On the Decay of the Art of Lying by Mark Twain, is a short essay that was composed in the year 1880 for a meeting of the Historical and Antiquarian Club of Hartford, Connecticut. In the essay, Twain laments the four ways in which men of America’s Gilded Age employ man’s ‘most faithful friend.’
A cursory look at the title of this essay may lead a reader to believe that the author is out to corrupt the society with immoral sermons. Whereas, the case is exactly opposite. Mark Twain is too upright a man to stoop low. Through this essay, which bristles with humor, satire and mild sarcasm, he has implored people to look within and discover that in reality, all of them resort to falsehood in some way. One need not be so apologetic about it, for it is always advisable to couch the truth with some cosmetic fleas and words to nullify its sting.
Speaking to the members of the club, Twain opened his speech in a manner that came as a shock to the audience. They heard how the distinguished speaker, Mark Twain, eulogized the timeless tradition of telling lies for various benefits like recreation, escaping a punishment, solace or just to give a good feeling. It is “man’s best and surest friend”, a practice that is immortal and imperishable. Twain says that his simple complain is about the decay of the art of lying.
With great humility, Twain says that his august audience must be better aware of the fact that the noble art of lying had been corrupted in recent times. Personally, he says, that he uses this art of lying “more in the spirit of admiration than faultfinding.” Twain believes that this art of lying has received a lot of attention, encouragement and conscientious practice and development from the members he was addressing to. Twain tells his audience to not feel offended for being identified as people who lie on occasions for in his view, lying was a noble art and not something to be ashamed of.
Twain, though, speaks his heart out saying that, he wished to reveal the names of the people from the audience who resorted to lying as a means of their civilized existence, but, he resisted the temptation in order not to offend anyone. Hence, he preferred confining himself to general examples only.
Twain emphasizes upon lying as a necessity of the circumstances, which becomes a virtue when in need. One should know how to use the art of lying in the most befitting manner and this can only be done through its careful and diligent application as it sharpens the skill of lying. Quite assertively, he states that the noble art of lying should be taught in schools, also through newspapers because in his opinion, only an expert at lying can make an apt usage of the skill, in comparison to an ‘uncultivated’ or unskilled one. Hence, early and widespread exposure to teaching the art of lying, in schools and through newspapers, is advised.
Twain then questions upon the chances of a common man winning against a lawyer. He says that the lawyers lie to win a case, but they do it judiciously as they are masters of it. A common man stands no chance when pitted against a lawyer as he is bound to prevail. Hence, Twain advices to better remain silent than to lie injudiciously and be exposed to ridicule.
To validate his thoughts, Mark Twain states various examples, the first one being a venerable proverb by some philosophers. The proverb goes like this, “Children and fools always speak the truth.” The inference is pretty obvious; the adults and wise people never speak complete truth and do resort to lying when needed. He further quotes Parkman, the historian, who had said that, “The principle of truth may itself be carried into an absurdity.” Twain says that in the similar chapter, Parkman has somewhere stated that its an old saying to avoid speaking truth always as only the people who are of weak conscience and violate this rule are nothing but imbeciles and nuisance. Twain says that though Parkman may sound too harsh and blatant, yet his remark is true in practical sense. He admits that no individual can merely survive upon speaking blatant truth always for somewhere or the other, one feels the necessity to take resort to lying. Twain seems relaxed in his tone for having this option of lying always available at hand for man. He says a “habitual truth-teller is simply an impossible creature.” Such a person, in Twain’s opinion, does not exist and is least likely to have ever existed.
Speaking about people who ‘believe’ that they never lie is a mere ignorance on their part and this ignorance does not speak high of our civilization. According to him, every single person lies purposely. Lying is a clearly thought-out action, done purposely; everybody lies every day, every hour, either asleep or awake, while dreaming, in state of happiness or mourning. Its not just by uttering words, people also tend to lie without speaking too; through the actions of their hands, feet, eyes or even their attitude which conveys deception.
Mark Twain further says that even sermons carry a tinge of lies but that has become more of a cliché. Twain then states a close example of a few ladies who lived in a far country, where he once lived. The ladies would go around paying calls under the humane and kind pretence of wanting to see each other, but the actual pretext was about not staying at home which gave more satisfaction than the urge of meeting others. Hence, that’s how lie flows through the life in common. With the mention of this humorous instance, Twain questions the validation of the use of lies as being justified.
Twain, says further, answering to the question raised by him only, that this mild form of lying is probably correct and seems noble for the idea was to make the others feel good when the ladies expressed their happiness of having met a few. It was not done with the object of reaping any profit. Herein, Twain marks a satirical comment for a ‘truth-monger’ saying, that such a person would blatantly reveal the fact of him having no interest in seeing the people, which would only lead to unnecessary pain.
He says that those ladies in that country had numerous ways of lying, that grew out of gentle impulses but were refined with intelligent application. Further, he suggests to let go of stating particular instances of people lying in that country for he believed that everyone there was a lair in some way or the other. The common exchange of ‘How do you do?’ were a mere act of formal greeting for neither the enquirer nor the one responding were serious about knowing or putting up the true record. Twain then gives an example of the exchange of word games on meeting a stranger and yet expressing the joy of having met each other. The words mean exactly opposite of what is being uttered in the conversation. Doing so, both the parties abstained from getting hurt. On the contrary, the truth would have made both the parties unhappy. Twain calls this to be courteous lying which is a sweet and a loving art which should be promoted, for such a form of lying is unselfish and done for a charitable purpose.
Twain now switches his tone to a serious level and says that, what he bemoans is the growing prevalence of brutal truth. He suggests the need to eradicate this practice. “An injurious truth has no merit over an injurious lie.” In his opinion, neither should ever be uttered. Both, an injurious lie and an injurious truth are uncommendable. This is one fact that is even recognized by the law of libel. Twain explains the difference between the cases of injurious truth against unselfish lying. He loathes a person who speaks an injurious truth. For one who utters an unselfish lie is even commended by the angels and is considered “an heroic soul who casts his own welfare in jeopardy to succor his neighbor’s.” Such a magnanimous liar should be praised.
Mark Twain further speaks about another form of lying which is ‘the silent lie.’ This is wherein, one conveys deception by keeping still and concealing the truth. This mode of lying is generally followed by obstinate truth mongers who think that if they speak no lie, they don’t lie at all. But this is far from truth. Twain again states the example of a lady who lived in a far country where he had once lived. He says that once when he was at the lady’s house for dinner, they indulged into a conversation wherein Twain claimed that all the people were liars to which the lady objected. Though, when Twain ranked her as being an expert in lying, she suggested him to change the topic of discussion for the children too were present at the dinner table.
Though when the children had left, they resumed the topic of conversation. When the lady questioned Twain of stating one instance wherein she had lied and hurt him, he continues to give out the details. To this request of hers, Twain shares the story of the nurse who had once come to the lady’s house to take care of her little nephew when he was dangerously ill. After availing her services, the lady was supposed to fill up the feedback form regarding the nurse, which was sent by the Oakland Hospital. The lady had answered all the questions except one. To the question – ‘Was the nurse at any time guilty of a negligence which was likely to result in the patient’s taking cold?’, the lady chose to leave a blank against the question. Twain said that this act of her remaining quiet was nothing but a silent lie. She should have judiciously told the truth because in her act of silent lying, her impulse was right but the judgement was crude. Had she told absolute truth to the hospital, they should have made use of the nurse’s services in the domain wherein she was most capable.
At this point, Twain too lies by cooking up a story that some Mr. Jones’s Willie, who was suffering from severe degree of scarlet fever, was being taken care of by the same nurse. Since, this particular nurse was not so careful in covering the patients with blanket to keep them warm, Willie was in deadly hands. The nurse would be careless again and it might cost Willie his life. Had the lady given the true feedback about this nurse, the hospital would have sent another nurse for Willie.
The unselfish lie told by Twain made the lady realize her fault. She went out to share the details of the nurse at length to Mr. Jones as well as updated the hospital too. Though Willie wasn’t actually ill, but the lady went on to reveal the blatant truth about the nurse.
Twain says that lying is a universal act spoken by all. It is hence, necessary to lie thoughtfully and judiciously for an unselfish act and not an evil one. Lying should be unselfish in nature, healing in effect, done charitably and humanely as against it being cruel, hurtful and malicious in nature. One should lie gracefully and graciously rather than it being something clumsy and awkward. Lie should be spoken firmly, frankly and squarely with head erect and not haltingly or torturously with a timid personality as if ashamed.
Twain concludes the essay by saying that by the judicious use of lying, the world can get rid of the pestilent truth which is rotting the land. It is then that the world shall be great and beautiful with worthy dwellers and wherein even the mother Nature lies for the good. Though Twain clarifies that he is a new and a feeble student in this art of gracious lying, hence, he is too immature in the art to suggest the audience.
Sounding more serious in this attempt, Twain suggests that wise examination needs to be done to understand what sorts of lies are the best and wholesome in order to be indulged into. Since, everyone lies and must lie, we should also analyse the lies that should be avoided. Hence, a fresh mind can thus be shaped into a gracious liar when put in the training under the experienced club, the old Masters.