How to lie without … well, lying

by Charlie Huenemann

“… a lying tongue is a man's destruction.” – The Wisdom of Solomon, 1.11

6a019b00bc414c970d019b03493244970c-320wiWhen I was ten years old, I happily discovered that I could say whatever I wanted in response to a question without lying. If my mother asked me if I had cleaned my room, I could say, “Yes, mother” – because she didn't ask whether I had cleaned it today. Or even if she had thought to ask whether I had cleaned my room today, I could still say “Yes, mother” – because she didn't ask if I had cleaned all of my room today (and surely I had managed to put at least one little thing away). And so on. To the extent I had any theory about it, I thought that I couldn't be accused of lying if other people hadn't taken the trouble to ask specific enough questions. At the same time, of course, I knew it was an unreasonable request, and I was in fact being a weasel.

Now imagine my delight in discovering that this golden evasion ticket is not merely a young brat's subterfuge; it is in fact remembered in history as a codified policy of some early Jesuits. Their own need for the policy and their application of it is seen best through an example.

A Jesuit in England in the early 1600s (according to Mario Praz) reportedly swore never to have been a priest, never to have been overseas, and never to have known or even seen a certain William Hawkesworth, who was a suspect in the Gunpowder Plot to assassinate the king. Later, after he had been found out, the priest explained that he had meant that “he had never been a priest of Apollo, he had never been across the Indian sea, never known the said Hawkesworth scientia scientifica [that is, with scientific knowledge], and never seen him in visione beatifica [in a beatific vision]”. The priest's mind had been racing – as we can well imagine – and it was not his problem that the minds of his interlocutors simply had not kept up.

This is an example of what has been known as mental reservation, or honest dissimulation, or (even more colorlessly) non-mendacious linguistic deception, which the philosopher Jonathan Adler defines as “asserting what one believes to be true, inviting the drawing of a conclusion that one believes to be false”.

Mental reservation had an especially interesting form when it came to confessions. For example, suppose a man confesses a sin to a priest, and the priest absolves him of the sin. The priest is later asked by someone else (perhaps a public official) whether the man confessed committing that sin. According to Stefania Tutino, the 16th-century Jesuit Domingo de Soto explained exactly how the priest can truthfully answer that he does not know:

[I]n order to keep the secret of the confession, it is always allowed to the priest, when he is being interrogated over something he learned in confession, to reply that he does not know, and there is no need for other verbal tricks, because in this case one can answer in that manner without lying.” The reason why this was possible, Soto argues, is that when one uses the verb scire to say that one “knows,'' the implication is that one has learned something oneself. Now, when a priest learns of a sin in confession, “even if he knows [the sin] as an individual, he nevertheless knows it in the forum and tribunal of God, which God wanted to be so secret that the sins confessed there were certainly considered as forgotten, as if they never happened.'' Therefore, “when a priest, as God, says ‘I absolve you,' he promises to consider the sins as if he never heard them; thus in the external forum the priest can say that he never knew of them.”

The point is that the confessional space is special. In that space, whatever new knowledge the priest gains, as an individual, gets wiped clean in the absolution. He can no longer rightfully claim that he knows it. (Even though, of course, in some sense, he really does.)

Even that great stalwart of truth-telling, Immanuel Kant, thought a little mental reservation is called for now and then. In 1794, Kant got crosswise with some censorious public official, forcing him eventually to make the following promise to Frederick the Great: “As your majesty's most loyal subject, I will hereafter refrain altogether from discoursing publicly” on the offending topic. But “as your majesty's most loyal subject” was most carefully put; for as soon as Frederick died (his Greatness notwithstanding), Kant felt he could resume his public discoursing without having broken his promise. Was this Frederick's understanding of Kant's promise? No, not very likely. But (according to an explanation found in his Lectures on Ethics) Kant apparently thought such dissimulation was okay so long as the dissimulator was not actively trying to encourage the wrong conclusions (that is, “giving signs indicative of thoughts he does not have”). In short, if you play it straight, then what other people end up believing is their own problem.

We have seen three examples of mental reservation – the English Jesuit, the confessional priest, and Kant. What is our assessment of them? If you're like me, then you feel that the dissimulation of the “not-a-priest-of-Apollo” priest is pretty pathetic; Kant's own half-true promise is at least clever, and maybe not really a lie; and the case of the forgotten confession falls somewhere in the middle. What accounts for the difference?

I think the answer might be found in Augustine's short treatise on lying, De mendacio. Augustine felt that what makes a lie so reprehensible is the duality it forces within the liar:

Wherefore, that man lies, who has one thing in his mind and utters another in words, or by signs of whatever kind. Whence also the heart of him who lies is said to be double; that is, there is a double thought: the one, of that thing which he either knows or thinks to be true and does not produce; the other, of that thing which he produces instead thereof, knowing or thinking it to be false.

When you lie – that is, when you really lie – you have to be two-faced. You have to simultaneously know one thing and harbor the thought of its opposite and put it into words. Lying divides the soul, and thus (according to Augustine) harms or destroys it.

But if you can find a way to maintain the unity of the soul, both knowing and saying the same thing, while others draw different conclusions, then at least this unfortunate consequence of lying is avoided. And this allows us to parse our three examples. Kant, we can believe, really could have had in mind what he was saying as he made his promise; he really might have meant just what he said. The “never-been-across-the-sea” priest, it seems, could not possibly have been saying what he was thinking. If anything, he had split his soul into three parts: what he was saying, what he knew was true, and a clever cover-up story to tell later. Finally, the case of the father confessor is complicated. He might well genuinely believe the confession is to be regarded as officially forgotten – though some part of him surely remembers. Whether he can maintain this frame of mind without dividing his soul seems very dubious to me, but maybe that's only because I haven't a clue what it is to be a father confessor.

So, if there is anything to Augustine's account, then before you let loose with that benevolent half-truth or that deceptive promise – and provided that you don't want to be a liar – then you need to ask yourself whether you can really believe what you're saying; and if Kant is right, you have to mean it when you say it. If you can't stand behind it when you say it, you're just lying. I am certain that, back when I was ten years old, there was in my mind no insight into the nature of lying more clear and prominent than this one. Now what you infer from that claim is your business.


Jonathan Adler, “Lying, deceiving, or falsely implicating”, Journal of Philosophy, 94 (1997), pp. 435-52

Augustine, De mendacio.

James Edwin Mahon, “Kant on Lies, Candour, and Reticence”, Kantian Review, 7 (2003), pp. 102-133

Mario Praz, The Flaming Heart (Doubleday Anchor Books, 1958)

Stefania Tutino “Nothing But the Truth? Hermeneutics and Morality in the Doctrines of Equivocation and Mental Reservation in Early Modern Europe”, Renaissance Quarterly, 64 (2011), pp. 115-155