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Montaigne, "Des menteurs"

An essay ("On liars") by this French writer.  You can read the original here.

There is no man whom speaking from memory pleases less than me; therein I recognize but traces of myself. And yet I think there cannot be in all the world a memory as marvelously treacherous as mine own. All my other faculties may be vile and common, but in memory I believe myself to be singular, so rare and worthy of gaining both name and reputation.

In addition to this natural disadvantage I suffer (for certainly, given its necessity, Plato was right to deem memory a great and powerful goddess), there is another: when one says in my country that a man has no sense, one says he has no memory. And when I lament the failure of my own memory, I am not believed and instead rebuked as if I were accusing myself of senselessness. These parties see no choice between memory and understanding, which would truly worsen my state of affairs. But they do me an injustice because experience has demonstrated precisely the opposite: namely, excellent memories conjoined with foolish judgments. Here also they do me an injustice – I who know nothing as well as being a friend – whereby the same words that accuse me of infirmity represent ingratitude. They discount and mistrust my affection owing to my memory and contort my natural shortcoming into a shortcoming of conscience. "He has forgotten," they say, "this prayer or that vow"; "he no longer remembers his friends"; "he never remembers to say, or to do, or not to mention this or that for my sake." Certainly it is easy for me to forget. But to neglect a task given to me by a friend, this I do not do. May my own misery be enough without my being accused of malice, as malice is just as much the enemy of my own humor.          

To some extent I am able to console myself. Firstly because my poor memory is an evil whose primary purpose is to correct a greater evil that would have easily arisen within me: namely, ambition, an unbearable shortcoming for those wishing to conduct public affairs. As in many similar examples in its development, nature has fortified all other faculties in me to the same extent that it has diminished memory. Otherwise, if the inventions and opinions of others had been summoned by my memory, I might have easily reposed my mind and judgment, without letting them exert their full powers, upon these alien reports. My speech may even be more concise, as the storehouse of memory is surely more stocked with material than that of invention. And if invention had kept me supplied, I would have deafened all my friends with my babble – deafened with subjects which excited my own faculty of their manipulation and employment, as well as animated and guided my discourse – and yet examples from some of my close friends will show what a pity this all is. As their memories furnish them with present and whole landscapes, they start their narratives so far back and embed them with so many extenuating circumstances that, if a story is good, it will be stuffed with goodness, and if it isn't, you will condemn the vitality of their memory or lament their decidedly poor judgment. And it is no small feat to cease a story when it is well along its way, for in no one action does one recognize the power of a horse as in a round and sudden stop.

Even among those who remain pertinent, I see that they wish to but cannot undo their course. And while they search for a fine point at which to halt, they end up traipsing about wobbly-legged in force and speech. Old men are the most dangerous, for in them remains the remembrance of things past even if they lack any memory of how often they have retold these events. I have seen some very pleasant stories become dull and irritating on the lips of a gentleman because each member of his audience had been gorged on the tale a hundred times over. Secondly, I remember fewer offenses endured over the years, as the old man might say. Nevertheless, I would need a protocol of offenses like that of Darius who, so as not to forget the offenses he suffered from the Athenians, made a page sing thrice in his ear each time he sat down to eat, "Sire, remember the Athenians." And yet, the places and books that I see again still smile at me with a new freshness.    

It is not without reason that we say that he who does not consider his memory to be strong enough should not try his luck as a liar. I know full well that grammarians differentiate between telling an untruth and lying. Telling an untruth, they aver, is to say something false which we have taken to be true; whereas the definition of the word "to lie" in Latin (mentire, from which our French mentir stems) seems more akin to going against our own conscience. Consequently, I only wish to speak about those who say things contrary to what they know to be true. These here either wholly invent the untruths, or they disguise and alter a veracious source. In the case of the latter, they often find that once they have made their replacements, it becomes uncomfortable to undo them because the thing the way it really is remains lodged in their memory, impressed by means of knowledge and science. And here it becomes difficult for the truth not to manifest itself to their imagination, at once dislodging the falsehood, which could never have so firm or serene a foothold, as well as evoking the circumstances of its initial acquisition. And all this flows into and obliges the mind to lose the the false and bastardized pieces it has concocted.

As for the stories they wholly invent, in as much as there is no impression to the contrary that will rattle their falseness, they seem to have far fewer fears of mistelling a story. And yet even these creations, since they are vain bodies without hold, will soon elude the memory if not well secured. Of these matters I have had pleasant experiences at the expense of those who profess to speak in no way other than what serves them best in their business, and what pleases the high-and-mighty people to whom they are uttered. Since these circumstances in which they seek to enslave their faith and their conscience may be subjected to many a change, their words will always need to vary. And so they may come to the same object and say to one man one thing and to another man another, to wit, that sometimes this object is gray and other times yellow. And if by chance these men report to one another their so opposite instructions, what shall become of this fine art? Moreover it must often happen that they imprudently defeat themselves; for what memory could endure so many memories in so many diverse forms, all forged from the same subject? I have seen many in my time desiring the reputation of this lovely type of wisdom. What they do not see, however, is that if their reputation is already abroad, there can no longer be any effect.     

So in truth, lying is an accursed vice. We are not men, nor are we linked to one another if not by words. If we knew the horror and gravity of such lies, we would pursue them with flames more justly than other crimes. It seems to me that we find common amusement in chastising children for innocent mistakes, very poorly chosen, and that we torment them for capricious acts which have neither impression nor import. Whereas, in my opinion, only lying, and a notch below, obstinacy, should be combated in children at every instance from birth to development for they grow with them. And once we have granted their tongue false reins, it is amazing to see how impossible they are to retract. Hence we may see otherwise honest men who to this vice are subjects and slaves. I know a good tailor's lad whom I have never once heard speak the truth, simply because it has never been to his advantage.

If like truth, mistruth had but one face, we would be on better terms, for we would take for granted the opposite of what the liar would say. But the reverse of truth has a hundred thousand countenances and an indefinite playing field. The Pythagoreans make the good certain and finite, and evil infinite and uncertain. A thousand routes to miss the bull's-eye and only one to hit it. I am not sure that I would be able to safeguard my well-being from evident and extreme danger through effrontery and solemn untruth.

An ancient father says that we are better off the in the company of a dog we know than in the company of a man whose language we do not understand. As Pliny states, Ut externus alieno non sit hominis vice – a stranger cannot be said to take the place of a man. So how much less sociable than silence is false language?

King Francis I boasted of having trapped in this way Francesco Taverna, ambassador of Francesco Sforza Duke of Milan, a man very famous in the art of parlour verbiage. He had been dispatched to offer his master's pardons to His Majesty regarding a matter of great consequence. So as to maintain some intelligence sources in Italy from where He was most recently driven, and especially with the Duke of Milan, the King had advised a Gentleman to stay close to the Duke on His behalf. This Gentleman became in effect an ambassador, but in appearance was merely a private citizen who pretended to be there to see to his own personal affairs, whereas the Duke, who depended much more on the Emperor (mostly because at the time he was in a contract of marriage with his niece, daughter of the King of Denmark and present dowager of Lorraine) could not disclose any practice or conference with us without his own great interest. For this commission a Milanese Gentleman by the name of Merveille, and equerry to the King, was found. He was dispatched with some private credentials and ambassadorial instructions, and with other letters of recommendation to the Duke regarding his own private affairs for the mask and show of business. 

In fact, he remained so long with the Duke that the Emperor began to experience a certain amount of suspicion, which led to what occurred subsequently as we might surmise. It happened that, under the guise of murder, the Duke had his trial completed in two days and his head cut off in the middle of the night. Signor Francesco came, however, with a long and counterfeit conclusion about this story, since the King had already addressed His queries to all the Princes of Christianity and to the Duke himself, had His audience with His morning counsel, and was lobbying for His own cause and had raised to this end many plausible justifications. Firstly, his master had never taken our man Merveille for anything less than a private gentleman and this subject, who had come to Milan to conduct business, had never lived under a different guise. Secondly, he disavowed even having known that he had been part of the King's household, nor having known of him to begin with, so that He took him for an ambassador. The King for his part pressed on with various objections and demands and burdened him from every side; finally He got him on the matter of the execution's having been carried out at night, and whether it had been committed in stealth. To which the poor, embarrassed man responded so as to be honest as well as out of respect for His Majesty that the Duke would have been very troubled if the execution had taken place during the day. Anyone could think how he was perceived having been so brutally cut down alongside the nostril of someone like King Francis.

Pope Julius II, having sent an ambassador to the King of England to rouse him against King Francis, the ambassador having heard his duties, and the King of England having delayed his response owing to the difficulties he encountered in preparing what he required to combat such a powerful King, alleged various reasons for this last problem. And the ambassador did not respond well to the matter, saying that he had also considered for his part the same difficulties, and had mentioned all of them to the Pope. From these words so distant from his proposal, which would have been to drive him headlong into war, the King of England found the first argument for that which he would discover later, namely that this ambassador in his private intentions depended on the French side and had revealed his master. His possessions were confiscated and he narrowly escaped losing his life as well.

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