If all agree to a lie – a new ‘truth’ has suddenly been discovered. Without the questioning of such ‘truths’, individuals, societies, and generations of men and women, can base their lives on illusions, – writes Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania in Church and Life.
Our object, as human beings is to use our reason well, in order to search and live out the Truth. The term ‘Truth’, philosophers and theologians have debated as to its meaning over the ages; of these definitions, I take as my term of reference anything that connotes: the Divine and faultless, or something that is without guilt or guile, correct, authentic and honest.
- Church and Life: Ambivalent Hypocrisy (cf. Mark 2: 27)
- A Question of Honour (cf. Isaiah 53)
- Hide and Go Seek (cf. Psalm 62: 5)
A lie is something that we know to be false, but that which we still publically acclaim to be ‘true’. The important word is, ‘publicly’, and not privately, for the liar is fully aware of his lies, no matter how often, how convincingly, and how vociferously, he protests his innocence. We may be motivated by a variety of reasons to subscribe to a lie; but all our reasons funnel back into that singular well of self-interest. No person lies in order to cause themselves harm; the Truth would save them in such a case. A person will lie out of fear for personal welfare, whether that welfare be: physical, emotional or professional trepidation, or for the hope of aggrandizement. In short, lies are told to preserve or enhance our public standing. A boy in school may lie in order to win an academic prize; his father may lie, in order to embellish his resume so as to be awarded a particular promotion; his grandfather may lie in order to evade taxes so as to later provide for greater wealth for his descendants. In all cases, a lie has been told, and a truth has been denied. When truth is denied, justice is also.
Like moths caught up by the light of a flame, too often we are deluded by: power, charisma, status and fame – and thus by consciously or unconsciously doing, we immolate our consciences by accepting as Truth, falsehoods spoken by those we believe to be little short of gods.
As children believe magic to be real; so too often, adults will for the unreal to be real. At the lower socio-economic rungs of society more subscribers to a lie are required for the lie to become a ‘truth’; but at the higher socio-economic levels of society, the most powerful individual can daily dream up lies for society to swallow as the Truth. Like moths caught up by the light of a flame, too often we are deluded by: power, charisma, status and fame – and thus by consciously or unconsciously doing, we immolate our consciences by accepting as Truth, falsehoods spoken by those we believe to be little short of gods. We seek perfection where only fallibility has the potential to grow; and yet are perpetually disappointed when those we worship, disappoint us, time and time again. As we can only judge the merit of a piece of art, when the artist has completed his project; we should reserve our adulation for that moment when the artist turns to us and says: “It is Finished!” Then we will know, in time at least, the true substance of what was placed in front of us. Time tests the mettle.
A case in point, in this the study of lying, are three of the Founding Fathers of the United States: Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr.
Thomas Jefferson became the subject, and life’s labour of Dumas Malone (1892 – 1986); who in six volumes, (publication dates spanning from 1948 to 1981), thoroughly and articulately provided the world with a biographical work of art. For Malone’s efforts he was awarded both the 1975 Pulitzer Prize, and in 1983 the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the latter, the highest honour bestowed on a civilian in the United States. Malone’s work is simply put one of the best texts I have ever read. Exquisite language, meticulously researched, and now because of advancements in science, since its publication, comical in its appraisal of the character of Thomas Jefferson. No man can write about another for so long without having a love for his subject; nothing but love or deep admiration could inspire such decades of devotion. So it was with Malone; the Sage of Monticello, became the noble philosopher, who lived in an ethereal cloud, beyond the feet of clay of the common man. When Malone began Volume Six, it was with the words: “It has been my great privilege as a biographer to be intimately associated with this extraordinary man for many years. At the end of my long journey with him I leave him with regret and salute him with profound respect.” (Malone, 1981, Vol. VI, p. xviii). As Malone closes Volume Six, he writes: “At the end of this volume it can be said that this man of many parts and great generosity offers something of interest to everybody. Not only was he an intensely devoted family man; he was a friend to mankind.” (Malone, 1981, Vol. VI., p. 498). One can easily see how Jefferson’s lifetime achievements could make a person believe right-readily in his imperviousness to the base temptations of the human spirit. Against the chorus of rumour sung by Jefferson’s political enemies of his own time, and the murmurings of disenfranchised African-American slaves who sang also in concert, as well as historians throughout the intervening years between Jefferson’s death and Malone placing pen to paper, Malone stood steadfast. According to Malone, Jefferson after his wife’s early death, spent the remaining forty four years of his life, as a chaste widower, obedient to his wife’s death-bed wish that he not marry again. Malone would respond to the accusations that Jefferson fathered six children to his three quarter white slave, Sally Hemmings, by writing that to Jefferson: “they rankled all the more because of their irrelevance, impropriety, and unfairness. They were particularly shocking to Jefferson, not only because he was in fact a highly moral man, but also because he made a sharp distinction between public and private matters and regarded the latter as an improper subject of public discussion.” (Malone, 1973, Vol. V., p. 11).
Jefferson has his Monument, and his many schools, named after him. But was this period of short of two hundred year ‘sainthood’, shrouded by many unspoken lies worth the cost?
Jefferson was noticeably guarded in his rebuttal to these salacious accusations; taking the higher ground, posturing that to get involved in such debate would further lend credence to the claims. Jefferson had no cause to be too concerned by such scandal mongering, for the majority of those who fired the public barbs, were well-known political opponents, and those who knew the truth, were sub-human – slaves, and who could believe that the President of the United States would have a liaison with a slave-girl/woman, who had once been his daughter’s playmate?
Yet essentially, the author of the Declaration of Independence, lived for much of his life, an absolute and abject lie; his duplicitous nature, uncovered by the winds of time, that patiently wore away the sacrosanct veneer. Providence spared Dumas Malone the truth. A decade and a half after Malone’s death, DNA evidence concluded that Jefferson was in strong probability the father of all of Sally Hemmings’ children. Science was on the side now of the Hemmings family who had up until then relied on facial and other such physical similarities between Jefferson and the Hemmings relations. In addition every child that Sally bore had been conceived at the time Jefferson was back home at Monticello. Malone cannot be held at fault. He relied, as we all do, solely on our wits – looking at one another from this angle, or that; judging with a heart and mind filled with life experience as to what a person’s character truly is. Addressing the Hemmings debate head-on, Malone argued: “The obscenity and vulgarity of these extracts … serve to illustrate the low taste of the journalism of the era, but in our own time the pertinent question is whether there was any validity whatever in the tale he [Callender, a journalist] told. A trifold answer can be given to this. (i) The charges are suspect in the first place because they issued from the vengeful pen of an unscrupulous man and were promulgated in a spirit of bitter partisanship. (2) They cannot be proved and certain of the alleged facts were obviously erroneous. (3) They are distinctly out of character being virtually unthinkable in a man of Jefferson’s standards and habitual conduct. To say this is not to claim that he was a plaster saint and incapable of moral lapses. But his major weaknesses were not of this sort; and while he might have occasionally fallen from grace, as so many men have done so often, it is virtually inconceivable that this fastidious gentleman whose devotion to his dead wife’s memory and to the happiness of his daughters and grandchildren bordered on the excessive could have carried on through a period of years a vulgar liaison which his own family could not have failed to detect. It would be as absurd as to charge this consistently temperate man with being, through a long period, a secret drunkard.” (Malone, 1969, Vol. IV, p. 214).
They were particularly shocking to Jefferson, not only because he was in fact a highly moral man, but also because he made a sharp distinction between public and private matters and regarded the latter as an improper subject of public discussion
Absurd? A tragic comedy of the absurd. Jefferson has his Monument, and his many schools, named after him. But was this period of short of two hundred year ‘sainthood’, shrouded by many unspoken lies worth the cost? Sally Hemmings would not be released in Jefferson’s final Testament from slavery. A modern biographer, Jon Meacham, in Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, (2013), in the garish light of hindsight would note that Hemmings sought out from Jefferson when she was his servant/slave in Paris, France, having been brought over to tend to Jefferson’s daughter. How Jefferson coaxed her back to the United States is unknown, but when she returned with him, this young woman, nay still but a girl, was carrying within her the first of his six children, all who would be born into slavery, and all who would not be recognized by their father.
Malone was duped, not because he was unintelligent, or untruthful, but more because he sought to believe in the sweet, romantic lie, rather than the confronting Truth. How often do we avoid the Truth, because it shatters our fantasies?
Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper, May 2018