Honesty: A Syllabus (Essay)
June 1, 2007        


Honesty, Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, is “the youngest virtue.” That sounds puzzling until one remembers that Nietzsche is here, as always, at war with Christianity. The honesty Zarathustra commends to his hearers is not the usual, interpersonal kind. Nor is it, exactly, intellectual honesty, which usually means fairness in argument. It is existential honesty: willingness to face the specter of meaninglessness, to entertain the possibility that nothing justifies or underwrites our lives. Even most unbelievers, Nietzsche thought, had convinced themselves that the universe contained a structure of moral meaning, expressed in natural law, and that to live accordingly was a universal human duty and conferred intrinsic human dignity.

Nietzsche denounced this recourse to “metaphysical comfort.” Our existence has no meaning, no purpose, no value, he insisted, except what we endow it with through our self-creation. This austere ideal may be a rare and beautiful form, perhaps even the ultimate form, of honesty, but it is not my subject here. The works I will consider in this Syllabus have to do with the more common form of the virtue: what we might call, with a bow to the contemporary philosopher Jurgen Habermas, the ethics of communication.

Nietzsche again: “There was only one Christian, and He died on the cross.” With respect to honesty, at least, there is more than a grain of truth in this saying. The baseline for any definition of this virtue is, or should be, the almost frighteningly direct and simple injunction in the Sermon on the Mount: “Let your yes be yes and your no no; anything more is from the devil.” (Matt. 5:37) Has anyone subsequently lived up to this exhortation, except perhaps for a few Quakers and other religious radicals or holy fools? On the contrary, a venerable Christian tradition, the branch of moral theology known as casuistry, was developed to blunt its force.

Casuistry has acquired a bad name over the centuries and, on the whole, deserves it. The sublimely other-worldly precepts promulgated in the Sermon on the Mount could only have been uttered by someone who believed that God was an active, watchful Father into whose presence we would all very shortly be called. The excruciatingly this-worldly clarifications of those precepts by medieval and early modern casuists could only have been fashioned by people who believed no such thing, even if they thought they did. The doctrine of “mental reservation,” according to which one might mislead people for a good purpose provided one did not lie outright, may have been justifiable in some circumstances, but it was certainly not Christ-like. That and other doubtful practices, which Cardinal Newman in Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864), his great controversy with Charles Kingsley about religious honesty, delicately ascribed to “the Italian character,” profoundly shocked Protestant sensibilities and indeed contributed largely to the Reformation.

One Italian character whose reflections on (non-religious) honesty became notorious was the Florentine statesman Niccolo Macchiavelli. It is not exactly that Macchiavelli aspired to be a 16th-century Karl Rove to Lorenzo de’ Medici’s George W. Bush – Machiavelli was, after all, literate and fundamentally decent, and his enemies were not sheep-like Democratic politicians but wolf-like Renaissance noblemen and prelates. Still, his brief advice manual, The Prince (1513), was shocking enough. “Contemporary experience shows,” he counseled in the infamous chapter XVIII, “How Princes Should Honor Their Word,” that “princes who have achieved great things have been those who have given their word lightly, who have known how to trick men with their cunning, and who, in the end, have overcome those abiding by honest principles.” A prudent ruler, he continued, “cannot and must not honor his word when it places him at a disadvantage and when the reasons for which he made his promise no longer exist. If all men were good, this precept would not be good; but because men are wretched creatures who would not keep their word to you, you need not keep your word to them.”

To which many an upright Anglo-Saxon reader doubtless replied indignantly: “Perhaps Italians are wretched creatures, but Englishmen have too much self-respect to practice such wiles.” There is, however, a fine specimen of Macchiavellianism in the writings of the English statesman Francis Bacon. “Of Cunning” in Bacon’s Essays (1625) is a mini-course in manipulation: “When you have anything urgent in hand, entertain and amuse the party with whom you deal with some other discourse, that he be not too much awake to make objections.” “If a man would thwart a business that he fears some other would persuasively argue for, let him pretend to wish it well, and propose it himself in such a way as to foil it.” “Breaking off in the midst of what you were about to say, as if you doubted yourself, breeds a greater appetite in the listener to hear more.” “Because it works better when anything seems to be gotten from you by questioning than if you offered it yourself, you should lay a bait for such questions by showing another visage and countenance than you are wont, so as to make your hearer ask what is the reason for the change.” Contemporary readers inclined to smile patronizingly at this premodern chicanery from the heights of 21st-century American democracy should bear in mind that Bacon, like Macchiavelli, was after all a dedicated public servant and that it was not about either of them but about Henry Kissinger that an associate remarked: “He doesn’t lie because it’s in his interest. He lies because it’s in his nature.”

If any literary character seems to lie because it’s in his nature, surely it’s Iago. Every stratagem Bacon recommends – feigned hesitation, pretended distress, assumed incredulity, and the rest – Iago employs to poison Othello’s mind against that most admirable (and desirable) of Shakespearean wives, Desdemona. Why? What is the motive of this near-heroic malignity? Like many others, I suspect, who had not read Othello (1604) for many years, I remembered only Iago’s resentment at being passed over for promotion in favor of Cassio. That was a motive, true, but the spite it aroused seemed disproportionate. This time I noticed his other motive, the one he keeps secret even from his co-conspirator Roderigo:

“ … I hate the Moor,
And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He’s done my office. I know not if’t be true,
Yet I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do, as if for surety …”

It is an implausible suspicion, for which he has no evidence. Othello is not a rake, and Iago’s wife Emilia has repeatedly reassured him. But he cannot rest: the thought of his imaginary cuckolding “doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards.” Perhaps George Bernard Shaw had Iago in mind when he remarked: “The liar’s punishment is not that he is not believed but that he cannot believe anyone else.”

As an aphorist, Shaw has few peers. One of them is Francois, duc de la Rochefoucauld, whose Maxims (1678) are a milestone in the growth of the modern sensibility. The duke was a melancholy man, he tells us in the brief, poignant self-portrait that accompanies the Maxims, and his friend the Cardinal de Retz thought that perhaps he had “not enough faith in virtue.” That’s one way of putting it; another is that, enjoying exceptional opportunities for observation, and protected by his rank, temperament, and lack of political ambition, he saw unprecedentedly deep into social and individual psychology.

Many of La Rochefoucauld’s aperçus are now common coin. “We all have strength enough to endure the troubles of our friends.” “Greater strength is needed to bear good fortune than bad.” “Some people would never have fallen in love if they had never heard of love.” “The modesty that shrinks from praise is really only a desire to have it more delicately expressed.” “Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.” “We often forgive those who bore us, but we cannot forgive those who find us boring.” Two centuries before Freud, La Rochefoucauld understood how little most of us are aware of our real motives.

The Maxims, at less than a hundred pages, are among the shortest of the Western classics, yet they are nearly a complete moral education. In a sense, all the maxims are about honesty: after reading any of them, it is a little harder to deceive ourselves in all the usual ways. And the author is not, as many readers have concluded, a bitter cynic; consider maxim 316: “The weak cannot be sincere.” A vast quantity of compassion as well as insight is distilled in those five words.

The Duke, we can all agree, was consummately civilized, which most of us would probably take for granted is a good thing to be. Jean-Jacques Rousseau disagreed. Of course La Rochefoucauld’s penetration was extraordinary; but why, Rousseau asked, was it necessary? Why was civilized life so overgrown with artifice and calculation, so lacking in wholesome simplicity; why have “our souls become corrupted in proportion as our arts and sciences have advanced toward perfection?” His answer, in his first publication, A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750), was radical: because the rules of civilized life are, at bottom, a defense of the indefensible. The sophistications of manners and morals, of law and theology, exist to justify (or better, obscure) privilege, with all the comforts and pleasures privilege entails. “Where do all these abuses come from, if not from the fatal inequality introduced among men by the distinction of talents and the degradation of virtues?” In a complexly unjust society, simple honesty decays.

Rousseau died in 1778. If he had lived to read Choderlos de Laclos’ novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782), his occasionally extravagant denunciations of modern corruption would have turned apoplectic. The French word “honnête” has, along with “honest,” the sense of “plainspoken,” “unsophisticated,” “uncalculating,” and even a faint touch of “slow-witted.” Which makes it fair to say that there is not a single honest word exchanged among the characters in this deliciously witty epistolary novel, except for the pathetic victim. The inexpressibly wicked protagonists, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, collaborate in his seduction of the beautiful and innocent Madame de Tourvel. She seems impregnably virtuous at first but proves no match for the canny duo, who are longtime lovers (or perhaps just, as the kids now say, friends with benefits). The Vicomte doesn’t love or even much like Madame de Tourvel; the whole affair is merely a test of his skill and an entertainment for the Marquise. In the end, everyone is ruined; but so gratuitous – and so amusing – is all this misery, duplicity, and cruelty that the honest reader will shudder and sprinkle him/herself with holy water.

Whether scandalized or scintillated, most people at least know what they think of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Not so with Denis Diderot’s enigmatic dialogue Rameau’s Nephew. Written between 1761 and 1774, it was not published in Diderot’s lifetime. After his death, it was surreptitiously copied and privately circulated. It came into the hands of Goethe, who described its effect on him as “a bombshell” and immediately translated it. It thereupon exploded all over Europe, notably in the mind of Hegel, who devoted forty highly-wrought pages of the Phenomenology of Spirit to explicating it as a paradigmatic representation of modern consciousness.

The cause of all this fuss is a novella-length dramatic dialogue between Moi (Diderot) and Lui (the Nephew) in a Parisian café. Moi is an honest, earnest man of letters, not without wit but not bursting with it. Lui has enough wit for two, and then some. He has some musical talent, but nothing like his famous uncle, the composer Rameau. What he conspicuously lacks is character, at least in any conventional sense. He is a hanger-on; he lives by flattering, amusing and cajoling newly rich businessmen, running errands for them, arranging adulteries, and giving half-hearted music lessons to their bored children. It is not an honest living, and he is too honest to pretend otherwise. He has, it seems, too much imagination to make an honest living. The exasperated Moi proffers one bourgeois piety after another, each of which Lui deflates hilariously. Society is a “vile pantomime,” corrupt all the way down, and Lui is at home in it. Honor is a joke; the only inexcusable thing is mere coarse stupidity, which is not so much immoral as tedious. Rameau’s Nephew is honesty as nihilism.

There was a great deal of the “vile pantomime” in Victorian England (q.v., Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and Dickens passim). But let us ascend from the abyss into the daylight world of John Stuart Mill. Like generations of college students, past and (I hope) future, I was profoundly stirred by Mill’s On Liberty (1859), and it has remained a beacon of political wisdom and virtue. In the celebrated second chapter, “On the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” there is the finest statement I know (with perhaps one exception, below) of the requirements of intellectual honesty:

"He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. … Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. That is not the way to do justice to those arguments or to bring them into contact with his own mind. He must hear them from persons who actually believe them, who defend them in earnest and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of, else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and resolves that difficulty."

The only equal of this passage I’ve ever encountered occurs in Matthew Arnold’s essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1864). Arnold is urging “ideas” and “the free play of mind” on his fellow Englishmen. He offers the example of Burke, the furious opponent of the French Revolution, who in a calmer moment set down some second thoughts. Arnold comments:

"That return of Burke on himself has always seemed to me one of the finest things in English literature, or indeed in any literature. That is what I call living by ideas: when one side of a question has long had your earnest support, when all your feelings are engaged, when your party talks this language like a steam engine and can imagine no other – still to be able to think, still to be irresistibly carried, if so it be, by the current of thought to the opposite side of the question and, like Balaam, to be unable to speak anything but what the Lord has put into your mouth. I know nothing more striking, and I must add that I know nothing more un-English."

One can live by ideas or one can live by media consultants. Public figures in contemporary America seem to have made their choice.

Even in the comic world of Anthony Trollope’s novels there is a murmur of the vile pantomime, like a minor-key strain in a sunny symphony. But there is also at least one portrait of a wholly good, honest, lovable man, the Reverend Septimus Harding of The Warden (1855). Mr. Harding has an ecclesiastical appointment as the warden, or superintendent, of a retirement home for poor workmen. In that age of reform, Church reform was cried up, and certain reforming busybodies questioned the Church’s allocation, among the warden and the pensioners, of the income from the bequest that established the home.

Thanks to various legal technicalities, Mr. Harding’s income is safe. But he is not satisfied; he wants to be right, not merely safe. This delicacy of conscience bewilders and exasperates his supporters, the much worldlier Archdeacon, his son-in-law, and Sir Abraham, his eminent lawyer. They are indignant; for “the intense desire which Mr. Harding felt to be assured on fit authority that he was wronging no man, that he was entitled in true equity to his income, that he might sleep at night without pangs of conscience,” they haven’t an ounce of sympathy or a glimmer of comprehension. He must be feeble-minded. After much distress and drollery, the novel ends happily, of course. But you feel that Diderot and Trollope would have understood each other perfectly.

Surely Henry James, the personification of delicacy and refinement, gives us nothing vile? In fact, he does. At the heart of his greatest novels is a betrayal: Madame Merle’s of Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady; Chad Newsome’s of Madame de Vionnet in The Ambassadors; Prince Amerigo and Charlotte Stant’s of Maggie Verver in The Golden Bowl. For various reasons, though, none of these is as vile, as purely self-seeking, as the betrayal of Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove (1902). In that novel, Kate Croy and Merton Densher are in love but cannot afford to marry – that is, they cannot face genteel poverty. Kate’s rich aunt offers to put her in circulation if she’ll drop Densher. Kate agrees, but they remain secretly engaged. A fabulously rich American heiress, Milly Theale, arrives in London. Densher, a journalist, has met her in America, and Kate schemes to throw them together, hoping that Milly, who is gravely ill and hungry for a taste of life before she dies, will fall in love with Densher and leave him money, on which he and Kate can marry. Milly discovers the deception, but generously leaves Densher her fortune anyway.

Densher, though, has fallen in love with Milly, or rather with her memory. He cannot take the money: her love has made an honest man of him. He wants to renounce the money and marry Kate “as we were.” But something has broken, as Kate is wise enough to recognize. Her final cry, which ends the novel – “We shall never be again as we were!” – is a fearsome illumination.

From Jamesian subtlety to Stalinist hackery is a long hop. The latter was not the only thing that drove George Orwell to write “Politics and the English Language” (1946). But because he too was a leftist, it infuriated him most and furnished him with his most vivid specimens. To defend Stalinist (or fascist or capitalist) barbarism, he pointed out, “political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness.” For example, “millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers.” Or “people are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck, or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.” Finally, at once wry and savage:

"Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright: “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this: “While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called on to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.”

“The great enemy of clear language,” Orwell concluded, “is insincerity.” Honesty is not only the best policy; it is a necessary condition of good prose style.

The Vietnam war produced its share of “euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness.” There was “pacification,” “internal aggression,” “human-resources control,” “forced-draft urbanization,” “graduated response,” “collateral damage,” and “credibility” – this last never to be confused with mere honesty, which only sentimentalists fretted about. Until the war turned unsuccessful, and therefore unpopular, “responsible” experts in the press and academia virtually never challenged official deceits or drew attention to the horrendous suffering they served to conceal. Only a few non-experts – “wild men in the wings,” as CIA/State Department officer and Foreign Affairs editor William Bundy labeled them – insisted that the war was not merely unwinnable but, more important, immoral. Preeminent among those truth-tellers, then and in the forty years since, was Noam Chomsky. “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” (1966), one of the earliest of his many invaluable essays and books, still resonates. It has helped teach two generations of Americans (and not only Americans) intellectual self-defense against states and those who own them.


The Sermon on the Mount
Niccolo Macchiavelli, The Prince, ch. XVIII: “How Princes Should Honor Their Word”
Francis Bacon, “Of Cunning” in Essays.
William Shakespeare, Othello
François, duc de la Rochefoucauld, Maxims
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences
Choderlos de Laclos, Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Denis Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, ch. II: “On the Liberty of Thought and Discussion”
Matthew Arnold, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time”
John Henry Newman, Apologia pro Vita Sua
Anthony Trollope, The Warden
Henry James, The Wings of the Dove
George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”
Noam Chomsky, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”

GEORGE SCIALABBA is a book critic and the author of Divided Mind.