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advocate asserting the justice, or his belief of the justice, of his client's cause. In such instances, no confidence is destroyed, because none was reposed; no promise to speak the truth is violated, because none was given, or understood to be given.
2. Where the person to whom you speak has no right to know the truth, or, more properly, where little or no inconveniency results from the want of confidence in such cases; as where you tell a falsehood to a madman, for his own advantage; to a robber, to conceal your property; to an assassin, to defeat or divert him from his purpose. The particular consequence is by the supposition beneficial; and, as to the general consequence, the worst that can happen is, that the madman, the robber, the assassin, will not trust you again; which (beside that the first is incapable of deducing regular conclusions from having been once deceived, and the last two not likely to come a second time in your way) is sufficiently compensated by the immediate benefit which you propose by the falsehood.
It is upon this principle, that by the laws of war it is allowed to deceive an enemy by feints, false colours, spies, false intelligence, and the like; but by no means in treaties, truces, signals of capitulation or surrender; and the difference is, that the former suppose hostilities to continue, the latter are calculated to terminate or suspend them. In the conduct of war, and whilst the war continues, there is no use, or rather no place, for confidence betwixt the contending parties; but in whatever relates to the termination of war, the most religious fidelity is expected, because without it, wars could not cease, nor the victors be secure, but by the entire destruction of the vanquished.
Many people indulge, in serious discourse, a habit of fiction and exaggeration in the accounts they give of themselves, of their acquaintance, or of the extraordinary things which they have seen or heard; and so long as the facts they relate are indifferent, and their narratives, though false, are inoffensive, it may seem a superstitious regard to truth to censure them merely for
In the first place, it is almost impossible to pronounce beforehand with certainty, concerning any lie, that it is inoffensive. Volat irrevocabile; and collects sometimes accretions in its flight, which entirely change its nature. It may owe possibly its mischief
1 There have been two or three instances of late of English ships decoying an enemy into their power, by counterfeiting signals of distress; an artifice which ought to be reprobated by the common indignation of mankind! for, a few examples of captures effected by this stratagem, would put an end to that promptitude in affording assistance to ships in distress, which is the best virtue in a seafaring character, and by which the perils of navigation are diminished to all.-A.D. 1775.
to the officiousness or misrepresentation of those who circulate it; but the mischief is, nevertheless, in some degree chargeable upon the original editor.
In the next place, this liberty in conversation defeats its own end. Much of the pleasure, and all the benefit of conversation, depends upon our opinion of the speaker's veracity; for which this rule leaves no foundation. The faith, indeed, of a hearer must be extremely perplexed who considers the speaker, or believes that the speaker considers himself, as under no obligation to adhere to truth, but according to the particular importance of what he relates.
But beside and above both these reasons, white lies always introduce others of a darker complexion. I have seldom known any one who deserted truth in trifles, that could be trusted in matters of importance. Nice distinctions are out of the question upon occasions which, like those of speech, return every hour. The habit, therefore, of lying, when once formed, is easily extended to serve the designs of malice or interest-like all habits, it spreads indeed of itself.
Pious frauds, as they are improperly enough called, pretended inspirations, forged books, counterfeit miracles, are impositions of a more serious nature. It is possible that they may sometimes, though seldom, have been set up and encouraged with a design to do good; but the good they aim at, requires that the belief of them should be perpetual, which is hardly possible; and the detection of the fraud is sure to disparage the credit of all pretensions of the same nature. Christianity has suffered more injury from this cause than from all other causes put together.
As there may be falsehoods which are not lies, so there may be lies without literal or direct falsehood. An opening is always left for this species of prevarication, when the literal and grammatical signification of a sentence is different from the popular and customary meaning. It is the wilful deceit that makes the lie; and we wilfully deceive, when our expressions are not true in the sense in which we believe the hearer to apprehend them; besides that it is absurd to contend for any sense of words, in opposition to usage, for all senses of all words are founded upon usage, and upon nothing else.
Or a man may act a lie; as, by pointing his finger in a wrong direction, when a traveller inquires of him his road; or when a tradesman shuts up his windows, to induce his creditors to believe that he is abroad; for, to all moral purposes, and therefore as to veracity, speech and action are the same-speech being only a mode of action.
Or, lastly, there may be lies of omission. A writer of English
history, who, in his account of the reign of Charles I., should wilfully suppress any evidence of that prince's despotic measures and designs, might be said to lie; for, by entitling his book a History of England, he engages to relate the whole truth of the history, or at least, all that he knows of it.
[The social and moral duty of truth implies the obligation of seeking to arrive at what is true in every question that comes before us. This involves not merely integrity of disposition, and the subjugation of all hostile bias, but also the taking of pains to ascertain the evidence there is for any assertion. An education in judging of evidence is indispensable to acting uprightly in all but the most obvious causes of dispute.
The duty of truth further implies, the encouragement of scientific pursuits, by which alone the great laws of the world are arrived at, and placed on a basis of absolute certainty. The advancement of science, we have remarked in another place, 'is almost the only element of civilisation that ought never to be controlled or resisted: which has only one course, and will inevitably pursue it. It is the thing of all others to be encouraged, since its burden is truth and certainty, the final dissipation of all delusion, deception, and of hopes leading to disappointment. What we may actually and confidently expect from the tread of time, and the operations of the world, this science informs us of-it is the one word faithful and true to the sublunary scheme of things.'1]
I. Forms of Oaths.
V. What Oaths do not bind.
VI. In what Sense Oaths are to be interpreted.
I. The forms of oaths, like other religious ceremonies, have in all ages been various; consisting, however, for the most part, of some bodily action,2 and of a prescribed form of words. Amongst
1['Chambers's Papers for the People, No. 4.- Education of the Citizen.']
2 It is commonly thought that oaths are denominated corporeal oaths, from the bodily action which accompanies them, of laying the right hand upon a book containing the four Gospels. This opinion, however, appears to be a mistake; for the term is borrowed from the ancient usage of touching, on these occasions, the corporale, or cloth which covered the consecrated elements.
the Jews, the juror held up his right hand towards heaven, which explains a passage in the 144th Psalm; whose mouth speaketh vanity, and their right hand is a right hand of falsehood.' The same form is retained in Scotland still. Amongst the same Jews, an oath of fidelity was taken, by the servant's putting his hand under the thigh of his lord, as Eliezer did to Abraham, Gen. xxiv. 2: from whence, with no great variation, is derived, perhaps, the form of doing homage at this day, by putting the hands between the knees, and within the hands of the liege.
Amongst the Greeks and Romans, the form varied with the subject and occasion of the oath. In private contracts, the parties took hold of each other's hand, whilst they swore to the performance; or they touched the altar of the god by whose divinity they swore. Upon more solemn occasions, it was the custom to slay a victim; and the beast being struck down, with certain ceremonies and invocations, gave birth to the expressions TμVEI ogxov, ferire pactum; and to our English phrase, translated from these, of striking a bargain.'
The forms of oaths in Christian countries are also very different ; but in no country in the world, I believe, worse contrived, either to convey the meaning, or impress the obligation of an oath, than in our own. The juror with us, after repeating the promise or affirmation which the oath is intended to confirm, adds, 'So help me God;' or more frequently the substance of the oath is repeated to the juror by the officer or magistrate who administers it, adding in the conclusion, 'So help you God.' The energy of the sentence resides in the particle so; so, that is, hâc lege, upon condition of my speaking the truth, or performing this promise, and not otherwise, may God help me. The juror, whilst he hears or repeats the words of the oath, holds his right hand upon a Bible, or other book containing the four Gospels. The conclusion of the oath sometimes runs, 'Ita me Deus adjuvet, et hæc sancta evangelia,' or 'So help me God, and the contents of this book;' which last clause forms a connection between the words and action of the juror, that before was wanting. The juror then kisses the book : the kiss, however, seems rather an act of reverence to the contents of the book (as, in the popish ritual, the priest kisses the Gospel before he reads it) than any part of the oath.
This obscure and elliptical form, together with the levity and frequency with which it is administered, has brought about a general inadvertency to the obligation of oaths, which, both in a religious and political view, is much to be lamented; and it merits public consideration, whether the requiring of oaths on so many frivolous occasions, especially in the Customs, and in the qualification for petty offices, has any other effect than to make
them cheap in the minds of the people. A pound of tea cannot travel regularly from the ship to the consumer, without costing half-a-dozen oaths at the least; and the same security for the due discharge of their office—namely, that of an oath—is required from a churchwarden and an archbishop, from a petty constable and the chief-justice of England. Let the law continue its own sanctions, if they be thought requisite; but let it spare the solemnity of an oath. And where, from the want of something better to depend upon, it is necessary to accept men's own word or own account, let it annex to prevarication penalties proportioned to the public mischief of the offence.
II. But whatever be the form of an oath, the signification is the same. It is the calling upon God to witness, i. e., to take notice of what we say,' and it is 'invoking his vengeance, or renouncing his favour, if what we say be false, or what we promise be not performed.'
III. Quakers and Moravians refuse to swear upon any occasion ; founding their scruples concerning the lawfulness of oaths upon our Saviour's prohibition, Matt. v. 34: 'I say unto you, Swear not at all.'
The answer which we give to this objection cannot be understood, without first stating the whole passage. 'Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.'
To reconcile with this passage of Scripture the practice of swearing, or of taking oaths, when required by law, the following observations must be attended to:
1. It does not appear, that swearing 'by heaven,' 'by the earth,' 'by Jerusalem,' or 'by their own head,' was a form of swearing ever made use of amongst the Jews in judicial oaths; and, consequently, it is not probable that they were judicial oaths which Christ had in his mind when he mentioned those instances.
2. As to the seeming universality of the prohibition, 'Swear not at all,' the emphatic clause, 'not at all,' is to be read in connection with what follows; 'not at all,' h. e., neither 'by the heaven,' nor 'by the earth,' nor by Jerusalem,' nor by thy head: not at all,' does not mean upon no occasion, but by none of these forms.
Our Saviour's argument seems to suppose,