On Lying

Daniel Mahoney’s book, The Other Solzhenitsyn, follows the judicious pattern with which Mahoney, in previous books, treated de Gaulle, Aron, Manent, and other writers. We note that one of the commandments tells us not to “lie.” After reading Mahoney, we suspect that the “lie,” not murder, adultery, or stealing, is the most heinous of all the sins.

Certainly, in Solzhenitsyn’s judgment, it was the “lie” that was the foundation of modern totalitarianism. The “lie” made its killing possible. Its lie embraced almost anyone who went along with it either out of agreement or fear. The great courage of Solzhenitsyn was revealed not so much in suffering inside the concentration camp as in his adamant refusal to lie about the totalitarian order in which he lived. Not to lie means to tell the truth about what is.

The story of George Washington never telling a lie perhaps witnessed to something more fundamental in our politics and culture than we are wont to admit. To function at all, any justice system must require witnesses publicly to profess that they answer questions truthfully. To “perjure” oneself means precisely to tell a lie when one has sworn that he is telling the truth.

For a republic to be founded on the principle of “no official lies” is surely a good thing. We know that many men lie for many reasons. We deal with this fact under the headings of justice, repentance, and, if appropriate, clemency. We do not justify lying on the grounds that many in practice lie and know they lie.

            The “lie” is made famous in political philosophy both by Machiavelli and Plato. For Machiavelli, the lie was a tool in the arsenal of the politician, to be used, like truth, if it was deemed helpful to stay in power. But Machiavelli’s politician knew he was lying. He was not claiming it was “true.”

Plato’s “noble lie,” however, was not really a lie. It relates to what Solzhenitsyn had in mind. To those who live in untruth, the truth will seem like a “lie.” Modern ideology is a description of the world that does not correspond to reality. It seeks to implant, either by force or persuasion, an untrue system on human reality.

This is why, as Solzhenitsyn said, ideology must live by the “lie” and by force, why it must punish truth tellers who identify what is real, who affirm that a Gulag is a systematic killing of actual human beings for no reason but to maintain the ideology in power.

Memorial for Unborn Children by Martin Hudáček (2011)

Plato is often blamed for founding such ideology. But he is really the greatest of the opponents to ideology. The best city is in “mind” or “speech.” Actual cities can never be perfect. To seek to make cities in this world perfect is the very essence of ideology. Man’s final end is transcendent to actual cities. To seek to impose transcendent perfection in this world, it is always necessary to use lies and force, as Solzhenitsyn never tired of showing.

What is a “lie”? A lie is a statement, presented as fact, which does not conform to a reality that we did not make or legislate into existence. Recently, the director of the State of California Health Department, in imposing, i.e., forcing abortion on Catholic universities, said that: “Abortion is a basic health care service.”

This is a public lie. Abortion is the direct killing of a human life. It is always lethal to the child and mostly deleterious to the mother and father. It is also a moral delict on the part of those who perform it and those who legally make it possible. To choose to live by and enforce this lie is to embrace ideology.

This is the most hateful of all kinds of lies. It is a lie responsible for killing more actual human beings than all the Gulags of the world ever thought of – over 1,300,000,000 abortions in the world since 1980.

What does a lie do? It makes communication between human beings impossible. To state that killing a child is “health care” is incoherent. The essence of a lie substitutes something plausible for what is true. The birth of a child and the health of a mother are goods. But motherhood, fatherhood, and childhood are not in opposition to each other, but part of the same coordinate reality. To separate them is to lie about them.

The broader issue of lying needs to be stated. If what I affirm is a lie, I cut myself off from reality. If I insist on making my lies public, even public law, I must not permit the truth that my lies deny to appear. I must prevent their statement. This is why lies and force are twins. The opposite of the lie is truth. This is the real issue that Solzhenitsyn spent his life affirming.


James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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