Lies as Fuel for Slaughter; Truth as Wellspring of Courage

Yesterday, by chance, reading involved two things: a chapter of history and a short story.  Written by men living 2300 years apart, these describe the very same thing: the workings of the human heart, in particular at times of trial, and the results of those workings in terms of human suffering and survival. In the history, people lied to everyone about everything in an attempt to save their own skins, and failed, earning themselves sordid deaths.  In the story, a man is led by his absolute devotion to truth at least to die with integrity after having behaved well.

Thucydides claims to have based his history on near reports, and to have fleshed it out with his own considered reconstructions of the speeches made by the great men on all sides during the Peloponnesian War.  That’s fine; all well and good, but to read it is to scan multiple recursions of the same theme, here paraphrased:

The Plutonians sent forty ships to lay waste the lands of the Apricotians.  The Apricotians did not submit, so the Plutonians slaughtered them all, burned the city, raised a trophy, and sailed home.

Then the reader arrives at Chapter X, “The Corcyrean Revolution,”  to be startled awake on reading this:

The Corcyrean revolution began with the return of the prisoners taken in the sea-fights off Epidamnus . . . the accused, rendered desperate by law . . . banded together armed with daggers, and suddenly bursting into the senate killed Peithias and sixty others, senators and private persons . . . 

After a day’s interval hostilities recommenced, victory remaining with the commons, [over the oligarchs] who had the advantage in numbers and position, the women also valiantly assisting them, pelting with tiles from the houses, and supporting the mêlée with a fortitude beyond their sex. Towards dusk, the oligarchs in full rout, fearing that the victorious commons might assault and carry the arsenal and put them to the sword, fired the houses round the market -place and the lodging-houses . . . 

The Corcyreans, made aware of the approach of the Athenian fleet . . . slew such of their enemies as they laid hands on . . . Next they went to the sanctuary of Hera and persuaded about fifty men to take their trial, and condemned them all to death.  The mass of the suppliants who had refused to do so, on seeing what was taking place, slew each other there in the consecrated ground; while some hanged themselves upon the trees, and others destroyed themselves as they were severally able. . .  the Corcyreans were engaged in butchering those of their fellow-citizens whom they regarded as their enemies: and although the crime imputed was that of attempting to put down the democracy, some were slain also for private hatred, others by their debtors because of he monies owed to them.  Death thus raged in every shape; and as usually happens at such times, there was no length to which violence did not go; sons were killed by their fathers, and suppliants dragged from the alter or slain upon it . . .

Now Thucydides moves from the particular to the general.

. . . struggles being everywhere made by the popular chiefs to bring in the Athenians, and by the oligarchs to introduce the Lacedaemonians. . .   The sufferings which revolution entailed upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur, as long as the nature of mankind remains the same;

Too right, says the 20th-century reader, who now wonders if she is actually reading a news story:

. . . Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any.  Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defense.  The advocate of extrme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.  To succeed in a plot was t0 have a shrewd head, to divine a plot still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. 

 

Stephen Vincent Benét’s 1937 short story The Blood of the Martyrs concerns an apolitical scientific researcher and professor, imprisoned in “the castle” by the soldiers of “The Dictator.” The Professor dispassionately assesses the near likelihood of his execution.  He does not betray his students, who apparently have been self-organizing into a force in opposition to The Dictator –  but he does not articulate to himself why he does not betray them despite beatings and condemnation to death.

Only at the very end, when The Dictator personally demands, in exchange for his life on terms, that he lie about science – do State Science, speak in scientific language in service to the State – does the Professor make his refusal.  He does not spell it out for himself in his mind; he simply recalls the faces of his students who came to him over the years for one thing: truth, and the pursuit of truth.

He paused again, seeing their faces before him. . . From all over the world they had come – they wore cheap overcoats, they were hungry for knowledge, they ate the bad, starchy food of the poor restaurants . . . a few were promising – all must be given the truth. It did not matter if they died, but they must be given the truth.  Otherwise there could be no continuity and no science. 

. . . not to tell lies to young men on one’s own subject. . . .They had given him their terrible confidence – not for love or kindness, but because they had found him honest.  It was too late to change.

The Professor will not lie for the State, even to save his life.  His death is sordid only externally; internally his integrity gives him calm. He dies thinking of the young men to whom he has not lied.

So, some will lie, and participate in lies, in an attempt to evade murder, or merely to advance themselves.  Other will refuse to lie, because to lie would be to commit painful betrayal to the highest value.  For Benét’s character, it is not a matter of anguished calculation or conjecture.  It just is so.  That is the source of his personal courage: faithfulness to what is so.

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18 thoughts on “Lies as Fuel for Slaughter; Truth as Wellspring of Courage”

  1. “But if I lie for the higher good, I will be a good man.”

    Thanks you for a wonderful post, jzdro.

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  2. I recently had open-heart surgery,(my second time), and in the immediate period of recovery I was given pain relieving medication which brought on some bizarre dreams and hallucinations. In one of the most vivid dreams I can recall ever having, numerous individuals, perhaps as many as a hundred, were present in rows and columns. These individuals were all in the immediate recovery stage of open-heart surgery, still using ventilators for breathing. As the dream proceeds, individuals are removed or disengaged from the recovery process based on the underlying falsity of their expressions of belief during their lifetime. As this dream concluded, I was still in the group recovering with a handful of others, but most had their recovery short-circuited and were gone because of their deceptions. I know that my mind was filled with thoughts regarding all the high-level representatives in our government, elected officials and bureaucrats, who knowingly spout lies all the time, so this kind of dream made sense under these conditions. The hallucinations were even more bizarre. Gave me some understanding of the possible effects of these opioid drugs.

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  3. Bob, I am glad you made it through the surgery.

    Dreams tell me want have been on my mind. I don’t dream very often unless I have something I am struggling to resolve.

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  4. Bob Thompson:
    I recently had open-heart surgery,(my second time), and in the immediate period of recovery I was given pain relieving medication which brought on some bizarre dreams and hallucinations. In one of the most vivid dreams I can recall ever having, numerous individuals, perhaps as many as a hundred, were present in rows and columns. These individuals were all in the immediate recovery stage of open-heart surgery, still using ventilators for breathing. As the dream proceeds, individuals are removed or disengaged from the recovery process based on the underlying falsity of their expressions of belief during their lifetime. As this dream concluded, I was still in the group recovering with a handful of others, but most had their recovery short-circuited and were gone because of their deceptions. I know that my mind was filled with thoughts regarding all the high-level representatives in our government, elected officials and bureaucrats, who knowingly spout lies all the time, so this kind of dream made sense under these conditions. The hallucinations were even more bizarre. Gave me some understanding of the possible effects of these opioid drugs.

    Speedy recovery, @Bob Thompson.  Thank you for describing this dream; it’s quite something to think about.  Did the lies make the liars’ hearts heavier, so they tipped the scale of judgment?  Or was that not specified and you simply knew that that was what was happening?

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  5. Yet the Professor’s refusal to lie to his students across time can be seen as a reckless audacity, an unwillingness to see things from all sides, specious cowardice, unmanliness, and so forth.  Not that I agree, but from a different point of view, that man’s actions are no better than that of an unprincipled rabble.  Perhaps he clings to his conviction not from noble causes, but from vainglory.  Is he so bereft of reasons to live that he now embraces the one shred of free will left to him, to continue a deceit even to his own death just so that his name should not be associated with the sordid truth — that his science was wrong, his students misled, and society harmed for his actions?

    In the end you can convince nobody of the truth.  This does not mean that there is no truth.  It means that you cannot change others.  The only thing irrevocably true in even the noblest of deaths is that you are just as dead as the meanest of brutes.  Even the Corcyreans wound up assassinating their creditors as such.

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  6. jzdro:

    Bob Thompson:
    I recently had open-heart surgery,(my second time), and in the immediate period of recovery I was given pain relieving medication which brought on some bizarre dreams and hallucinations. In one of the most vivid dreams I can recall ever having, numerous individuals, perhaps as many as a hundred, were present in rows and columns. These individuals were all in the immediate recovery stage of open-heart surgery, still using ventilators for breathing. As the dream proceeds, individuals are removed or disengaged from the recovery process based on the underlying falsity of their expressions of belief during their lifetime. As this dream concluded, I was still in the group recovering with a handful of others, but most had their recovery short-circuited and were gone because of their deceptions. I know that my mind was filled with thoughts regarding all the high-level representatives in our government, elected officials and bureaucrats, who knowingly spout lies all the time, so this kind of dream made sense under these conditions. The hallucinations were even more bizarre. Gave me some understanding of the possible effects of these opioid drugs.

    Speedy recovery, @Bob Thompson.  Thank you for describing this dream; it’s quite something to think about.  Did the lies make the liars’ hearts heavier, so they tipped the scale of judgment?  Or was that not specified and you simply knew that that was what was happening?

    It was clear to me in the context of the dream that those who lied about what they actually believed were not being allowed to complete the recovery regime. In the course of the dream, the worst offenders were removed earliest so that by the conclusion with maybe a dozen left, they were those with the most integrity between what they said they believed and what was actually what they believed.

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  7. Haakon Dahl:
    Yet the Professor’s refusal to lie to his students across time can be seen as a reckless audacity, an unwillingness to see things from all sides, specious cowardice, unmanliness, and so forth.  Not that I agree, but from a different point of view, that man’s actions are no better than that of an unprincipled rabble.  Perhaps he clings to his conviction not from noble causes, but from vainglory.  Is he so bereft of reasons to live that he now embraces the one shred of free will left to him, to continue a deceit even to his own death just so that his name should not be associated with the sordid truth — that his science was wrong, his students misled, and society harmed for his actions?

    In the end you can convince nobody of the truth.  This does not mean that there is no truth.  It means that you cannot change others.  The only thing irrevocably true in even the noblest of deaths is that you are just as dead as the meanest of brutes.  Even the Corcyreans wound up assassinating their creditors as such.

    I have never thought that I would always expect honorable people, who profess to have integrity and honor truthfulness, to never fail under duress.  Courage is something that I have never felt that I knew I could display in the harshest circumstances so it is difficult to hold others to that standard. But this is not the context of the greed and deception we face with large numbers of those in our government. They deserve nothing that honors their deception.

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  8. Haakon, I think you can convince people of the truth or the errors of their ways. It is true the person has to be willing to listen and change but it is possible. I think for the most of us over time we realize the truth of certain situations. It can happen a lot faster if a good friend drops a dime on us.

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  9. Bob Thompson:
    those with the most integrity between what they said they believed and what was actually what they believed.

    Would you agree with the terms highest integrity quotient and lowest venality quotient?  I hope so, because I just made them up.  You are the expert here, so I am angling for a little validation.

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  10. Bob Thompson:

    I have never thought that I would always expect honorable people, who profess to have integrity and honor truthfulness, to never fail under duress.  Courage is something that I have never felt that I knew I could display in the harshest circumstances

    With you there, brother!  I quail at the thought of how I might betray.

    so it is difficult to hold others to that standard.

    You’re a better man than I, as the poet said.  I hold others to the standard nonetheless, in particular if I suspect that they are making no serious attempt to do any right thing; that their own survival, at whatever price, is their highest value; in short, that they are venal and satisfied with being venal.

    But this is not the context of the greed and deception we face with large numbers of those in our government. They deserve nothing that honors their deception.

    Darn right it is not the context.  Luxurious comfort, financial security, perceived social status, and undeserved power constitute the context in which they live their lives and make their decisions. They were not facing torture or terror, only loss of power and privilege and their easy gains.

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  11. jzdro:

    Bob Thompson:
    those with the most integrity between what they said they believed and what was actually what they believed.

    Would you agree with the terms highest integrity quotient and lowest venality quotient?  I hope so, because I just made them up.  You are the expert here, so I am angling for a little validation.

    I do agree, and Jesus Christ was at the conceptual center with an integrity quotient of 100% or 1 or however to represent perfection. He would never have been removed from the recovery regime.

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  12. 10 Cents:
    Haakon, I think you can convince people of the truth or the errors of their ways. It is true the person has to be willing to listen and change but it is possible. I think for the most of us over time we realize the truth of certain situations. It can happen a lot faster if a good friend drops a dime on us.

    Yes. This happened to me. It is not inconceivable that it has happened to Donald Trump. That’s one of the things that runs through my mind these days. And just think how difficult this process might be for someone in Trump’s life circumstances.

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  13. Haakon Dahl:
    Yet the Professor’s refusal to lie to his students across time can be seen as a reckless audacity, an unwillingness to see things from all sides, specious cowardice, unmanliness, and so forth.  Not that I agree, but from a different point of view, that man’s actions are no better than that of an unprincipled rabble.

    Benét succeeds, I find, in portraying his character as one who remains constant to his highest value – in his case the pursuit of scientific truth – even in circumstances he never imagined, because the circumstances involve persons – all his students – about whom he had not thought much, except in one respect:

    . . . a few were promising – all must be given the truth.  It did not matter if they died, but they must be given the truth.  Otherwise there could be no continuity and no science.

    Otherwise there could be no continuity and no science.  Science, knowledge, truth are what sustain him and to what he is faithful.  He is true to his students in consequence.

     

     

     

     

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  14. 10 Cents:
    Haakon, I think you can convince people of the truth or the errors of their ways.

    I disagree with this because the most potent influence upon society today is peer group pressure. The”cool” thing now is very anti-establishment and I cannot believe how history consistently manages to repeat itself.

    Read this: Woodstock Values vs. “God’s Country” written by Pat Buchanan:
    https://buchanan.org/blog/pjb-woodstock-values-vs-gods-country-217

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  15. Haakon Dahl:
    Perhaps he clings to his conviction not from noble causes, but from vainglory.

    His fleeting moment of vainglory occurs as the killers drag him to the post:

    He had given them nothing but work and the truth; they had given him their terrible trust.  If he had been beaten again, he might have betrayed them.   But he had avoided that.

    He felt a last weakness – a wish that someone might know.

    Having made his unmistakeable and irrevocable answer to the demand of The Dictator – No! With extreme prejudice! – he is entitled, I feel, to his fleeting moment of vainglory.

      Is he so bereft of reasons to live that he now embraces the one shred of free will left to him, to continue a deceit even to his own death just so that his name should not be associated with the sordid truth — that his science was wrong, his students misled, and society harmed for his actions?

    Hum.  I have been unclear. My apologies.  If you read the story again, this particular worry of yours will wash away, I am sure.

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