instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Begin at the beginning

I've been trying to formulate my position on the question of what constitutes the sin of lying, and I keep coming back to someone else's formula: "locutio contra mentem." Speech contrary to thought is a sin.

That's a simple formula, which raises well-known difficulties. Here I'll just say I think it makes sense to put the complexities into the concept of "speech" rather than into the concept of "to lie."1 So, for example, I think St. Augustine notes a nuance St. Thomas seems to miss in distinguishing jokes from jocose lies.2

The point of this post, though, is this:

To go from this, or any other, definition of lying straight to the well-known difficulties is to go in the wrong direction.

That's because to give a definition of lying is to start in the middle of the discussion. Lying, like all sin, is a privation of a good, and if you don't understand the good that lying deprives you of, then you don't know which of the well-known difficulties to raise, or how to answer them.

As it is, I think most discussions on lying on Catholic blogs would confirm Charles Kingsley in his opinion that Catholics do not view truth for its own sake as a virtue. Even that last sentence illustrates the problem; why do I say "discussions on lying" rather than "discussions on truth-telling"?

If we don't understand the virtue of truth, then of course we're going to quibble and cavil over every jot and tittle in any definition of "to lie."3 Of course nothing will ever be settled.

And of course, we'll keep right on lying. Why wouldn't we, if we don't know the value of truth?

1.The formula "falsa significatio contra mentem" may, therefore, be a slightly better one, except that no one would believe "falsa significatio" is real Latin.

2. "Setting aside, therefore, jokes, which have never been accounted lies, seeing they bear with them in the tone of voice, and in the very mood of the joker a most evident indication that he means no deceit, although the thing he utters be not true: touching which kind of discourse, whether it be meet to be used by perfect minds, is another question which we have not at this time taken in hand to clear...." -- St. Augustine, On Lying 2. C.f. ST II-II 110, 3, ad 6, "a jocose lie... is not told to deceive, nor does it deceive by the way it is told."

3. Seriously. How many orphanages could have been built in the time Catholics have spent arguing about whether saying "I'm fine" when you're sick is a lie?