“Lord Chesterfield’s Letters, Sentences and Maxims, Consisting of Selections From His Works”, by Alfred Howard, Tenth American Edition; Philadelphia : Porter & Coates, pp. 195-200.
“Manners Make the Man”
There is one vice into which people of good education, and, in the main, of good principles, sometimes fall, from mistaken notions of skill, dexterity and self-defence; I mean lying : though it is inseparably attended with more infamy and loss than any other. The prudence and necessity of often concealing the truth, insensibly seduces people to violate it. It is the only art of mean capacities, and the only refuge of mean spirits. Whereas, concealing the truth, upon proper occasions, is as prudent and as innocent, as telling a lie, upon any occasion is infamous and foolish. I will state you a case in your own department. Suppose you are employed at a foreign court, and that the minister of that court is absurd or impertinent enough to ask you what your instructions are; will you tell him a lie, which, as soon as found out, (and found out it certainly will be,) must destroy your credit, blast your character, and render you useless there? No. Will you tell him the truth then, and betray your trust? As certainly, No. But you will answer, with 196 firmness, That you are surprised at such a question; that you are persuaded he does not expect an answer to it; but that, at all events, he certainly will not have one. Such an answer will give him confidence in you; he will conceive an opinion of your veracity, of which opinion you may afterwards make very honest and fair advantages. But if, in negotiations, you are looked upon as a liar and a trickster, no confidence will be placed in you, nothing will be communicated to you, and you will be in the situation of a man who has been burnt in the cheek; and who, from that mark, cannot afterwards get an honest livelihood if he would, but must continue a thief.
Lord Bacon, very justly, makes a distinction between simulation and dissimulation; and allows the latter rather than the former; but still observes, that they were the weaker sort of politicians who have recourse to either. A man who has strength of mind, and strength of parts, wants neither of them. “Certainly,” says he, “the ablest men that ever were have all had an openness and frankness of dealing, and a name of certainty and veracity; but, then, they were like horses well managed; for they could tell, passing well, when to stop, or turn; and at such times when they thought the case indeed required some dissimulation, if then they used it, it came to pass, that the former opinion, spread abroad, of their good faith and 197 clearness of dealing, made them almost invisible.”
There are people who indulge themselves in a sort of lying, which they reckon innocent, and which in one sense is so; for it hurts nobody but themselves. This sort of lying is the spurious offspring of vanity, begotten upon folly; these people deal in the marvellous; they have seen some things that never existed; they have seen other things which they really never saw, though they did exist, only because they were thought worth seeing. Has any thing remarkable been said or done in any place, or in any company? they immediately present, and declare themselves eye or ear witnesses of it. They have done feats themselves, unattempted, or at least unperformed, by others. They are always the heroes of their own fables; and think that they gain consideration, or at least present attention, by it. Whereas, in truth, all they get is ridicule and contempt, not without a good degree of distrust; for one must naturally conclude, that he who will tell any lie from idle vanity will not scruple telling a greater for interest. Had I really seen any thing so very extraordinary as to be almost incredible, I would keep it to myself, rather than, by telling it, give any one body room to doubt for one minute of my veracity. It is most certain, that the reputation of chastity is not so necessary for a woman, as that of veracity is for a man; and with 198 reason; for it is possible for a woman to be virtuous, though not strictly chaste, but it is not possible for a man to be virtuous without strict veracity. The slips of the poor women are sometimes mere bodily frailties; but a lie in a man is a vice of the mind, and of the heart. For God’s sake, be scrupulously jealous of the purity of your moral character! keep it immaculate, unblemished, unsullied; and it will be unsuspected. Defamation and calumny never attack, where there is no weak place; they magnify, but they do not create.
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I really know nothing more criminal, more mean, and more ridiculous, than lying. It is the production either of malice, cowardice, or vanity; and generally misses of its aim in every one of these views; for lies are always detected sooner or later. If I tell a malicious lie, in order to affect any man’s fortune or character; I may indeed injure him for some time; but I shall be sure to be the greatest sufferer myself at last; for as soon as ever I am detected (and detected I most certainly shall be) I am blasted for the infamous attempt; and whatever is said afterwards, to the disadvantage of that person, however true, passes for calumny. If I lie, or equivocate, (for it is the same thing,) in order to excuse myself for something that I have said or done, and to avoid the danger or shame that I apprehend from it, I discover at once my fear, as well as my falsehood; and only increase, instead 199 of avoiding, the danger and the shame; I show myself to be the lowest and the meanest of mankind, and am sure to be always treated as such. Fear, instead of avoiding, invites danger; for concealed cowards will insult known ones. If one has had the misfortune to be in the wrong, there is something noble in frankly owning it; it is the only way of atoning for it, and the only way of being forgiven. Equivocating, evading, shuffling, in order to removed a present danger or inconveniency, is something so mean, and betrays so much fear, that whoever practises them always deserves to be, and often will be, kicked. There is another sort of lies, inoffensive enough in themselves, but wonderfully ridiculous; I mean those lies which a mistaken vanity suggests, that defeat the very end for which they are calculated, and terminate in the humiliation and confusion of their author, who is sure to be detected. These are chiefly narrative and historical lies, all intended to do infinite honour to their author. He is always the hero of his own romances; he has been in dangers from which nobody but himself ever escaped; he has seen, with his own eyes, whatever other people have heard or read of; he has had more bonnes fortunes than ever he knew women and has ridden more miles post in one day than ever courier went in two. He is soon discovered, and soon becomes the object of universal contempt and ridicule. Remember, then, as long as you live, that nothing 200 but strict truth can carry you through the world, with either your confidence or your honour unwounded. It is not only your duty, but your interest : as a proof of which you may always observe, that the greatest fools are the greatest liars. For my own part, I judge of every man’s truth by his degree of understanding.
Read another anecdote told about Lord Chesterfield, Jest CLXII, in the popular Jest Book by Mark Lemon, on this site.