Is it ever morally acceptable – even desirable – to tell a bald-faced lie? That was probably a topic covered in your Philosophy 101 course. At a historian, I’m interested in the question from an ancient perspective. What did people in antiquity think about it? In particular Christians. Did they think – based on the Ten Commandments, say, or the teachings of Jesus, that a person should never lie? Or were they quite lax on the matter? Or something in between?
I was actually a bit surprised to learn the answer to the question. And as you might expect, the answer is complicated. My original interest in the issue had to do with forgery. A forger claims to be someone famous, knowing full well he is someone else. That’s a lie, that is, it is a falsehood told intentionally. How did forgers justify that? It turns out, there appear to be answers.
This is how I dealt with the matter in my lecture on forgery given at the conference in Quebec a couple of weeks ago. (I deal with the issue also in my books on forgery.) This will be my last post on forgery for the foreseeable future. And I don’t *think* I’m lying about that.
Let me conclude by reflecting briefly on the ethics of literary deceit, in an ancient context. It is worth noting at the outset that in many ways ancient views were similar to our own. There are a few people in the world today, though not many, who think that a person should never lie no matter what, under any condition whatsoever. Others – the vast majority – think otherwise, that if, for example, a lie will prevent personal harm let alone death to another, or even to oneself, then of course it is justified.
Ancients usually thought so as well. Casual observers of the Christian tradition have often not realized this, but have simply assumed that early Christian moral discourse objected to lying in every way and every context. But that’s simply not true.
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