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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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The Virtue of Truth

by the Rev. Professor J. Radford Thomson, M.A.
Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 378-383


Part I

I. What is meant by Truth?

The words "true," "truth," "troth," "trow," "trust," are all allied etymologically, but the primary root is, according to Skeat, unknown.

The adjective "true" is somewhat ambiguous. It often means faithful, loyal, as when it is said of a man that he is true to his friend; and as in the passage in Shakespeare: "To thine own self be true." It is sometimes used as equivalent to certainty, as in the proverb, "true as death" and sometimes as correct--according to an acknowledged standard or rule--as in the common expression, "His drawing is remarkably true." Similarly, the substantive noun, "truth" is not altogether univocal, but is employed, in ordinary speech, in different significations.

Truth, strictly speaking, is the quality of a judgment, expressed in a proposition, or statement. A proposition is true when the affirmation or denial agrees with the facts. Thus, if I say, "The earth goes round the sun," or "The sun does not go round the earth," in either case I am stating a truth. When the word "truth" is so employed, its contrary is "error." It would be an error to say, "The sun goes round the earth," or "The earth does not go round the sun." When language agrees with the conviction of the speaker, and his conviction agrees with the facts of the case, such language is true. As knowledge increases, error is discredited and discarded, and the body of truth is enlarged to the intellectual enrichment of mankind. Language both embodies and communicates thought. The old saying that the purpose of language is to conceal thought, points, in a cynical way, to a misuse of a great gift.

The virtue of Truth, Truthfulness, Veracity, is the practice, the habit of making a right use of speech, by employing language to express the convictions, the beliefs of the mind. The words men utter are, strictly speaking, part of their conduct, for the tongue is a bodily organ as much as are the hands. And conduct is interesting to the moralist as the expression of character. Because speech is a manifestation of the of the intellectual and moral life, it is susceptible of approval and disapprobation, of praise and blame. It has moral character, in this respect, among others: it may be truthful and virtuous, or false and wrong. In order that there may be Truthfulness, there must be two or more intelligent and moral beings, able to use and to understand speech, as the medium of communication among them.

Either truth or falsehood may be addressed to one or to many. And these qualities may characterize, not only spoken, but, equally, written or printed signs or symbols--constituting speech, as it were, at second hand. The very nature of man, as a moral being, renders his speech part of his probation and discipline, whilst his necessarily social condition renders veracity a social virtue and falsehood a social vice. We owe the truth to our neighbours, i.e., we are under a general obligation to speak nothing but the truth--nothing inconsistent with the truth. It must be borne in mind that the essence of falsehood is the intention to deceive. In judging the veracity or unveracity of language, we consider the belief of the speaker as to what the hearer--the person spoken to--understands him to believe. A promise is to be kept--not in the sense intended by the speaker--not in the sense understood by the hearer--but in the sense in which the promiser believed, when speaking, that the promiser understood him. Where there is no intention to deceive, and where it may reasonably be presumed that the person addressed will not misunderstand the speaker, language may legitimately be employed which is not literally and accurately true. There are unintentional mistakes and errors of which all are guilty, and into which the most truthful, if not the most accurate speakers, may sometimes fall. Truth must be distinguished from literal accuracy. The contrary of literal, verbal accuracy may often be employed, both in public discourse and in social conversation. I refer to tropical forms of speech, and especially to irony. As very dull minds may not comprehend such modes of speech, it may be well to speak literally to the literal; but to banish irony from oratory or from our daily talk would be like taking the salt out of our usual diet; and, in fact, irony, hyperbole and paradox are often the most effective means of conveying truth.

What shall be said of the habit of exaggeration? This is often perfectly innocent, and is often amusing when we hear that a showery day is "horrid" or a cold day is "dreadful." When we are told that one course of action is "infinitely" better than another, when obviously nothing more is meant than that the weather is unpleasant, or that one procedure is somewhat or far preferable, the exaggeration is intended merely to raise a smile, if the method is not too stale. Inaccurate and inappropriate as such language often is, it is not falsehood. The same may be said of certain conventional forms of speech, the meaning of which is well understood, and which are not misinterpreted. No one is misled if it be remarked that "the sun rises," or "the dew falls"; or if a servant is instructed to deny a visitor in the phrase "not at home." Yet it must be remembered that, whilst adults are in no danger of being deceived by exaggeration, irony, or conventional misstatements, this may not be the case with children. It may be discreet to avoid such forms of speech in conversing with them, lest confidence in veracity should be shaken. The same caution may not be necessary in the case of simple acting, or (as children say) "pretending." Much of the enjoyment of little children seems to lie in the assumption of characters, and in the use of language involved in such assumption. If a father says to a child, "I am a wolf, or a dog"; or a mother, "I am a milkmaid, or an old grandmother," no harm seems to be done. Simulation seems natural, and is not necessarily dissimulation.

II. Truth is approved and enjoined by all authorities on morals.

Moral teachers, of every nation and in all ages, have insisted upon the excellence and beauty of truth--have enjoined it as a duty and have extolled it as a virtue. It is well known that the ancient Persians comprised the education of their youth, physical and moral, in two exercises: they were to be taught to draw the bow and to speak the truth. The ancient Hebrews were instructed as to the virtue of truth and the sin of falsehood. They were assured that "the Lord is the God of truth"; that He "desireth truth in the inward parts." The good man was depicted as one that speaketh the truth in his heart." One of the commandments is "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour."--a requirement of truth in matters of the highest social importance. Plato, in the Republic, teaches, through Socrates, that the "true lie" is the ignorance in the soul of him who is deceived, and that "the lie in words is only a kind of imitation and shadowy image of a previous affection of the soul." He adds that a lie in words is, in some cases, useful and not hateful; as in dealing with enemies and in mythology and poetry. In another place he tells us that "truth should be highly valued"; and that, though the rulers of the State may lie for the public good, a private citizen may not, in return, lie to the rulers, for such a practice would be subversive of the State.

Aristotle, in the Nicomachaean Ethics, introduces the virtue of truthfulness as a mean between boastfulness and self-depreciation; but treats the virtue in a general way, and in an elevated moral tone. "Falsehood," says he, "of any kind, considered entirely by itself, and without reference to circumstances, is disgraceful and blameable, while the truth is noble and praiseworthy . . . We are not herein concerned with him who is truthful in his agreements and bargains, or in those matters which come under the scope of injustice and of justice . . . but, rather, with him who, where no such question is at issue, is truthful in his speech and in his life, because it is his character to be such; and a man of this character cannot but be esteemed as good."

The Christian Scriptures contain many admonitions to truth speaking. It may suffice to quote one verse from St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians:--"Putting away falsehood, speak ye truth each one with his neighbour: for we are members of one another."

St. Augustine says:--"Let none doubt that he lies, who utters what is false, for the purpose of deceiving. The utterance of what is false, with a will to deceive, is unquestionably a lie."

The Jesuit moralist, Father Rickaby, thus explains the obligation of truth:--"The peculiar spiritual and moral inviolability of the connection between word and thought, appears from the consideration of the archetype holiness of God. This, then, is the real, intrinsic, primary and inseparable reason why lying, or speech in contradiction with the thought of the speaker, is everywhere and always wrong."

Among the morally cultivated, truth is regarded, not only as obligatory and as contributive to the well-being of society, but also as beautiful and admirable, and even as a mark of good breeding. On the other hand, untruthfulness is regarded, not only as always a vice and sometimes a crime, and as a sin against God, but also as a deformity, a moral degradation, and as a fault peculiarly mean and base.

In a court of law, a witness is sworn to speak "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth"; and violation of this oath involves punishment and disgrace. But in the ordinary intercourse of life, no fault is deemed amongst us as more discreditable than falsehood. The whole truth is not, indeed, always to be expected; nothing but the truth is obligatory.

But it must not be overlooked that truthfulness is not either practiced or praised in all communities, in every nation, or in every grade of society. There are nations where this virtue is little valued, and perhaps even despised. This seems especially the case among subject peoples and among slaves, and it is to be feared that untruthfulness is very common where profit is to be made and where punishment is to be avoided by falsehood. There is an old definition of an ambassador as a servant of the State who is sent to "lie" abroad for the interests of his country; and it is usually held that, in war, an enemy has no claim to the truth. In the ordinary intercourse of life the standard of veracity is probably higher than in diplomacy and in war.

III. Why is Truth to be Spoken

A question naturally occurs to many minds, which is of theoretical, speculative interest rather than of practical importance:--What is the ground of the obligation to speak the truth? Why is truthfulness a virtue? To this question, different schools of moralists return different answers, which, however, may not be so inconsistent with one another as is often assumed. The metaphysician will say that truth is binding, because it is in harmony with the nature of things, the fitness of relations, the constitution of the moral universe, the dictates of Eternal Reason or natural Law. The theologian may base the obligation of truth upon the will and commandment of the just and omnipotent God. The ethical psychologist may find the authority, attaching to veracity, in the approval of the moral sense, or of conscience, whether that faculty be native and simple, or acquired and composite. The utilitarian may commend and enjoin truthfulness as a moral habit which is advantageous to society and promotive of general happiness. The legal-minded man of the world may look with disfavor upon certain kinds of falsehood as forbidden and punishable by law, i.e., by the State. Some students may regard truth as, in itself, a primary obligation, and others may conceive of it as one form of binding justice, viz., that form which relates to speech, an important expression of character and medium of social intercourse.

These are all matters of interest to the thinker, but their consideration is not vital to our present purpose.

(to be continued)

The Virtue of Truth Part 2
By The Rev. Professor J. Radford Thomson, M.A.
Volume 11 pg 616-621

IV. Why children are sometimes wanting in Truthfulness.

It often happens that parents are surprised and shocked when they discover that their children are not always perfectly truthful. Children brought up by parents who are scrupulously truthful, and who inculcate truthfulness upon all the members of the family, are, I think, unduly distressed when they find their children telling lies. It may be well to consider how this comes to pass. Several explanations may be given which may account for the failure of children to speak the truth.

The explanations given, in some cases, apply to deliberate and intentional lying; and, in other cases, to departures from truth which do not deserve to be so harshly characterized.

A lively imagination, amounting in some cases to positive illusion, accounts for the falsehoods to which children of a certain type are addicted. It seems certain that these young minds cannot, or do not, distinguish between what they suppose, or what they wish, and what has really taken place. It is well-known that there are adults, sometimes clever and (on the whole) good people, who are given to "romancing," whose lively fancy encourages them to believe, for instance, that they have been to places which they have never really visited, seen persons whom they have never really met, passed through experiences to which they are certainly absolutely strangers. Vanity accounts for much of this deception. No one can relate to such persons anything remarkable that has happened, but they will, if the expression may be allowed, "go one better!"

Bacon, in his Essay on Truth, says that "a mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure." Certain it is that there are children who invent, and in relating their inventions, desire that they should be believed--that is, intend to deceive. The motive may probably be conceit as to their own importance; and it may be simply delight in the exercise of their own imagination.

Exaggeration is not necessarily falsehood; but there is a kind of exaggeration which is inconsistent with truthfulness. It may be admitted that children sometimes exaggerate, because they do not know the meaning of the words they employ. Probably, they copy habits of speech from those about them, and are less to blame than their parents and nurses. Children, like savages and primitive peoples, have misty notions of numbers. The little boy who boasted that he had seen the Lord Mayor's show hundreds of times, can hardly be acquitted of falsehood; and the girl who supposed her father to be a hundred years old was not strictly veracious. But we may say poetically that the waves of a stormy sea were mountains high, or that a moonlight night was as bright as day; and this without the intention or the possibility of deceiving. And even monstrous exaggeration of statement on the part of children may be excused, if it be, as it often is, imitative of rhetorical or imaginative parents. Perhaps the worst form of exaggeration of which children are guilty is when, under the influence of passionate hatred, they describe the conduct of companions and play-fellows as far worse than it really is, attributing to them violence or cruelty of an enormity altogether imaginary.

It cannot be doubted that the chief cause of serious and deliberate falsehood on the part of children is fear. A careful observer will find that, when children lie, it is almost always with a view to evade the anger of parent, nurse, schoolmaster or schoolmistress; and to escape the punishment due to some offence. The child who has broken a known rule is aware that authority will not tolerate disobedience or rebellion. He may not hate the act of wrong-doing, but he dreads the consequences, the frown, the sharp rebuke, the rod, the privation of pleasure. It appears to him that the readiest way of escape is a falsehood, the denial of the offence, the casting of blame upon another, or the false and sneaking plea of ignorance of the rule that has been broken.

The habit of falsehood my often be traced to imitation. "Evil communications corrupt good manners." Children learn evil, as well as good, from one another. A boy or girl, who has been reared--so to speak--in the very atmosphere of truth, in a pure and pious home, is sent to school, and plunged into the probation of life. Schoolfellows laugh at the scruples of the ingenuous and transparent child, and set an example of deceit mendacity. In some cases, such influence succeeds to removing scruples and destroying principles; and, for a time, the character is corrupted, and bad habits sway the life. Lies are spoken of as "crams" and "fibs," or are extenuated as "white" and therefore harmless and justifiable.

V. In what ways may the habit of falsehood be checked, and the habits of truthfulness be formed?

We must now turn to the practical part of the subject. What can be done to deter children from falsehood, and to cultivate in them the habit of truthfulness? None of us can wish to have liars in our families; yet many virtuous and religious parents have been so afflicted--how far, through their own carelessness or unwisdom, it would not be easy or discreet to decide.

The first and most essential guarantee for truthfulness in a family is the existence of perfect openness and confidence between parents and children. Where father and mother are severe and harsh, or indifferent and careless, sons and daughters are likely to go their own way, pursue their own plans, without reference to the pleasure and approval of their proper guardians. In such circumstances, where there is no frankness in the relations in question, children are almost sure to conceal their pursuits and sports and companionships from those who should be most able to guide and control them. Deceit and concealment are most likely to lead to direct falsehood. On the other hand, when parents encourage their children to live on open terms with themselves, when they interest themselves in their children's studies, games, and society, when there is no hiding and no reticence, temptation to falsehood is diminished; and, not only so, but truth is spoken naturally and without effort.

We shall not encourage truthfulness on the part of our children by treating them with suspicion. Unless there be reason for doubting a child's word, it is well to trust him. Of course, a liar must be exposed and checked, watched, remonstrated with, and even punished. But, on the whole, trust elicits truthfulness. When a well-disposed child finds that he is trusted, he takes a pride and pleasure in speaking the truth, and realizes the community of confidence which dignifies human relationships and society.

Highly important, of course, is it that parents should set their children an example of perfect truthfulness, so that it may never be suggested to them that there is such a practice as falsehood. Parents are most likely to go wrong by failing to keep their promises or to fulfil their threats. It is well to be chary of both, especially the latter. No doubt, it is often inconvenient to give something, or to go somewhere, when the time comes to fulfil a promise; but to fail to keep one's word, and to make excuses--more or less plausible--is to shake a child's confidence in one's veracity, and to lead him to believe that truth is of but little importance. We cannot expect our children to practise a virtue which we practically assure them is of little or no consequence.

I need scarcely say that the parent who desires his children to be truthful will refrain from ill-temper and violence. Children are so much in their parents' power, and depend so largely upon their parents' favour, that we cannot wonder if they say anything in order to shield themselves from abuse and ill-treatment on the part of those in authority. A quiet and reasonable spirit and demeanour is as conducive to candour and veracity, as a hasty and petulant habit is to insincerity and evasion.

One practice may be mentioned as especially contributive to veracity--the practice of accurate observation. To know anything correctly is the first and indispensable condition of describing or relating it correctly. Carelessness in observation naturally leads to carelessness in characterization or narration. If an object is to be described, or an event related, the mind must be first directed towards apprehending it. Some children are satisfied with cursory glance, or an uninterested, superficial regard; how natural that such children should give an incorrect and misleading account of what has come under their notice! If it be urged that, in such cases, there is no falsehood, because there is no deliberate intention to deceive, the reply is obvious, that there is no fixed resolve and effort to tell the exact truth, and that there is indifference as to the creating of a false impression. The line is certainly not always clearly drawn between inaccuracy and falsehood. But surely there can be no doubt that conscientiously careful observation and truthful statement are very closely allied. It is well that children's intelligence should be trained in the accurate use of all their senses, and in the employment of their powers of speech. Morality is involved in both exercises.

Almost equally important is the cultivation of an accurate memory. It is not denied that the basis memory, physical and psychical, is natural and constitutional, that, in this respect, we are differently endowed from early childhood. Still, it is equally unquestionable that memory may be either neglected, or improved by training and practice. Children do not always recollect, any more than do adults; and imagination is often called in to do the work which should properly devolve upon memory. In such cases, there may be no deliberate intention to deceive, but there is no conscientious endeavour to be truthful. Certain it is, that to recollect with distinctness and precision is a very valuable habit, and a habit most conducive to truth. Two persons who have witnessed the same occurrence may, and probably will, give somewhat different account of it, for what interests and impresses one may not interest or impress the other; but if the accounts given are not merely different, but inconsistent and opposed, one or the other is, of course, erroneous. And it may be that prejudice, or interest, or imagination has coloured the vision and biassed the language of one of the two, and that his statement is wanting in, not only exactness, but veracity. Much of school training is designed both to enrich and to strengthen the memory of the young, but parents have a special responsibility in watching the development of their children's powers of retention and reminiscence. As they fulfil this duty, they foster and form the habit of truthfulness.

Another important process in moral discipline is the cultivation of the habit of accuracy in the employment of language. The loose, inexact, slipshod misuse of words is a kind of falsehood. It is one of the prevalent habits of our time, and is to be found in all ranks of society. Our noble, wealthy and expressive English is too often held in contempt rather than in veneration. Young people will not be at the trouble of thinking what is the right word, and use a word utterly inappropriate, so that the statement made is positively untrue. It has been calculated that ,not long ago, a peasant's vocabulary consisted of only some two or three hundred words. Instructed persons, in what is called a good social position--of course intellectually uncultivated--often draw upon a limited repertory for their stock of words, and consequently speak with conspicuous unveracity.

It is very important to cultivate in children the habit of moral fearlessness, which will go far to preserve them from yielding to any temptation to falsehood. We should train our children to dread nothing that may be encountered in the path of duty. This sounds rather magniloquent, when applied to a child's overcoming temptation to deceit, but there is moral conflict even a child's life, and on the bloodless battlefield of home and school. Children should be taught that it is even braver to tell the truth, and suffer for so doing, than it is in a good cause to endure blows or scorn. There is scope for courage, even in a child's life. Cowardice and falsehood go together, and bravery and truthfulness are akin. To suffer in well-doing is the lot and honour of the brave. I never admired a boy of mine more than when he defied the public opinion of the school, and courageously and truthfully denounced the cruel and cowardly conduct of his schoolfellows towards a younger, unoffending and helpless comrade.

As false-hood often takes the detestable form of slander, something may be done to guard child against untruthfulness, by encouraging him to think no evil, and to put, where possible, a good construction upon the conduct of others. People's actions and words are sometimes susceptible of two interpretations, one favourable, the other unfavourable. It is the mark of a mean, ungenerous spirit, to put the worst construction upon another's behaviour; it is falsehood and slander to affirm evil of another, where it is not certain that there is guilt. Against this kind of falsehood, parents may fortify their children by themselves taking a generous view of their neighbours, and refraining from speaking evil unless, where it is a duty, and also by encouraging a similar attitude and habit on the part of those over whose moral development it is their duty and privilege to watch.

It is well to relate to children instances of veracity which rise to nobleness, and to accompany such narratives with open expressions of admiration and of praise. I am thinking of the well-known story of the boy, George Washington, and of the incident in a Westminster election, when the late John Stuart Mill told the truth before a vast multitude of electors, well-knowing that his doing so might lose him his election. And the Christian parent will not fail to tell the children of Him who came into this world to bear witness to the truth, and who declared Himself to be "the Truth."


Proofread May 2011, LNL