What happens if, instead, we decide to stop lying? What does this even mean? We are limited in our knowledge, after all. We must make decisions, here and now, even though the best means and the best goals can never be discerned with certainty. An aim, an ambition, provides the structure necessary for action. An aim provides a destination, a point of contrast against the present, and a framework, within which all things can be evaluated. An aim defines progress and makes such progress exciting. An aim reduces anxiety, because if you have no aim everything can mean anything or nothing, and neither of those two options makes for a tranquil spirit. Thus, we have to think, and plan, and limit, and posit, in order to live at all. How then to envision the future, and establish our direction, without falling prey to the temptation of totalitarian certainty?
Some reliance on tradition can help us establish our aims. It is reasonable to do what other people have always done, unless we have a very good reason not to. It is reasonable to become educated and work and find love and have a family. That is how culture maintains itself. But it is necessary to aim at your target, however traditional, with your eyes wide open. You have a direction, but it might be wrong. You have a plan, but it might be ill-formed. You may have been led astray by your own ignorance—and, worse, by your own unrevealed corruption. You must make friends, therefore, with what you don’t know, instead of what you know. You must remain awake to catch yourself in the act. You must remove the beam in your own eye, before you concern yourself with the mote in your brother’s. And in this way, you strengthen your own spirit, so it can tolerate the burden of existence, and you rejuvenate the state.
The ancient Egyptians had already figured this out thousands of years ago, although their knowledge remained embodied in dramatic form. They worshipped Osiris, mythological founder of the state and the god of tradition. Osiris, however, was vulnerable to overthrow and banishment to the underworld by Set, his evil, scheming brother. The Egyptians represented in story the fact that social organizations ossify with time, and tend towards willful blindness. Osiris would not see his brother’s true character, even though he could have. Set waits and, at an opportune moment, attacks. He hacks Osiris into pieces, and scatters the divine remains through the kingdom. He sends his brother’s spirit to the underworld. He makes it very difficult for Osiris to pull himself back together.
Fortunately, the great king did not have to deal with Set on his own. The Egyptians also worshipped Horus, the son of Osiris. Horus took the twin forms of a falcon, the most visually acute of all creatures, and the still-famous hieroglyphic single Egyptian eye (as alluded to in Rule 7). Osiris is tradition, aged and willfully blind. Horus, his son, could and would, by contrast, see. Horus was the god of attention. That is not the same as rationality. Because he paid attention, Horus could perceive and triumph against the evils of Set, his uncle, albeit at great cost. When Horus confronts Set, they have a terrible battle. Before Set’s defeat and banishment from the kingdom, he tears out one of his nephew’s eyes. But the eventually victorious Horus takes back the eye. Then he does something truly unexpected: he journeys voluntarily to the underworld and gives the eye to his father.
What does this mean? First, that the encounter with malevolence and evil is of sufficient terror to damage even the vision of a god; second, that the attentive son can restore the vision of his father. Culture is always in a near-dead state, even though it was established by the spirit of great people in the past. But the present is not the past. The wisdom of the past thus deteriorates, or becomes outdated, in proportion to the genuine difference between the conditions of the present and the past. That is a mere consequence of the passage of time, and the change that passage inevitably brings. But it is also the case that culture and its wisdom is additionally vulnerable to corruption—to voluntary, willful blindness and Mephistophelean intrigue. Thus, the inevitable functional decline of the institutions granted to us by our ancestors is sped along by our misbehavior—our missing of the mark—in the present.
It is our responsibility to see what is before our eyes, courageously, and to learn from it, even if it seems horrible—even if the horror of seeing it damages our consciousness, and half-blinds us. The act of seeing is particularly important when it challenges what we know and rely on, upsetting and destabilizing us. It is the act of seeing that informs the individual and updates the state. It was for this reason that Nietzsche said that a man’s worth was determined by how much truth he could tolerate. You are by no means only what you already know. You are also all that which you could know, if you only would. Thus, you should never sacrifice what you could be for what you are. You should never give up the better that resides within for the security you already have—and certainly not when you have already caught a glimpse, an undeniable glimpse, of something beyond.
In the Christian tradition, Christ is identified with the Logos. The Logos is the Word of God. That Word transformed chaos into order at the beginning of time. In His human form, Christ sacrificed himself voluntarily to the truth, to the good, to God. In consequence, He died and was reborn. The Word that produces order from Chaos sacrifices everything, even itself, to God. That single sentence, wise beyond comprehension, sums up Christianity. Every bit of learning is a little death. Every bit of new information challenges a previous conception, forcing it to dissolve into chaos before it can be reborn as something better. Sometimes such deaths virtually destroy us. In such cases, we might never recover or, if we do, we change a lot. A good friend of mine discovered that his wife of decades was having an affair. He didn’t see it coming. It plunged him into a deep depression. He descended into the underworld. He told me, at one point, “I always thought that people who were depressed should just shake it off. I didn’t have any idea what I was talking about.” Eventually, he returned from the depths. In many ways, he’s a new man—and, perhaps, a wiser and better man. He lost forty pounds. He ran a marathon. He travelled to Africa and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. He chose rebirth over descent into Hell.
Set your ambitions, even if you are uncertain about what they should be. The better ambitions have to do with the development of character and ability, rather than status and power. Status you can lose. You carry character with you wherever you go, and it allows you to prevail against adversity. Knowing this, tie a rope to a boulder. Pick up the great stone, heave it in front of you, and pull yourself towards it. Watch and observe while you move forward. Articulate your experience as clearly and carefully to yourself and others as you possibly can. In this manner, you will learn to proceed more effectively and efficiently towards your goal. And, while you are doing this, do not lie. Especially to yourself.
If you pay attention to what you do and say, you can learn to feel a state of internal division and weakness when you are misbehaving and misspeaking. It’s an embodied sensation, not a thought. I experience an internal sensation of sinking and division, rather than solidity and strength, when I am incautious with my acts and words. It seems to be centred in my solar plexus, where a large knot of nervous tissue resides. I learned to recognize when I was lying, in fact, by noticing this sinking and division, and then inferring the presence of a lie. It often took me a long time to ferret out the deception. Sometimes I was using words for appearance. Sometimes I was trying to disguise my own true ignorance of the topic at hand. Sometimes I was using the words of others to avoid the responsibility of thinking for myself.
If you pay attention, when you are seeking something, you will move towards your goal. More importantly, however, you will acquire the information that allows your goal itself to transform. A totalitarian never asks, “What if my current ambition is in error?” He treats it, instead, as the Absolute. It becomes his God, for all intents and purposes. It constitutes his highest value. It regulates his emotions and motivational states, and determines his thoughts. All people serve their ambition. In that matter, there are no atheists. There are only people who know, and don’t know, what God they serve.
If you bend everything totally, blindly and willfully towards the attainment of a goal, and only that goal, you will never be able to discover if another goal would serve you, and the world, better. It is this that you sacrifice if you do not tell the truth. If, instead, you tell the truth, your values transform as you progress. If you allow yourself to be informed by the reality manifesting itself, as you struggle forward, your notions of what is important will change. You will reorient yourself, sometimes gradually, and sometimes suddenly and radically.
Imagine: you go to engineering school, because that is what your parents desire—but it is not what you want. Working at cross-purposes to your own wishes, you will find yourself unmotivated, and failing. You will struggle to concentrate and discipline yourself, but it will not work. Your soul will reject the tyranny of your will (how else could that be said?). Why are you complying? You may not want to disappoint your parents (although if you fail you will do exactly that). You may lack the courage for the conflict necessary to free yourself. You may not want to sacrifice your childish belief in parental omniscience, wishing devoutly to continue believing that there is someone who knows you better than you know yourself, and who also knows all about the world. You want to be shielded in this manner from the stark existential aloneness of individual Being and its attendant responsibility. This is all very common and understandable. But you suffer because you are truly not meant to be an engineer.
One day you have had enough. You drop out. You disappoint your parents. You learn to live with that. You consult only yourself, even though that means you must rely on your own decisions. You take a philosophy degree. You accept the burden of your own mistakes. You become your own person. By rejecting your father’s vision, you develop your own. And then, as your parents age, you’ve become adult enough to be there for them, when they come to need you. They win, too. But both victories had to be purchased at the cost of the conflict engendered by your truth. As Matthew 10:34 has it, citing Christ—emphasizing the role of the spoken Truth: “Think not that I have come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.”
As you continue to live in accordance with the truth, as it reveals itself to you, you will have to accept and deal with the conflicts that mode of Being will generate. If you do so, you will continue to mature and become more responsible, in small ways (don’t underestimate their importance) and in large. You will ever more closely approach your newer and more wisely formulated goals, and become even wiser in their formulation, when you discover and rectify your inevitable errors. Your conception of what is important will become more and more appropriate, as you incorporate the wisdom of your experience. You will quit wildly oscillating and walk ever more directly towards the good—a good you could never have comprehended if you had insisted despite all evidence that you were right, absolutely right, at the beginning.
If existence is good, then the clearest and cleanest and most correct relationship with it is also good. If existence is not good, by contrast, you’re lost. Nothing will save you— certainly not the petty rebellions, murky thinking and obscurantist blindness that constitute deceit. Is existence good? You have to take a terrible risk to find out. Live in truth, or live in deceit, face the consequences, and draw your conclusions.
This is the “act of faith” whose necessity was insisted upon by the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard. You cannot know ahead of time. Even a good example is insufficient for proof, given the differences between individuals. The success of a good example can always be attributed to luck. Thus, you have to risk your particular, individual life to find out. It is this risk that the ancients described as the sacrifice of personal will to the will of God. It is not an act of submission (at least as submission is currently understood). It is an act of courage. It is faith that the wind will blow your ship to a new and better port. It is the faith that Being can be corrected by becoming. It is the spirit of exploration itself.
Perhaps it is better to conceptualize it this way: Everyone needs a concrete, specific goal —an ambition, and a purpose—to limit chaos and make intelligible sense of his or her life. But all such concrete goals can and should be subordinated to what might be considered a meta-goal, which is a way of approaching and formulating goals themselves. The meta-goal could be “live in truth.” This means, “Act diligently towards some well- articulated, defined and temporary end. Make your criteria for failure and success timely and clear, at least for yourself (and even better if others can understand what you are doing and evaluate it with you). While doing so, however, allow the world and your spirit to unfold as they will, while you act out and articulate the truth.” This is both pragmatic ambition and the most courageous of faiths.
Life is suffering. The Buddha stated that, explicitly. Christians portray the same sentiment imagistically, with the divine crucifix. The Jewish faith is saturated with its remembrance. The equivalence of life and limitation is the primary and unavoidable fact of existence. The vulnerability of our Being renders us susceptible to the pains of social judgement and contempt and the inevitable breakdown of our bodies. But even all those ways of suffering, terrible as they are, are not sufficient to corrupt the world, to transform it into Hell, the way the Nazis and the Maoists and the Stalinists corrupted the world and turned it into Hell. For that, as Hitler stated so clearly, you need the lie:
[I]n the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation.
For the big lie, you first need the little lie. The little lie is, metaphorically speaking, the bait used by the Father of Lies to hook his victims. The human capacity for imagination makes us capable of dreaming up and creating alternative worlds. This is the ultimate source of our creativity. With that singular capacity, however, comes the counterpart, the opposite side of the coin: we can deceive ourselves and others into believing and acting as if things are other than we know they are.
And why not he? Why not twist and distort things to obtain a small gain, or to smooth things over, or to keep the peace, or to avoid hurt feelings? Reality has its terrible aspect: do we really need to confront its snake-headed face in every moment of our waking consciousness, and at every turn in our lives? Why not turn away, at least, when looking is simply too painful?
The reason is simple. Things fall apart. What worked yesterday will not necessarily work today. We have inherited the great machinery of state and culture from our forefathers, but they are dead, and cannot deal with the changes of the day. The living can. We can open our eyes and modify what we have where necessary and keep the machinery running smoothly. Or we can pretend that everything is alright, fail to make the necessary repairs, and then curse fate when nothing goes our way.
Things fall apart: this is one of the great discoveries of humanity. And we speed the natural deterioration of great things through blindness, inaction and deceit. Without attention, culture degenerates and dies, and evil prevails.
What you see of a lie when you act it out (and most lies are acted out, rather than told) is very little of what it actually is. A lie is connected to everything else. It produces the same effect on the world that a single drop of sewage produces in even the largest crystal magnum of champagne. It is something best considered live and growing.
When the lies get big enough, the whole world spoils. But if you look close enough, the biggest of lies is composed of smaller lies, and those are composed of still smaller lies— and the smallest of lies is where the big lie starts. It is not the mere misstatement of fact. It is instead an act that has the aspect of the most serious conspiracy ever to possess the race of man. Its seeming innocuousness, its trivial meanness, the feeble arrogance that gives rise to it, the apparently trivial circumventing of responsibility that it aims at—these all work effectively to camouflage its true nature, its genuine dangerousness, and its equivalence with the great acts of evil that man perpetrates and often enjoys. Lies corrupt the world. Worse, that is their intent.
First, a little lie; then, several little lies to prop it up. After that, distorted thinking to avoid the shame that those lies produce, then a few more lies to cover up the consequences of the distorted thinking. Then, most terribly, the transformation of those now necessary lies through practice into automatized, specialized, structural, neurologically instantiated “unconscious” belief and action. Then the sickening of experience itself as action predicated on falsehood fails to produce the results intended. If you don’t believe in brick walls, you will still be injured when you run headlong into one. Then you will curse reality itself for producing the wall.
After that comes the arrogance and sense of superiority that inevitably accompanies the production of successful lies ( hypothetically successful lies—and that is one of the greatest dangers: apparently everyone is fooled, so everyone is stupid, except me. Everyone is stupid and fooled, by me—so I can get away with whatever I want). Finally, there is the proposition: “Being itself is susceptible to my manipulations. Thus, it deserves no respect.”
That’s things falling apart, like Osiris, severed into pieces. That’s the structure of the person or the state disintegrating under the influence of a malign force. That’s the chaos of the underworld emerging, like a flood, to subsume familiar ground. But it’s not yet Hell.
Hell comes later. Hell comes when lies have destroyed the relationship between individual or state and reality itself. Things fall apart. Life degenerates. Everything becomes frustration and disappointment. Hope consistently betrays. The deceit full individual desperately gestures at sacrifice, like Cain, but fails to please God. Then the drama enters its final act.
Tortured by constant failure, the individual becomes bitter. Disappointment and failure amalgamate, and produce a fantasy: the world is bent on my personal suffering, my particular undoing, my destruction. I need, I deserve, I must have—my revenge. That’s the gateway to Hell. That’s when the underworld, a terrifying and unfamiliar place, becomes misery itself.
At the beginning of time, according to the great Western tradition, the Word of God transformed chaos into Being through the act of speech. It is axiomatic, within that tradition, that man and woman alike are made in the image of that God. We also transform chaos into Being, through speech. We transform the manifold possibilities of the future into the actualities of past and present.
To tell the truth is to bring the most habitable reality into Being. Truth builds edifices that can stand a thousand years. Truth feeds and clothes the poor, and makes nations wealthy and safe. Truth reduces the terrible complexity of a man to the simplicity of his word, so that he can become a partner, rather than an enemy. Truth makes the past truly past, and makes the best use of the future’s possibilities. Truth is the ultimate, inexhaustible natural resource. It’s the light in the darkness.