“There may be exceptions, but in unregenerate human nature, lying is the proper use of the faculty of speech.”
Hartley Coleridge (1837), quoted in Memoir of Hartley Coleridge (1851)
“The generality of men have no sincerity in their speech, no sense or profit in it. You are better listening to the inarticulate wind . . .”
Thomas Carlyle, Journal (November 26, 1840)
In a recent post, Bonald asked how we are to discern true authority in today’s marketplace of ideas, where the idea-vendors are numerous, the vended ideas are various, and caveat emptor is a shopper’s only guide.
Beware, indeed! How, I also ask, am I to beware without more guidance than this? How am I to tell a scoundrel from a sage? And my discouragement deepens when I reflect that the dictum caveat emptor applies with equal force to those who shop for an authority on scoundrels and sages.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, scientists and journalists usurped the authority of the churches, and for two hundred years their patter has been accepted as truth. But the internet has now taught us that journalists are children of the Father of Lies, and Covid has taught us that scientists have no special regard for the truth. These things have taught us that these self-styled votaries of veracity do not have, as George Washington had, an insuperable aversion to an advantageous lie. They are, on the whole, on a level with the generality of men, of whom Carlyle said there is “no sincerity in their speech,” or even any sense.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, scientists and journalists attacked credulity and enjoined the masses to adopt an attitude of searching skepticism. They taught the masses to doubt what they were told and shrewdly ask, whose interest does this serve? They taught the masses to disbelieve statesmen and priests, never thinking that the masses would one day learn to give scientists and journalists that same rowdy raspberry of disbelief.
But the Day of that Raspberry has arrived.
I have never represented myself as a scientist, or as a man of supernatural veracity, but I have worked among scientists all my life. Indeed it falls to me to give our graduate students the annual exhortation on the glory of truth and the horror of academic dishonesty. My spirited harangue is received with a dull apathy similar to that with which boy scouts no doubt receive (assuming they are given) a spirited harangue on the glory of purity and the horror of self-abuse. Despite my best efforts, the young scholars leave my classroom with the crafty understanding that academic honesty is whatever an academic can get away with.
And Covid has taught the masses that an academic can get away with quite a bit.
No class of men is especially honest. There are, to be sure, especially honest individuals scattered here and there in every class of men, most often in the lowest ranks because truth-telling is a bar to advancement. I daresay there are honest men toiling in the lowest ranks of unsuccessful used car salesmen. But no class of men stands above the general level of unregenerate human nature, and every class is therefore larded with men who believe, as Hartley Coleridge tells us, that “lying is the proper use of the faculty of speech.”
Now the masses know this, and that is why the Day of the Raspberry has arrived.
The Day of the Raspberry is not, I hasten to add, the dawn of a new age in which men, like the truthful Houyhnhnm that Gulliver met on his travels, scorn to say that which is not. Rather, I fear, it is the dawn of a new age of universal mendacity. When there is no truth to be had in the marketplace of ideas, no one will go to that marketplace in the hope of finding truth. They will go in the hope of finding advantage.
And in that hope they will be very seldom disappointed.
My hero Thomas Carlyle foresaw this new day of universal mendacity, and more especially how, in this age, truth-telling would become very nearly impossible. What is more, he saw that the descent into mendacity would be mendaciously represented as an ascent to the high country of clear air and candor. Indeed it must be so (mis)represented. What is more natural than that liars should lie about their lying, or that, in the age of universal mendacity, every man should say–perhaps even believe–that he has the probity of a young George Washington.
It is too bad about all those cherry trees, but at least we have plenty of raspberries.
Here is the historian James Anthony Froude describing Carlyle’s age of universal mendacity, and that was an age, I hasten to observe, that still boasted men like Carlyle and Froude. I say this is a vision of a future of falsehoods that has, at last, arrived.
“England as he saw it was saturated with cant, dosed to surfeit with doctrines half true only or not true at all, doctrines religious, doctrines moral, doctrines political . . . . Jeffrey had told him that, although things were not as they should be, they were better than they had ever been before. This, in Carlyle’s opinion, was one of those commonly received falsehoods which were working like poison in the blood. England could never have grown to be what it was if there had been no more sincerity in Englishmen, no more hold on fact and truth, than he perceived in his own contemporaries. The ‘progress’ so loudly talked of was progress downwards. There was not a statesman who could do honestly what he thought to be right and keep his office; not a member of Parliament who could vote by his conscience and keep his seat; not a clergyman who could hope for promotion if he spoke what he really believed; hardly anyone of any kind in any occupation who could earn a living if he tried to do his work as well as it could be done; and the result of it was that the souls of men were being poisoned with universal mendacity.”*
*) James Anthony Froude, Thomas Carlyle: A History of His Life in London, 1834-1881 (1890)