the nature of deception. Concealment is not right when disclosure is a duty. Concealment of that which may properly be concealed is not in itself wrong. Efforts at concealment must, in order to be right, be kept within the limits of strict truthfulness of statement. Concealment for the purpose of deception is in the realm of the lie. Concealment for the mere purpose of concealment may be in the realm of positive duty–in the sight of God and for the sake of our fellows.

It is to be borne in mind that the definitions here given do not pivot on the specific illustrations proffered for their explanation. If, in any instance, the illustration seems inapt or imperfect, it may be thrown aside, and reference made to the definition itself. The definition represents the principle involved; the illustration is only a suggestion of the principle.



The story is told of an old Quaker, who, after listening for a time to the unstinted praises, by a dry-goods salesman, of the various articles he was trying to dispose of, said quietly: “Friend, it is a great pity that lying is a sin, since it seems so necessary in thy business.” It has been generally supposed that this remark of the old Quaker was a satirical one, rather than a serious expression of regret over the clashing of the demands of God’s nature with the practical necessities of men. Yet, as a matter of fact, there are moral philosophers, and writers on Christian ethics, who seem to take seriously the position assumed by this Quaker, and who argue deliberately that there are such material advantages to be secured by lying, in certain emergencies, that it would be a great pity to recognize any unvarying rule, with reference to lying, that would shut off all possibility of desired gain from this practice under conditions of greatest urgency.

It is claimed that lying proffers such unmistakable advantages in time of war, and of sickness, and in dealings with would-be criminals and the insane, and other classes exempt from ordinary social consideration, that lying becomes a necessity when the gain from it is of sufficient magnitude. Looked at in this light, lying is not sinful _per se_, but simply becomes sinful by its misuse or untimeliness; for if it be sinful _per se_, no temporary or material advantage from its exercise could ever make it other than sinful.

If, indeed, the rightfulness of lying is contingent on the results to be hoped for or to be feared from it, the prime question with reference to it, in a moral estimate of its propriety, is the limit of profit, or of gain, which will justify it as a necessity. But with all that has been written on this subject in the passing centuries, the advocates of the “lie of necessity” have had to contend with the moral sense of the world as to the sinfulness of lying, and with the fact that lying is not merely a violation of a social duty, but is contrary to the demands of the very nature of God, and of the nature of man as formed in the image of God. And it has been the practice of such advocates to ignore or to deny the testimony of this moral sense of the race, and to persist in looking at lying mainly in the light of its social aspects.

That the moral sense of the race is against the admissibility of the rightfulness of lying, is shown by the estimate of this sin as a sin in the ethnic conceptions of it, even among peoples who indulge freely in its practice, as well as in the teachings of the sacred books of the ages. And, moreover, it is _not_ the fact, as is often claimed, that lying is generally admitted to be allowable between enemies in war time, or by a physician to his patient, or by a sane man to one who is insane, or in order to the prevention of crime, or for the purpose of securing some real or supposed advantage in any case.

The right to conceal from the enemy one’s weakness, or one’s plans, by any exhibit of “quaker guns,” or of mock fortifications, or of movements and counter-movements, or of feints of attack, or of surplus watchfires, in time of warfare, is recognized on all sides. But the right to lie to or to deceive the enemy by sending out a flag of truce, as if in desire for a peaceful conference, and following it up with an attack on his lines in an unsuspecting moment, is not admitted in any theory of “civilized warfare.” And while a scout may creep within the enemy’s lines, and make observations of the enemy’s weakness and strength of position, without being open to any charge of dishonorable conduct,–if he comes disguised as a soldier of the other side than his own, or if he claims to be a mere civilian or non-combatant, he is held to be a “spy,” and as such he is denied a soldier’s death, and must yield his life on the gallows as a deceiver and a liar.

The distinction between justifiable concealment for the mere purpose of concealment, and concealment for the express purpose of deceiving, is recognized as clearly in warfare as in peaceful civil life; and the writer on Christian ethics who appeals to the approved practices of warfare in support of the “lie of necessity” can have only the plea of ignorance as an excuse for his baseless argument.

An enemy in warfare has no right to know the details of his opponent’s plans for his overcoming; but his opponent has no right to lie to him, by word or action, as a means of concealment; for a lie is never justifiable, and therefore is never a necessity. And this is admitted in the customs of honorable warfare. Illustrations of this distinction are abundant. A Federal officer, taken prisoner in battle, was brought before a Confederate officer for examination. He was asked his name, his rank, his regiment, his brigade, his division, and his corps. To all these questions he gave truthful answers promptly; for the enemy had a right to information at these points concerning a prisoner of war. But when the question came, “What is the present strength of your corps?” he replied, “Two and a half millions.” “That cannot be true,” said the Confederate officer. “Do you expect me to tell you the truth, Colonel, in such a matter?” he responded, in reminder of the fact that it was proper for him to conceal facts which the other had no right to know; and his method of concealment was by an answer that was intended to conceal, but not to deceive.

In Libby Prison, during war time, the attempt to prevent written messages being carried out by released prisoners was at first made by the careful examination of the clothing and persons of such prisoners; but this proved to be ineffectual. Then it was decided to put every outgoing prisoner on his word of honor as a soldier in this matter; and that was effectual. A true soldier would require something more than the average treatise on Christian ethics to convince him that a lie to an enemy in war time is justifiable as a “lie of necessity,” on the ground of its profitableness.

In dealing with the sick, however desirable it may be, in any instance, to conceal from a patient his critical condition, the difference must always be observed between truthful statements that conceal that which the physician, or other speaker, has a right to conceal, and statements that are not strictly true, or that are made for the explicit purpose of deceiving the patient. It is a physician’s duty to conceal from a patient his sense of the grave dangers disclosed to his professional eye, and which he is endeavoring to meet successfully. And, in wellnigh every case, it is possible for him to give truthful answers that will conceal from his patient what he ought to conceal; for the best physician does not know the future, and his professional guesses are not to be put forward as if they were assured certitudes.

If, indeed, it were generally understood, as many ethical writers are disposed to claim, that physicians are ready to lie as a help to their patients’ recovery, physicians, as a class, would thereby be deprived of the power of encouraging their patients by words of sincere and hearty confidence. There are physicians whose most hopeful assurances are of little or no service to their patients, because those physicians are known to be willing to lie to a patient in an emergency; and how can a timid patient be sure that his case does not present such an emergency? Therefore it is that a physician’s habit of lying to his patients as a means of cure would cause him to lose the power of aiding by truthful assurances those patients who most needed help of this sort.

It is poor policy, as policy, to venture a lie in behalf of a single patient, at the cost of losing the power to make the truth beneficial to a hundred patients whose lives may be dependent on wise words of encouragement. And the policy is still poorer as policy, when it is in the line of an unmistakable sin. And many a good physician like many a good soldier, repudiates the idea of a “lie of necessity” in his profession.

Since lying is sinful because a lie is always a lie unto God, the fact that a lie is spoken to an insane person or to a would-be criminal does not make it any the less a sin in God’s sight. And it is held by some of the most eminent physicians to the insane that lying to the insane is as poor policy as it is bad morals, and that it is never justifiable, and therefore is never a “necessity” in that sphere.[1]

[Footnote 1: See, for example, the views of Dr. Thomas S. Kirkbride, physician-in-chief and superintendent of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, in the Report of that institution for 1883, at pages 74-76. In speaking of the duty of avoiding deception in dealings with the insane, he said: “I never think it right to speak anything but the truth.”]

So also in dealing with the would-be criminal, a lie is not justifiable in order to save one’s life, or one’s possessions that are dearer than life, nor yet to prevent the commission of a crime or to guard the highest interests of those whom we love. Yet concealment of that which ought to be concealed is as truly a duty when disclosure would lead to crime, or would imperil the interests of ourselves or others, as it is in all the ordinary affairs of life; but lying as a means of concealment is not to be tolerated in such a case any more than in any other case.

If a robber, with a pistol in his hand, were in a man’s bedroom at night, it would not be wrong for the defenseless inmate to remain quiet in his bed, in concealment of the fact that he was awake, if thereby he could save his life, at the expense of his property. If a would-be murderer were seeking his victim, and a man who knew this fact were asked to tell of his whereabouts, it would be that man’s duty to conceal his knowledge at this point by all legitimate means. He might refuse to speak, even though his own life were risked thereby; for it were better to die than to lie. And so in many another emergency.

A lie being a sin _per se_, no price paid for it, nor any advantage to be gained from it, would make it other than a sin. The temptation to look at it as a “necessity” may, indeed, be increased by increasing the supposed cost of its refusal; but it is a temptation to wrong-doing to the last. It was a heathen maxim, “Do right though the heavens fall,” and Christian ethics ought not to have a lower standard than that of the best heathen morality.

Duty toward God cannot be counted out of this question. God himself cannot lie. God cannot justify or approve a lie. Hence it follows that he who deliberately lies in order to secure a gain to himself, or to one whom he loves, must by that very act leave the service of God, and put himself for the time being under the rule of the “father of lies.” Thus in an emergency which seems to a man to justify a “lie of necessity” that man’s attitude toward God might be indicated in this address to him: “Lord, I should prefer to continue in your service, and I would do so if you were able and willing to help me. But I find myself in an emergency where a lie is a ‘necessity,’ and so I must avail myself of the help of ‘the father of lies.’ If I am carried through this crisis by his help, I shall be glad to resume my position in your service.” The man whose whole moral nature recoils from this position, will not be led into it by the best arguments of Christian philosophers in favor of the “lie of necessity.”



Because of the obvious gain in lying in times of extremity, and because of the manifest peril or cost of truth-telling in an emergency, attempts have been made, by interested or prejudiced persons, all along the ages, to reconcile the general duty of adhering to an absolute standard of right, with the special inducements, or temptations, to depart from that standard for the time being. It has been claimed by many that the results of a lie would, under certain circumstances, justify the use of a lie,–the good end in this case justifying the bad means in this case. And the endeavor has also been made to show that what is called a lie is not always a lie. Yet there have ever been found stalwart champions of the right, ready to insist that a lie is a sin _per se_, and therefore not to be justified by any advantage or profit in its utterance.

Prominent in the earlier recorded discussions of the centuries concerning the admissibility of the lie, are those of the Jewish Talmudists and of the Christian Fathers. As in the Bible story the standard of right is recognized as unvariable, even though such Bible characters as Abraham and Jacob and David, and Ananias and Sapphira, fail to conform to it in personal practice; so in the records of the Talmud and the Fathers there are not wanting instances of godly men who are ready to speak in favor of a departure from the strictest requirement of the law of truth, even while the great sweep of sentiment is seen to be in favor of the line that separates the lie from the truth eternally.

Hamburger, a recognized Jewish authority in this sphere, represents the teachings of the Talmud as even more comprehensive and explicit than the Bible itself, in favor of the universal duty of truthfulness. He says: “Mosaism, with its fundamental law of holiness, has established the standard of truthfulness with incomparable definiteness and sharpness (see Lev. 19: 2, 12, 13, 34-37). Truthfulness is here presented as derived directly from the principle of holiness, and to be practiced without regard to resulting benefit or injury to foe or to friend, to foreigner or to countryman. In this moral loftiness these Mosaic teachings as to truthfulness pervade the whole Bible. In the Talmud they receive a profounder comprehension and a further development. Truthfulness toward men is represented as a duty toward God; and, on the other hand, any departure from it is a departure from God.”[1]

[Footnote 1: Hamburger’s _Real-Encyclopadie fuer Bibel und Talmud_, I., art. “Truthfulness” (_Wahrhaftigkeit_).]

As specimen illustrations of the teachings of the Talmud on this theme, Hamburger quotes these utterances from its pages: “He who alters his word, at the same time commits idolatry.” “Three are hated of God: he who speaks with his mouth otherwise than as he feels with his heart; he who knows of evidence against any one, and does not disclose it,” etc. “Four cannot appear before God: the scorner, the hypocrite, the liar, and the slanderer.” “‘A just measure thou shalt keep;’ that is, we should not think one thing in our heart, and speak another with our mouth.” “Seven commit the offense of theft: he who steals [sneaks into] the good will of another; he who invites his friend to visit him, and does not mean it in his heart; he who offers his neighbor presents, knowing beforehand that he will not receive them,” etc.

And Hamburger adds: “Every lie, therefore, however excellent the motive, is decidedly forbidden…. In the tract Jebamoth, 63, Raba blames his son for employing a ‘lie of necessity’ _(nothluege)_ to restore peace between his father and his mother…. It is clear that the Talmud decidedly rejects the principle that ‘the end justifies the means.'”[1]

[Footnote 1: Compare also art. “Falseness” _(Falscheit)_.]

On the other hand, Hamburger cites Rabbi Ishmael, one of the Talmudists, as teaching that a Jew might transgress even the prohibition of idolatry (and lying is, according to Talmudic teaching, equivalent to idolatry) in order to save his life, provided the act was not done in public. In support of his position, Rabbi Ishmael cited the declaration concerning the statutes of Moses in Leviticus 18: 5, “which if a man do he shall live in them,” and added by way of explanation: “He [the Israelite] is to live through the law, but is not to die through it.”[1]

[Footnote 1: See Hamburger’s _Real-Encyc_., II., art. “Ismael R.”]

And Isaac Abohab, an eminent Spanish rabbi, in his _Menorath Hammaor_[1] gives other illustrations from the Talmud of the advocacy of special exceptions to the strict law of truthfulness, with a good purpose in view, notwithstanding the sweeping claim to the contrary by Hamburger. He says: “Only when it is the intention to bring about peace between men, may anything be altered in discourse; as is taught in the tract Jebamoth. Rabbi Ilai says, in the name of Rabbi Jehuda, son of Rabbi Simeon: ‘One may alter something in discourse for the sake of establishing harmony.’… Rabbi Nathan says: ‘This indeed is a duty.’… Rabbi Ishmael taught: ‘Peace is of such importance that for its sake God even alters facts.'” In each of these cases the rabbi cited misapplies a Bible passage in support of his position.

[Footnote 1: See German translation by R.J. Fuerstenthal, Discourse II., I.]

Isaac Abohab adds: “In like manner the rabbis say that one may praise a bride in the presence of her bridegroom, and say that she is handsome and devout, when she is neither, if the intention predominates to make her attractive in the eyes of her bridegroom. Nevertheless a man is not to tell lies even in trifling matters, lest lying should come to be a habit with him, as is warned against in the tract Jebamoth.”

Thus it would appear that there were discussions on this subject among the rabbis of the Talmud, and that while there were those who advocated the “lie of necessity,” as a matter of personal gain or as a means of good to others, there were those who stood firmly against any form of the lie, or any falsity, as in itself at variance with the very nature of God, and with the plain duty of God’s children.

Among the Christian Fathers it was much the same as among the Jewish rabbis, in discussions over this question. The one unvarying standard was recognized, by the clearest thinkers, as binding on all for always; yet there were individuals inclined to find a reason for exceptions in the practical application of this standard. The phase of the question that immediately presented itself to the early Christians was, whether it were allowable for a man to deny to a pagan enemy that he was a Christian, or that one whom he held dear was a Christian, when the speaking of the truth would cost him his life, or cost the life of one whom he loved.

There were those who held that the duty to speak the truth was merely a social obligation, and that when a man showed himself as an enemy of God and of his fellows, he shut himself out from the pale of this social obligation; moreover, that when such a man could be deterred from crime, and at the same time a Christian’s life could be preserved, by the telling of an untruth, a falsehood would be justifiable. If the lie were told in private under such circumstances, it was by such persons considered different from a public denial of one’s faith. But, on the other hand, the great body of Christians, in the apostolic age, and in the age early following, acted on the conviction that a lie is a sin _per se_, and that no emergency could make a lie a necessity. And it was in fidelity to this conviction that the roll of Christian martyrs was so gloriously extended.

Justin Martyr, whose Apologies in behalf of the Christians are the earliest extant, speaks for the best of the class he represents when he says: “It is in our power, when we are examined, to deny that we are Christians; but we would not live by telling a lie.”[1] And again: “When we are examined, we make no denial, because we are not conscious of any evil, but count it impious not to speak the truth in all things, which also we know is pleasing to God.”[2] There was no thought in such a mind as Justin Martyr’s, or in the minds of his fellow-martyrs, that any life was worth saving at the cost of a lie in God’s sight.

[Footnote 1: First Apology, Chapter 8.]

[Footnote 2: Second Apology, Chapter 4.]

There were many temptations, and great ones, to the early Christians, to evade the consequences of being known as refusers to worship the gods of the Romans; and it is not to be wondered at that many poor mortals yielded to those temptations. Exemption from punishment could be purchased by saying that one had offered sacrifices to the gods, or by accepting a certificate that such sacrifice had been made, even when such was not the fact; or, again, by professing a readiness to sacrifice, without the intention of such compliance, or by permitting a friend to testify falsely as to the facts; and there were those who thought a lie of this sort justifiable, for the saving of their lives, when they would not have openly renounced their Christian faith.[1] There was much discussion over these practices in the writings of the Fathers; but while there was recognized a difference between open apostasy and the tolerance of a falsehood in one’s behalf, it was held by the church authorities that a lie was always sinful, even though there were degrees in modes of sinning.

[Footnote 1: See Smith and Cheetham’s _Dictionary of Christian Antiquities_, art. “Libelli.” See also Bingham’s _Antiquities of the Christian Church_, Book XVI., Chap. 13, Section 5; also Book XVI., Chap. 3, Section 14; with citations from Tertullian, Origen, and Cyprian.]

Ringing words against all forms of lying were spoken by some of the Christian Fathers. Says the Shepherd of Hermas: “Love the truth, and let nothing but truth proceed from your mouth, that the spirit which God has placed in your flesh may be found truthful before all men; and the Lord, who dwelleth in you, will be glorified, because the Lord is truthful in every word, and in him is no falsehood. They, therefore, who lie, deny the Lord, and rob him, not giving back to him the deposit which they have received. For they received from him a spirit free from falsehood. If they give him back this spirit untruthful, they pollute the commandment of the Lord, and become robbers.”[1]

[Footnote 1: Book II., Commandment Third. _The Ante-Nicene Fathers_ (Am. ed.), II., 21.]

Tertullian names among “sins of daily committal, to which we all are liable,” the “sin” of “lying, from bashfulness [or modesty], or ‘necessity.'”[1] Origen also speaks of the frequency of “lying, or of idle talking;”[2] as if possibly its frequency were in some sense an excuse for it. And Origen specifically claimed that the apostles Peter and Paul agreed together to deceive their hearers at Antioch by simulating a dissension between themselves, when in reality they were agreed.[3] Origen also seemed to approve of false speaking to those who were not entitled to know all the truth; as when he says of the cautious use of falsehood, “a man on whom necessity imposes the responsibility of lying is bound to use very great care, and to use falsehood as he would a stimulant or a medicine, and strictly to preserve its measure, and not go beyond the bounds observed by Judith in her dealings with Holofernes, whom she overcame by the wisdom with which she dissembled her words.”[4]

[Footnote 1: “On Modesty,” Chap. 19. _The Ante-Nicene Fathers_, XIV., 97.]

[Footnote 2: Origen’s Commentaries on Matthew, Tract VI., p. 60; cited in Bingham’s _Antiq. of Chr. Ch_., Book XVI., Chap. 3.]

[Footnote 3: Gal. 2: 11-14. A concise statement of the influence of this teaching of Origen on the patristic interpretations of the passage in Galatians, is given by Lightfoot in his commentary on Galatians, sixth edition, pp. 128-132.]

[Footnote 4: Quoted from the sixth book of Origen’s Miscellanies by Jerome, in his Apology against Rufinus, Book I., sec. 18. See _The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers_, second series (Am. ed.), III., 492. See, also, Neander’s _Geschichte der Christlichen Ethik_, pp. 160, 167.]

There were Christian Fathers who found it convenient to lie, in their own behalf or in behalf of others; and it was quite natural for such mortals to seek to find an excuse for lies that “seemed so necessary” for their purposes. When Gregory of Nyssa, in his laudable effort to bring about a reconciliation between his elder brother Basil and their uncle, was “induced to practice a deceit which was as irreconcilable with Christian principles as with common sense,”[1] he was ready to argue in defense of such a course.

[Footnote 1: Moore’s _Life of S. Gregory of Nyssa. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers_, second series (Am. ed.), V., 5.]

So again, when his brother Basil was charged with falsehood in a comparatively “trivial” matter, (where, in fact, he had merely been in error unintentionally,) Gregory falls back upon the comforting suggestion, that as to lying, in one way or another everybody is at fault; “accordingly, we accept that general statement which the Holy Spirit uttered by the Prophet, ‘Every man is a liar.'”[1] Gregory protests against the “solemn reflections on falsehood” by Eunomius, in this connection, and his seeing equal heinousness in it whether in great or very trivial matters. “Cease,” he says, “to bid us think it of no account to measure the guilt of a falsehood by the slightness