Augustine on Lying

I was casually browsing through Augustine’s Enchiridon this morning, only to stumble across this fascinating passage (I will likely want to refer back to it in future posts not yet past the ‘rough-draft’ stage). Enjoy.

For the liar does not think that he errs, but that he leads another who trusts him into error. And certainly he does not err in regard to the matter about which he lies, if he himself knows the truth; but he is deceived in this, that he thinks his lie does him no harm, whereas every sin is more hurtful to the sinner than to the sinned against.

Chapter 18. It is Never Allowable to Tell a Lie; But Lies Differ Very Much in Guilt, According to the Intention and the Subject.

But here arises a very difficult and very intricate question, about which I once wrote a large book, finding it necessary to give it an answer. The question is this: whether at any time it can become the duty of a good man to tell a lie? For some go so far as to contend that there are occasions on which it is a good and pious work to commit perjury even, and to say what is false about matters that relate to the worship of God, and about the very nature of God Himself. To me, however, it seems certain that every lie is a sin, though it makes a great difference with what intention and on what subject one lies. For the sin of the man who tells a lie to help another is not so heinous as that of the man who tells a lie to injure another; and the man who by his lying puts a traveller on the wrong road, does not do so much harm as the man who by false or misleading representations distorts the whole course of a life. No one, of course, is to be condemned as a liar who says what is false, believing it to be true, because such an one does not consciously deceive, but rather is himself deceived. And, on the same principle, a man is not to be accused of lying, though he may sometimes be open to the charge of rashness, if through carelessness he takes up what is false and holds it as true; but, on the other hand, the man who says what is true,believing it to be false, is, so far as his own consciousness is concerned, a liar. For in saying what he does not believe, he says what to his own conscience is false, even though it should in fact be true; nor is the man in any sense free from lying who with his mouth speaks the truth without knowing it, but in his heart wills to tell a lie. And, therefore, not looking at the matter spoken of, but solely at theintention of the speaker, the man who unwittingly says what is false, thinking all the time that it is true, is a better man than the one who unwittingly says what is true, but in his conscience intends to deceive. For the former does not think one thing and say another; but the latter, though his statements may be true  in fact, has one thought in his heart and another on his lips: and that is the very essence of lying. But when we come to consider truth and falsehood in respect to the subjects spoken of, the point on which one deceives or is deceived becomes a matter of the utmost importance. For although, as far as a man’s own conscience is concerned, it is a greater evil to deceive than to be deceived, nevertheless it is a far less evil to tell a lie in regard to matters that do not relate to religion, than to be led into error in regard to matters the knowledge and belief of which are essential to the right worship of God. To illustrate this by example: suppose that one man should say of some one who is dead that he is still alive, knowing this to be untrue; and that another man should, being deceived, believe that Christ shall at the end of some time (make the time as long as you please) die; would it not be incomparably better to lie like the former, than to be deceived like the latter? And would it not be a much less evil to lead some man into the former error, than to be led by any man into the latter?


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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4 Responses to Augustine on Lying

  1. lamehousewife says:

    These are good questions. Can I throw something into the mix here? How about when you lie to protect another? I am thinking of when Christians hid Jewish children in their homes during Nazi Germany’s rise.

    • Excellent question lamehousewife. This is actually exactly the example I am planning to explore in a coming post (though, no promises as to when it will actually be ready to post). My own position is that one has duties and obligations to other human beings, among them being the axiomatic duty to always treat persons as ends in themselves, and never as means to ends (however good those ends may be). Thus, I have an obligation and duty to try to preserve the lives, in this example, of those Jewish children. However, I also have an obligation to the Nazi officer (who we often de-humanize, but the Christian faith teaches us that we cannot de-humanize them, they are not the real enemy) to treat him/her as an end in his/her-self. In other words, I cannot lie to the Nazi officer in order to achieve the ‘end’ of saving the lives of others (anymore than I could kill an innocent child in order to save tens of thousands of lives). I could, almost paradoxically, kill the Nazi officer in defending myself and/or those children – but killing that officer is not itself a de-humanizing action. It does not essentially fail to treat the person with the human dignity they have, and it doesn’t entail my treating that person as a means to an end rather than an end in him/her-self.

      This is part of the paradox, though, that I intend to work out. My position will be more nuanced than this, but I do believe that there is something essentially immoral about lying, such that while in some circumstances it is permissible, if not one’s moral duty, to kill another person, in no circumstances is it permissible to lie to another person, since to lie to them would be to treat or ‘use’ them as means to ends, rather than as ends in themselves.

      Also, if you’re interested in pursuing discussions surrounding this paradox, you might be interested in reading the following: (I was going to recommend a paper by Pruss, where he argues that, if one accepts certain suppositions about the semantics involved, one who was hiding jews in their home would not be lying if they denied it in conversation with the Nazi officer, but would also be lying if they admitted it to the Nazi officer – but it appears that the link to that paper is broken on Pruss’ website at the moment. Instead, I’ll just give you a link to a plethora of posts from Pruss on lying, as I think they are still interesting. – it is worth noting that he accepts the same, and that I think all faithful Catholics, one way or another, have to accept that it is always and everywhere wrong to lie).

      • lamehousewife says:

        If, however, a person erroneously believes, no, insists that certain persons are not really persons but rats or dirt or things, lying to himself about the dignity of human beings, would it not be an offense against the truth and dignity of persons to willingly hand a person over to someone who is already lying himself?
        CCC 2480 (under “offenses against the truth/lying”): Every word or attitude is forbidden which by flattery, adulation, or complaisance encourages and confirms another in malicious acts and perverse conduct. Adulation is a grave fault if it makes one an accomplice in another’s vices or grave sins.
        And CCC 2265: Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm.
        In my opinion, it would be prudent to look at the gravity of the sin and situation. Is lying wrong? Yes. But, in the scenario proposed, it’s the choice between being an accomplice to murder and lying to save someone’s life because you can see the truth of both persons inherent dignity (not wanting to cause a person to murder for the sake of his soul nor cause the other to die for the sake of his life) while the other person cannot see that dignity in himself or in the one in hiding. It is nearly impossible to reason with a man who does not see things with truth and reason.
        I will be interested to look at the link and your next post about this. Thank you for the thought-provoking conversation. God bless…

  2. Thank you for your thoughts, and I want to begin by saying the obvious, that these are difficult issues, both emotionally and intellectually. However, I have thought of these concerns before and my position has taken such considerations into account. Thus, in response, I would, on the one hand, acknowledge that you’re on the right track in certain respects (for instance that we have the duty to defend the lives of the innocent), but, on the other hand, I think one cannot pick and choose parts of the Catholic faith while ignoring others if they want to have a coherent faith (and be Catholic). However, John Paul II, and the whole congregation for the doctrine of the faith with him, made sure to word the Catechism carefully and strictly when it came to ‘lying’ – precisely with these concerns in mind.

    Notice, for example, that the Paragraph CCC 2483 in the Catechism, which in earlier English translations (such as in 1994) read “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth.” Yet, this is an inaccurate translation, and was explicitly singled out by the congregation for the doctrine of the faith and rendered instead properly as: “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error.” Formerly some Catholics erected entire arguments on the faulty previous version’s additional section, but that is part of the reason why the Catholic Church has been so adamant about fixing this mis-translation of the Catechism.

    Instead, it seems to me, Augustine (and Aquinas and Kant) are right to say that lying is always and everywhere wrong, or else at least it seems to me that the Catholic faith entails this radical position. I also agree with it philosophically, but the former point, I think, needs to be fully appreciated by Catholics before philosophical arguments are considered.

    Now, having said that, the fact that a Nazi asks you whether you are hiding Jews (when you are) does not entail that either you tell them the truth and give up those children, or you lie to them – for after all you have the right to say nothing to them at all. So, I think one has to do everything within one’s power to defend the lives of the innocent, so long as it doesn’t violate another equally imperative duty and/or obligation of the moral order. If one were free to do everything within one’s power to defend the lives of the innocent, for instance, then why not just bomb all abortion clinics or kill all doctors who regularly perform abortions? The reason we can’t there is the same reason we can’t anywhere – because it would be to violate an other, or other, duty/(ies) and/or obligation(s).

    In response to your saying that we ought to admit that lying is wrong, but that, due to consequentialist concerns, we ought to say that it is moral in some circumstances to commit that sin in order to avoid a greater evil – the same exact argument can be made for torturing and killing an innocent child. For instance, supposing that a sick and twisted terrorist put you in a room with a child and told you that they would set off a nuclear bomb, or perhaps bombs (plural), killing millions of people, if you did not torture the child to death. Now, on Utilitarian concerns, there is no question – you would have a moral duty to torture the child, like it or not. However, Christians, and especially Catholics, are not Utilitarians. Instead, the Catholic will accept that the consequences are in God’s hands, and do everything they can without violating any of their moral duties or obligations, in order to save the lives of all those people in danger of being bombed. However, Christians have to accept, (and we quite naturally dislike accepting) that there are circumstances in which there isn’t anything we can do without being immoral. For instance, Catholics are always and everywhere opposed to the torture of any human person, including a terrorist who knows where and when a bomb will go off and who is reluctant to give us that information.

    These kinds of extreme hypothetical considerations are the kinds which philosophers deal with all the time (at least those who are concerned with ethics). They may be uncomfortable, but they bear thinking seriously about.

    To explore this matter further, might I recommend reading either Alexander Pruss, to whom I’ve already linked, or else to another Catholic philosopher who may be more accessible: J. Budziszewski, especially his book “what we can’t not know” –

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