Saturday, May 08, 2004

When Words Deceive Us

Montaigne's essay "On Giving the Lie" has a dirty sound to the title, sort of dark alley, up to no good. I expected Montaigne to talk about corruption or something. Instead he begins by talking about himself and why he writes his essays. He claims the essays are "for some corner of a library and as a pastime for a neighbour, a relative or a friend who will find pleasure in meeting me and frequenting me again through this portrait." He goes on to say that he hopes the publication of his essays will, at the least, provide wrapping paper for someone's "tunny-fish" or mackerel. In the end, however, it comes down to self-examination. Montaigne claims he is a better man for all of his time spent thinking about himself and his life. And suddenly the essay takes a turn, "But during a time so debased, what man are we to trust when he speaks of himself, seeing there are few, perhaps none, whom we can trust when they speak of others, where they have less to gain from lying?" And here a picture of Fox Mulder's dingy basement office flashes in my mind, and "trust no one" pulses to the X-Files theme song. Montaigne, like Mulder, doesn't let it stop there because "Truth for us nowadays is not what is, but what others can be brought to accept." My brain began to swarm with conspiracy theories. When they subsided I was saddened by the cliched but true, the more things change the more they remain the same. I mean really, you'd think we would have managed to evolve a little since the Renaissance, but apparently not, we've only grown more sophisticated in the myriad ways in which we can "give the lie." Montaigne asks, "Why for us it should be the ultimate verbal insult to accuse us of lying. Whereupon I find it natural for us to protect ourselves from those failings in which we are most sullied. It seems that by resenting the accusation and growing angry about it we unload some of the guilt; we are guilty, in fact, but at least we condemn it for show." Isn't this what is going on right now? Between the government and corporations it comes at us from all sides. The CEOs declare they are appalled at their accountants' cooking the books. The president of the U.S. calls prisoner abuse "abhorrent" and says he had no idea what was going on. The problem with lies is that

Our understanding is conducted solely by means of the word: anyone who falsifies it betrays public society. It is the only tool by which we communicate our wishes and our thoughts; it is our soul's interpreter: if we lack that, we can no longer hold together; we can no longer know each other. When words deceive us, it breaks all intercourse and loosens the bonds of our polity.
Ominous words and sobering thoughts. We may have technology that allows us to communicate in more varied ways, but words are still primary. When those in positions of leadership, be it of a country or a neighborhood gardening club, lie, society breaks down. When it happens rarely, society can recover. But, if it becomes common place? If we are all forced to live our lives with the motto trust no one? What then? If I can't trust my neighbor, how am I going to trust my neighborhood? If I can't trust the President, how can I trust my country? Montaigne believed in both the moral value of his work and truth telling. Self-examination is worthless if you can't even be honest with yourself. Montaigne does not claim to have "so much good in me that I may not tell of it without blushing," but by broadening his scope from self-examination to the importance of truth as a social compact, he successfully criticizes society for its current debasement and raises himself and his essays above it. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On Repenting"