Mark Twain Essay On Lying
My First Lie, and How I Got Out of It
by Mark Twain
As I understand it, what you desire is information about 'my first lie, and how I got out of it.' I was born in 1835; I am well along, and my memory is not as good as it was. If you had asked about my first truth it would have been easier for me and kinder of you, for I remember that fairly well. I remember it as if it were last week. The family think it was week before, but that is flattery and probably has a selfish project back of it. When a person has become seasoned by experience and has reached the age of sixty-four, which is the age of discretion, he likes a family compliment as well as ever, but he does not lose his head over it as in the old innocent days.
I do not remember my first lie, it is too far back; but I remember my second one very well. I was nine days old at the time, and had noticed that if a pin was sticking in me and I advertised it in the usual fashion, I was lovingly petted and coddled and pitied in a most agreeable way and got a ration between meals besides.
It was human nature to want to get these riches, and I fell. I lied about the pin--advertising one when there wasn't any. You would have done it; George Washington did it, anybody would have done it. During the first half of my life I never knew a child that was able to rise about that temptation and keep from telling that lie. Up to 1867 all the civilised children that were ever born into the world were liars --including George. Then the safety-pin came in and blocked the game. But is that reform worth anything? No; for it is reform by force and has no virtue in it; it merely stops that form of lying, it doesn't impair the disposition to lie, by a shade. It is the cradle application of conversion by fire and sword, or of the temperance principle through prohibition.
To return to that early lie. They found no pin and they realised that another liar had been added to the world's supply. For by grace of a rare inspiration a quite commonplace but seldom noticed fact was borne in upon their understandings--that almost all lies are acts, and speech has no part in them. Then, if they examined a little further they recognised that all people are liars from the cradle onwards, without exception, and that they begin to lie as soon as they wake in the morning, and keep it up without rest or refreshment until they go to sleep at night. If they arrived at that truth it probably grieved them--did, if they had been heedlessly and ignorantly educated by their books and teachers; for why should a person grieve over a thing which by the eternal law of his make he cannot help? He didn't invent the law; it is merely his business to obey it and keep still; join the universal conspiracy and keep so still that he shall deceive his fellow-conspirators into imagining that he doesn't know that the law exists. It is what we all do--we that know. I am speaking of the lie of silent assertion; we can tell it without saying a word, and we all do it--we that know. In the magnitude of its territorial spread it is one of the most majestic lies that the civilisations make it their sacred and anxious care to guard and watch and propagate.
For instance. It would not be possible for a humane and intelligent person to invent a rational excuse for slavery; yet you will remember that in the early days of the emancipation agitation in the North the agitators got but small help or countenance from any one. Argue and plead and pray as they might, they could not break the universal stillness that reigned, from pulpit and press all the way down to the bottom of society--the clammy stillness created and maintained by the lie of silent assertion--the silent assertion that there wasn't anything going on in which humane and intelligent people were interested.
From the beginning of the Dreyfus case to the end of it all France, except a couple of dozen moral paladins, lay under the smother of the silent-assertion lie that no wrong was being done to a persecuted and unoffending man. The like smother was over England lately, a good half of the population silently letting on that they were not aware that Mr. Chamberlain was trying to manufacture a war in South Africa and was willing to pay fancy prices for the materials.
Now there we have instances of three prominent ostensible civilisations working the silent-assertion lie. Could one find other instances in the three countries? I think so. Not so very many perhaps, but say a billion--just so as to keep within bounds. Are those countries working that kind of lie, day in and day out, in thousands and thousands of varieties, without ever resting? Yes, we know that to be true. The universal conspiracy of the silent-assertion lie is hard at work always and everywhere, and always in the interest of a stupidity or a sham, never in the interest of a thing fine or respectable. Is it the most timid and shabby of all lies? It seems to have the look of it. For ages and ages it has mutely laboured in the interest of despotisms and aristocracies and chattel slaveries, and military slaveries, and religious slaveries, and has kept them alive; keeps them alive yet, here and there and yonder, all about the globe; and will go on keeping them alive until the silent-assertion lie retires from business--the silent assertion that nothing is going on which fair and intelligent men are aware of and are engaged by their duty to try to stop.
What I am arriving at is this: When whole races and peoples conspire to propagate gigantic mute lies in the interest of tyrannies and shams, why should we care anything about the trifling lies told by individuals? Why should we try to make it appear that abstention from lying is a virtue? Why should we want to beguile ourselves in that way? Why should we without shame help the nation lie, and then be ashamed to do a little lying on our own account? Why shouldn't we be honest and honourable, and lie every time we get a chance? That is to say, why shouldn't we be consistent, and either lie all the time or not at all? Why should we help the nation lie the whole day long and then object to telling one little individual private lie in our own interest to go to bed on? Just for the refreshment of it, I mean, and to take the rancid taste out of our mouth.
Here in England they have the oddest ways. They won't tell a spoken lie --nothing can persuade them. Except in a large moral interest, like politics or religion, I mean. To tell a spoken lie to get even the poorest little personal advantage out of it is a thing which is impossible to them. They make me ashamed of myself sometimes, they are so bigoted. They will not even tell a lie for the fun of it; they will not tell it when it hasn't even a suggestion of damage or advantage in it for any one. This has a restraining influence upon me in spite of reason, and I am always getting out of practice.
Of course, they tell all sorts of little unspoken lies, just like anybody; but they don't notice it until their attention is called to it. They have got me so that sometimes I never tell a verbal lie now except in a modified form; and even in the modified form they don't approve of it. Still, that is as far as I can go in the interest of the growing friendly relations between the two countries; I must keep some of my self-respect--and my health. I can live on a pretty low diet, but I can't get along on no sustenance at all.
Of course, there are times when these people have to come out with a spoken lie, for that is a thing which happens to everybody once in a while, and would happen to the angels if they came down here much. Particularly to the angels, in fact, for the lies I speak of are self-sacrificing ones told for a generous object, not a mean one; but even when these people tell a lie of that sort it seems to scare them and unsettle their minds. It is a wonderful thing to see, and shows that they are all insane. In fact, it is a country which is full of the most interesting superstitions.
I have an English friend of twenty-five years' standing, and yesterday when we were coming down-town on top of the 'bus I happened to tell him a lie--a modified one, of course; a half-breed, a mulatto; I can't seem to tell any other kind now, the market is so flat. I was explaining to him how I got out of an embarrassment in Austria last year. I do not know what might have become of me if I hadn't happened to remember to tell the police that I belonged to the same family as the Prince of Wales. That made everything pleasant and they let me go; and apologised, too, and were ever so kind and obliging and polite, and couldn't do too much for me, and explained how the mistake came to be made, and promised to hang the officer that did it, and hoped I would let bygones be bygones and not say anything about it; and I said they could depend on me. My friend said, austerely:
'You call it a modified lie? Where is the modification?'
I explained that it lay in the form of my statement to the police. 'I didn't say I belonged to the Royal Family; I only said I belonged to the same family as the Prince--meaning the human family, of course; and if those people had had any penetration they would have known it. I can't go around furnishing brains to the police; it is not to be expected.'
'How did you feel after that performance?'
'Well, of course I was distressed to find that the police had misunderstood me, but as long as I had not told any lie I knew there was no occasion to sit up nights and worry about it.'
My friend struggled with the case several minutes, turning it over and examining it in his mind, then he said that so far as he could see the modification was itself a lie, it being a misleading reservation of an explanatory fact, and so I had told two lies instead of only one.
'I wouldn't have done it,' said he; 'I have never told a lie, and I should be very sorry to do such a thing.'
Just then he lifted his hat and smiled a basketful of surprised and delighted smiles down at a gentleman who was passing in a hansom.
'Who was that, G---?'
'I don't know.'
'Then why did you do that?'
'Because I saw he thought he knew me and was expecting it of me. If I hadn't done it he would have been hurt. I didn't want to embarrass him before the whole street.'
'Well, your heart was right, G---, and your act was right. What you did was kindly and courteous and beautiful; I would have done it myself; but it was a lie.'
'A lie? I didn't say a word. How do you make it out?'
'I know you didn't speak, still you said to him very plainly and enthusiastically in dumb show, "Hello! you in town? Awful glad to see you, old fellow; when did you get back?" Concealed in your actions was what you have called "a misleading reservation of an explanatory fact" --the act that you had never seen him before. You expressed joy in encountering him--a lie; and you made that reservation--another lie. It was my pair over again. But don't be troubled--we all do it.'
Two hours later, at dinner, when quite other matters were being discussed, he told how he happened along once just in the nick of time to do a great service for a family who were old friends of his. The head of it had suddenly died in circumstances and surroundings of a ruinously disgraceful character. If know the facts would break the hearts of the innocent family and put upon them a load of unendurable shame. There was no help but in a giant lie, and he girded up his loins and told it.
'The family never found out, G---?'
'Never. In all these years they have never suspected. They were proud of him and had always reason to be; they are proud of him yet, and to them his memory is sacred and stainless and beautiful.'
'They had a narrow escape, G---.'
'Indeed they had.'
'For the very next man that came along might have been one of these heartless and shameless truth-mongers. You have told the truth a million times in your life, G---, but that one golden lie atones for it all. Persevere.'
Some may think me not strict enough in my morals, but that position is hardly tenable. There are many kinds of lying which I do not approve. I do not like an injurious lie, except when it injures somebody else; and I do not like the lie of bravado, nor the lie of virtuous ecstasy; the latter was affected by Bryant, the former by Carlyle.
Mr. Bryant said, 'Truth crushed to earth will rise again.' I have taken medals at thirteen world's fairs, and may claim to be not without capacity, but I never told as big a one as that. Mr. Bryant was playing to the gallery; we all do it. Carlyle said, in substance, this--I do not remember the exact words: 'This gospel is eternal--that a lie shall not live.' I have a reverent affection for Carlyle's books, and have read his 'Revelation' eight times; and so I prefer to think he was not entirely at himself when he told that one. To me it is plain that he said it in a moment of excitement, when chasing Americans out of his back-yard with brickbats. They used to go there and worship. At bottom he was probably fond of it, but he was always able to conceal it. He kept bricks for them, but he was not a good shot, and it is matter of history that when he fired they dodged, and carried off the brick; for as a nation we like relics, and so long as we get them we do not much care what the reliquary thinks about it. I am quite sure that when he told that large one about a lie not being able to live he had just missed an American and was over excited. He told it above thirty years ago, but it is alive yet; alive, and very healthy and hearty, and likely to outlive any fact in history. Carlyle was truthful when calm, but give him Americans enough and bricks enough and he could have taken medals himself.
As regards that time that George Washington told the truth, a word must be said, of course. It is the principal jewel in the crown of America, and it is but natural that we should work it for all it is worth, as Milton says in his 'Lay of the Last Minstrel.' It was a timely and judicious truth, and I should have told it myself in the circumstances. But I should have stopped there. It was a stately truth, a lofty truth --a Tower; and I think it was a mistake to go on and distract attention from its sublimity by building another Tower alongside of it fourteen times as high. I refer to his remark that he 'could not lie.' I should have fed that to the marines; or left it to Carlyle; it is just in his style. It would have taken a medal at any European fair, and would have got an honourable mention even at Chicago if it had been saved up. But let it pass; the Father of his Country was excited. I have been in those circumstances, and I recollect.
With the truth he told I have no objection to offer, as already indicated. I think it was not premeditated but an inspiration. With his fine military mind, he had probably arranged to let his brother Edward in for the cherry tree results, but by an inspiration he saw his opportunity in time and took advantage of it. By telling the truth he could astonish his father; his father would tell the neighbours; the neighbours would spread it; it would travel to all firesides; in the end it would make him President, and not only that, but First President. He was a far-seeing boy and would be likely to think of these things. Therefore, to my mind, he stands justified for what he did. But not for the other Tower; it was a mistake. Still, I don't know about that; upon reflection I think perhaps it wasn't. For indeed it is that Tower that makes the other one live. If he hadn't said 'I cannot tell a lie' there would have been no convulsion. That was the earthquake that rocked the planet. That is the kind of statement that lives for ever, and a fact barnacled to it has a good chance to share its immortality.
To sum up, on the whole I am satisfied with things the way they are. There is a prejudice against the spoken lie, but none against any other, and by examination and mathematical computation I find that the proportion of the spoken lie to the other varieties is as 1 to 22,894. Therefore the spoken lie is of no consequence, and it is not worth while to go around fussing about it and trying to make believe that it is an important matter. The silent colossal National Lie that is the support and confederate of all the tyrannies and shams and inequalities and unfairnesses that afflict the peoples--that is the one to throw bricks and sermons at. But let us be judicious and let somebody else begin.
And then--But I have wandered from my text. How did I get out of my second lie? I think I got out with honour, but I cannot be sure, for it was a long time ago and some of the details have faded out of my memory. I recollect that I was reversed and stretched across some one's knee, and that something happened, but I cannot now remember what it was. I think there was music; but it is all dim now and blurred by the lapse of time, and this may be only a senile fancy.
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On The Decay Of The Art Of Lying
Observe, I do not mean to suggest that the _custom_ of lying has
suffered any decay or interruption--no, for the Lie, as a Virtue, A Principle,
is eternal; the Lie, as a recreation, a solace, a refuge in time of need, the
fourth Grace, the tenth Muse, man's best and surest friend, is immortal, and
cannot perish from the earth while this club remains. My complaint simply
concerns the decay of the _art_ of lying. No high-minded man, no man of right
feeling, can contemplate the lumbering and slovenly lying of the present day
without grieving to see a noble art so prostituted. In this veteran presence I
naturally enter upon this theme with diffidence; it is like an old maid trying
to teach nursery matters to the mothers in Israel. It would not become to me
to criticise you, gentlemen--who are nearly all my elders--and my superiors,
in this thing--if I should here and there _seem_ to do it, I trust it will in
most cases be more in a spirit of admiration than fault-finding; indeed if
this finest of the fine arts had everywhere received the attention, the
encouragement, and conscientious practice and development which this club has
devoted to it, I should not need to utter this lament, or shred a single tear.
I do not say this to flatter: I say it in a spirit of just and appreciative
recognition. [It had been my intention, at this point, to mention names and
to give illustrative specimens, but indications observable about me admonished
me to beware of the particulars and confine myself to generalities.]
No fact is more firmly established than that lying is a necessity of our
circumstances--the deduction that it is then a Virtue goes without saying.
No virtue can reach its highest usefulness without careful and diligent
cultivation--therefore, it goes without saying that this one ought to be
taught in the public schools--even in the newspapers. What chance has the
ignorant uncultivated liar against the educated expert? What chance have I
against Mr. Per--against a lawyer? _Judicious_ lying is what the world needs.
I sometimes think it were even better and safer not to lie at all than to lie
injudiciously. An awkward, unscientific lie is often as ineffectual as the
Now let us see what the philosophers say. Note that venerable proverb:
Children and fools _always_ speak the truth. The deduction is plain--adults
and wise persons _never_speak it. Parkman, the historian, says, "The principle
of truth may itself be carried into an absurdity." In another place in the same
chapters he says, "The saying is old that truth should not be spoken at all
times; and those whom a sick conscience worries into habitual violation of
the maxim are imbeciles and nuisances." It is strong language, but true. None
of us could _live_ with an habitual truth-teller; but thank goodness none of
us has to. An habitual truth-teller is simply an impossible creature; he does
not exist; he never has existed. Of course there are people who _think_ they
never lie, but it is not so--and this ignorance is one of the very things that
shame our so-called civilization. Everybody lies--every day; every hour;
awake; asleep; in his dreams; in his joy; in his mourning; if he keeps his
tongue still, his hands, his feet, his eyes, his attitude, will convey
deception--and purposely. Even in sermons--but that is a platitude.
In a far country where I once lived the ladies used to go around paying
calls, under the humane and kindly pretence of wanting to see each other;
and when they returned home, they would cry out with a glad voice, saying,
"We made sixteen calls and found fourteen of them out"--not meaning that
they found out anything important against the fourteen--no, that was only
a colloquial phrase to signify that they were not at home--and their manner
of saying it expressed their lively satisfaction in that fact. Now their
pretence of wanting to see the fourteen--and the other two whom they had been
less lucky with--was that commonest and mildest form of lying which is
sufficiently described as a deflection from the truth. Is it justifiable?
Most certainly. It is beautiful, it is noble; for its object is, _not_ to reap
profit, but to convey a pleasure to the sixteen. The iron-souled truth-monger
would plainly manifest, or even utter the fact that he didn't want to see
those people--and he would be an ass, and inflict totally unnecessary pain.
And next, those ladies in that far country--but never mind, they had a thousand
pleasant ways of lying, that grew out of gentle impulses, and were a credit
to their intelligence and an honor to their hearts. Let the particulars go.
The men in that far country were liars, every one. Their mere howdy-do was a
lie, because _they_ didn't care how you did, except they were undertakers. To
the ordinary inquirer you lied in return; for you made no conscientious
diagnostic of your case, but answered at random, and usually missed it
considerably. You lied to the undertaker, and said your health was failing--a
wholly commendable lie, since it cost you nothing and pleased the other man.
If a stranger called and interrupted you, you said with your hearty tongue,
"I'm glad to see you," and said with your heartier soul, "I wish you were with
the cannibals and it was dinner-time." When he went, you said regretfully,
"_Must_ you go?" and followed it with a "Call again;" but you did no harm, for
you did not deceive anybody nor inflict any hurt, whereas the truth would have
made you both unhappy.
I think that all this courteous lying is a sweet and loving art, and should
be cultivated. The highest perfection of politeness is only a beautiful
edifice, built, from the base to the dome, of graceful and gilded forms of
charitable and unselfish lying.
What I bemoan is the growing prevalence of the brutal truth. Let us do what
we can to eradicate it. An injurious truth has no merit over an injurious lie.
Neither should ever be uttered. The man who speaks an injurious truth lest
his soul be not saved if he do otherwise, should reflect that that sort of a
soul is not strictly worth saving. The man who tells a lie to help a poor
devil out of trouble, is one of whom the angels doubtless say, "Lo, here is
an heroic soul who casts his own welfare in jeopardy to succor his neighbor's;
let us exalt this magnanimous liar."
An injurious lie is an uncommendable thing; and so, also, and in the same
degree, is an injurious truth--a fact that is recognized by the law of libel.
Among other common lies, we have the _silent_ lie--the deception which one
conveys by simply keeping still and concealing the truth. Many obstinate
truth-mongers indulge in this dissipation, imagining that if they _speak_ no
lie, they lie not at all. In that far country where I once lived, there was
a lovely spirit, a lady whose impulses were always high and pure, and whose
character answered to them. One day I was there at dinner, and remarked, in
a general way, that we are all liars. She was amazed, and said, "Not _all_?"
It was before "Pinafore's" time. so I did not make the response which would
naturally follow in our day, but frankly said, "Yes, _all_--we are all liars.
There are no exceptions." She looked almost offended, "Why, do you include
_me_?" "Certainly," I said. "I think you even rank as an expert." She said
"Sh-'sh! the children!" So the subject was changed in deference to the
children's presence, and we went on talking about other things. But as soon
as the young people were out of the way, the lady came warmly back to the
matter and said, "I have made a rule of my life to never tell a lie; and I
have never departed from it in a single instance." I said, "I don't mean the
least harm or disrespect, but really you have been lying like smoke ever
since I've been sitting here. It has caused me a good deal of pain, because
I'm not used to it." She required of me an instance--just a single instance.
So I said--
"Well, here is the unfilled duplicate of the blank, which the Oakland
hospital people sent to you by the hand of the sick-nurse when she came here
to nurse your little nephew through his dangerous illness. This blank asks
all manners of questions as to the conduct of that sick-nurse: 'Did she ever
sleep on her watch? Did she ever forget to give the medicine?' and so forth
and so on. You are warned to be very careful and explicit in your answers, for
the welfare of the service requires that the nurses be promptly fined or
otherwise punished for derelictions. You told me you were perfectly delighted
with this nurse--that she had a thousand perfections and only one fault: you
found you never could depend on her wrapping Johnny up half sufficiently while
he waited in a chilly chair for her to rearrange the warm bed.
You filled up the duplicate of this paper, and sent it back to the hospital
by the hand of the nurse. How did you answer this question--'Was the nurse
at any time guilty of a negligence which was likely to result in the patient's
taking cold?' Come--everything is decided by a bet here in California: ten
dollars to ten cents you lied when you answered that question." She said, "I
didn't; _I left it blank!_" "Just so--you have told a _silent_ lie; you have
left it to be inferred that you had no fault to find in that matter." She said,
"Oh, was that a lie? And _how_ could I mention her one single fault, and she
is so good?--It would have been cruel." I said, "One ought always to lie, when
one can do good by it; your impulse was right, but your judgment was crude;
this comes of unintelligent practice. Now observe the results of this inexpert
deflection of yours. You know Mr. Jones's Willie is lying very low with
scarlet-fever; well, your recommendation was so enthusiastic that that girl
is there nursing him, and the worn-out family have all been trustingly sound
asleep for the last fourteen hours, leaving their darling with full confidence
in those fatal hands, because you, like young George Washington, have a reputa--
However, if you are not going to have anything to do, I will come around
to-morrow and we'll attend the funeral together, for, of course, you'll
naturally feel a peculiar interest in Willie's case--as personal a one, in
fact, as the undertaker."
But that was not all lost. Before I was half-way through she was in a carriage
and making thirty miles an hour toward the Jones mansion to save what was left
of Willie and tell all she knew about the deadly nurse. All of which was
unnecessary, as Willie wasn't sick; I had been lying myself. But that same day,
all the same, she sent a line to the hospital which filled up the neglected
blank, and stated the _facts,_ too, in the squarest possible manner.
Now, you see, this lady's fault was _not_ in lying, but in lying
injudiciously. She should have told the truth, _there,_ and made it up to the
nurse with a fraudulent compliment further along in the paper. She could have
said, "In one respect this sick-nurse is perfection--when she is on the watch,
she never snores." Almost any little pleasant lie would have taken the sting
out of that troublesome but necessary expression of the truth.
Lying is universal--we _all_ do it. Therefore, the wise thing is for us
diligently to train ourselves to lie thoughtfully, judiciously; to lie with
a good object, and not an evil one; to lie for others' advantage, and not our
own; to lie healingly, charitably, humanely, not cruelly, hurtfully,
maliciously; to lie gracefully and graciously, not awkwardly and clumsily;
to lie firmly, frankly, squarely, with head erect, not haltingly, tortuously,
with pusillanimous mien, as being ashamed of our high calling. Then shall we
be rid of the rank and pestilent truth that is rotting the land; then shall
we be great and good and beautiful, and worthy dwellers in a world where even
benign Nature habitually lies, except when she promises execrable weather.
Then--But am I but a new and feeble student in this gracious art; I cannot
instruct _this_ club.
Joking aside, I think there is much need of wise examination into what sorts
of lies are best and wholesomest to be indulged, seeing we _must_ all lie and
we _do_ all lie, and what sorts it may be best to avoid--and this is a thing
which I feel I can confidently put into the hands of this experienced Club--a
ripe body, who may be termed, in this regard, and without undue flattery, Old
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