Saturday, October 9, 2010

On Lying, St. Augustine, St. Thomas

Is it a sin to tell a lie (or commit some other evil) if we do so to effect a good outcome?

St. Augustine, Against Lying (Contra Mendacio): "To this end, therefore, that their lie may be blotted out, or shunned, and God's truth increased. How then by a lie shall I rightly be able to prosecute lies? Or is it by robbery that robberies and by sacrilege that sacrileges, and by adultery that adulteries, are to be prosecuted? "But if the truth of God shall abound by my lie," are we too to say, "Let us do evil that good may come?"  A thing which you see how the Apostle detests."

St. Augustine, On Lying (De Mendacio), circa 395: "...Truth is that which sets free from all error, and Falsehood that which entangles in all error, one never errs more safely, methinks, than when one errs by too much loving the truth, and too much rejecting of falsehood. For they who find great fault say it is too much, whereas perhaps Truth would say after all, it is not yet enough.

"Setting aside, therefore, jokes, which have never been accounted lies, seeing they bear with them in the tone of voice, and in the very mood of the joker a most evident indication that he means no deceit, although the thing he utters be not true: touching which kind of discourse, whether it be meet to be used by perfect minds, is another question which we have not at this time taken in hand to clear; but setting jokes apart, the first point to be attended to, is, that a person should not be thought to lie, who lies not."

It is well to note here that St. Augustine does not consider such telling of jokes, or as St. Thomas Aquinas calls them "jocose lies" to be actual lies, or to be sinful, even if he finds them unbefitting of perfect minds.  However St. Thomas disagrees:

St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, Secuna Secundae Partis, Q. 110: "It is written (Sirach 7:14): "Be not willing to make any manner of lie


"An action that is naturally evil in respect of its genus can by no means be good and lawful, since in order for an action to be good it must be right in every respect: because good results from a complete cause, while evil results from any single defect, as Dionysius asserts (Div. Nom. iv). Now a lie is evil in respect of its genus, since it is an action bearing on undue matter. For as words are naturally signs of intellectual acts, it is unnatural and undue for anyone to signify by words something that is not in his mind.


"But if the end intended be not contrary to charity, neither will the lie, considered under this aspect, be a mortal sin, as in the case of a jocose lie, where some little pleasure is intended, or in an officious lie, where the good also of one's neighbor is intended."

St. Thomas nevertheless considered such jocose lies to be venial sins.  And both he and Augustine seem to agree that perfect minds (that is, minds consecrated solely to the love and service of God) have no place in uttering such jokes or jocose lies.

St. Augustine continues:

St. Augustine, On Lying (De Mendacio), circa 395: "For first they (who are against all lying) teach, that a lie is iniquity, by many proofs of holy writ, especially by that which is written, "You, Lord, hatest all workers of iniquity, you shall destroy them that speak leasing."  For either as the Scripture is wont, in the following clause it expounds the former; so that, as iniquity is a term of a wider meaning, leasing is named as the particular sort of iniquity intended: or if they think there is any difference between the two, leasing is by so much worse than iniquity as "you will destroy" is heavier than "you hate." For it may be that God hates a person to that degree more mildly, as not to destroy him, but whom He destroys He hates the more exceedingly, by how much He punishes more severely. Now He hates all who work iniquity: but all who speak leasing He also destroys.

"Which thing being fixed, who of them which assert this will be moved by those examples, when it is said, suppose a man should seek shelter with you who by your lie may be saved from death? For that death which men are foolishly afraid of who are not afraid to sin, kills not the soul but the body, as the Lord teaches in the Gospel; whence He charges us not to fear that death:  but the mouth which lies kills not the body but the soul. For in these words it is most plainly written, "The mouth that lies slays the soul."  How then can it be said without the greatest perverseness, that to the end one man may have life of the body, it is another man's duty to incur death of the soul?

"The love of our neighbor has its bounds in each man's love of himself. "You shall love," says He, "your neighbor as yourself."  How can a man be said to love as himself that man, for whom that he may secure a temporal life, himself loses life eternal? Since if for his temporal life he lose but his own temporal life, that is not to love as himself, but more than himself: which exceeds the rule of sound doctrine. Much less then is he by telling a lie to lose his own eternal for another's temporal life.

"His own temporal life, of course, for his neighbor's eternal life a Christian man will not hesitate to lose: for this example has gone before, that the Lord died for us. To this point He also says, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."  For none is so foolish as to say that the Lord did other than consult for the eternal salvation of men, whether in doing what He has charged us to do, or in charging us to do what Himself has done.

"Since then by lying eternal life is lost, never for any man's temporal life must a lie be told. And as to those who take it ill and are indignant that one should refuse to tell a lie, and thereby slay his own soul in order that another may grow old in the flesh; what if by our committing theft, what if by committing adultery, a person might be delivered from death: are we therefore to steal, to commit whoredom? They cannot prevail with themselves in a case of this kind: namely, if a person should bring a halter and demand that one should yield to his carnal lust, declaring that he will hang himself unless his request be granted: they cannot prevail with themselves to comply for the sake of, as they say, saving a life. If this is absurd and wicked, why should a man corrupt his own soul with a lie  in order that another may live in the body, when, if he were to give his body to be corrupted with such an object, he would in the judgment of all men be held guilty of nefarious turpitude?

"Therefore the only point to be attended to in this question is, whether a lie be iniquity. And since this is asserted by the texts above rehearsed, we must see that to ask, whether a man ought to tell a lie for the safety of another, is just the same as asking whether for another's safety a man ought to commit iniquity. But if the salvation of the soul  rejects this, seeing it cannot be secured but by equity, and would have us prefer it not only to another's, but even to our own temporal safety: what remains, say they, that should make us doubt that a lie ought not to be told under any circumstances whatsoever? 

"For it cannot be said that there is anything among temporal goods greater or dearer than the safety and life of the body. Wherefore if not even that is to be preferred to truth, what can be put in our way for the sake of which they who think it is sometimes right to lie, can urge that a lie ought to be told?

"As concerning purity of body; here indeed a very honorable regard seems to come in the way, and to demand a lie in its behalf; to wit, that if the assault of the ravisher may be escaped by means of a lie, it is indubitably right to tell it: but to this it may easily be answered, that there is no purity of body except as it depends on integrity of mind; this being broken, the other must needs fall, even though it seem intact; and for this reason it is not to be reckoned among temporal things, as a thing that might be taken away from people against their will.

"By no means therefore must the mind corrupt itself by a lie for the sake of its body, which it knows remains incorrupt if from the mind itself incorruptness depart not. For that which by violence, with no lust foregoing, the body suffers, is rather to be called deforcement than corruption.


"Wherefore, either we must not believe good men, or we must believe those whom we think obliged sometimes to tell a lie, or we must not believe that good men sometimes tell lies: of these three the first is pernicious, the second foolish; it remains therefore that good men should never tell lies."

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