A Response to Augustine's De Mendacio [On Lying]
© Scott David Foutz

In De Mendacio [On Lying], Augustine argues against the possibility of their being any occasion in which a conscious utterance of falsehood is not a lie, and concludes that there is no instance in which a lie is not a sin. This limited aim will result in our emerging from the treatise with an understanding of the moral status of lies, but without satisfactory answer being given possible questions regarding the relative advantage or disadvantage of committing the sin of lying as opposed to suffering or committing some other sin 1 . He begins the treatise by developing a working definition of "lie" and identifies what this consists of. Whereas it is immediately apparent to all that anyone who knowingly utters a falsehood for the purpose of deceiving engages in lying, the question of whether or not one lies by uttering a falsehood for a noble purpose is less easily answered. Equally clear seems to be Augustine's notion that any utterance aimed at causing the hearer to believe something other than what the speaker himself believes consists of deception, regardless of whether or not the speaker pursued a noble or ignoble purpose. The question, then, which requires exposition is whether one can use deception for a noble purpose without reaping the Scriptural condemnation of liars. Can one deceive another with the intent (and perhaps consequence) of achieving good such that the deception deserves acceptance or even praise? Many believe so, and Augustine offers many examples given in demonstration of such a position. This paper, however, will limit itself to the development of Augustine's rationale for the conclusion that all deceptive utterances are lies.

Augustine begins by citing passages of Scripture which condemn the use of false witness and lying. Of special importance to his development is Psalm 5:5b-6a, "Thou dost hate all who do iniquity. Thou dost destroy those who speak falsehood". In this passage, Augustine sees the following two truths: a) man is heir to a physico-temporal life and an eternal life 2 ; and b) this eternal life is lost by lying 3 . Based on the words of Christ in Matthew 10:28, Augustine claims that a lie should never be told for any man's temporal (thereby lesser) life, since the cost of such is one's eternal (thereby greater) life. In this way, all deceptions aimed at the increase or preservation of temporal goods or temporal states such as wealth, popularity or even prolonging of life, either one's own or another's, are to be deemed lies and therefore avoided. For those who fail to see the weight of this argument, Augustine offers an analogy: Just as any man who willingly sacrificed his physical life for the right to utter a deception would be held by all men to be guilty of utter foolishness, so also must any man be judged who forfeits an even greater eternal life for the same 4 .

Augustine then introduces his three-fold distinction of truth, mind and body. Those lies already condemned as being aimed at temporal goods or temporal states of life pertain to the sphere of the body. Here it is noteworthy to point out that Augustine's ethic is centrally eschatological, in that it views corporeal life, health and happiness as merely temporal goods which can in no way serve as ends in themselves. My own conviction is also that, although life, happiness and health are necessary for a stable individual and social environment, none of these, nor their aggregate can serve as the universal ethical end 5 . Superior to this sphere is the sphere of the mind which possesses the volition whereby one wills to deceive or to persist in truth. This precedent of the mind over body allows for the resolution of certain ethical problems such as whether or not to follow standard ethical norms regarding lying when faced with the threat of bodily harm or degradation. Augustine asserts that in such situations, where the sanctity of the mind is maintained in its resolve to persist in truth and not willfully deceive, and thereby the body is subsequently subjected to humiliation or defilement due to external powers and persecutions, the sanctity of the mind actually preserves the dignity of the body. Now it becomes immediately apparent that Augustine is not here referring to physical injury, for in no way are we to expect the sanctity of mind to preserve us from such. Such a threat of possible physical harm must be responded to according to the principle above, namely, one ought not to forfeit eternal goods for temporal health. Instead, Augustine is referring to those abuses which are repulsive to one's religious conscience, defilements which are believed to have spiritual consequences. Augustine's example of defilement through contact with filth raises some interesting questions. I would dare say that there is nothing universal in this particular notion of defilement, but rather it is a very situation-bound conviction. The only relevant notion I have of defilement is that psychological residue which may result from the one's being raped. This defilement very well could be "spiritual" in light of the union of marriage, the becoming "one in flesh", etc. If this parallel holds, then Augustine here claims that any such violation of one's self against one's will results in no actual defilement. And yet I am hesitant to admit that the shame felt by those so raped stems merely from a sense of social stigma and a self-concept as of yet uninformed of the lack of defilement. Perhaps this entire issue, involving life, health, and the psychological status of the individual, belongs to the sphere of temporal goods. But if so, why does Augustine here separate it?

Just as the sanctity of the mind is to be valued above the dignity of the body, so also is truth or veracity of doctrine to be valued above the mind. Although no man can actually affect the veracity of the truth or doctrine, as they are grounded in the very truth of God, deception can undermine the authority and witness of truth by creating the impression that lies are sometimes condoned by that same doctrine. And if this be the case, how can its truth-claims be believed with certainty? In this way, understanding itself is undermined due to the mind's dependence upon the doctrine of Religion for insight into the Truth. This being the case, Augustine asserts that deceptions uttered in regard to doctrine of religion constitute the most heinous of lies 6 . In addition to this "capital lie", seven others are listed in descending order of sinfulness 7 : 1) lies done in doctrine of religion; 2) lies wherein none are profited and some are hurt; 3) lies wherein one is profited by another's hurt (excluding defilement); 4) "unmixed" lies done through the enjoyment of lying and deceiving; 5) lies done with the desire to please others; 6) lies wherein another is helped and no one is hurt; 7) lies wherein several are helped and no one is hurt; 8) lies wherein one is preserved from defilement and no one is hurt.

Argument pertaining to lies #1-5 has already been addressed above. Apart from the first, which deals with the mind's relation to the truth, the following four lies stem from a desire for greater temporal comfort, whether that of gain or the appeasement of desire. The last three types of deception, however, refer to situations in which the mind willfully deceives for the purpose of what appears to be a greater good as defined by Christian doctrine. In these situations, the mind, though resolved to persist in truth rather than pursue one's own selfish gain, willfully deceives those seeking to harm another that the latter is in some way protected by the deception. This raises the question of whether one can deceive in speech without committing the sin of lying in the heart. Augustine maintains that where verbal communication takes place between human beings, the mouth as well as the heart bears the responsibility to transmit truth 8 . In this I am also want to side with Augustine in insisting that the content of the verbal communication remains the criteria for judging its veracity. For if we isolate meaning from that which is in fact spoken, we open up a pandora's box which inevitably undermines all propositional dialogue, including that of Scripture 9 .

In all cases, therefore, where deception is verbally communicated, we are to deem the communicator as engaging in a lie. But granted that such deceptive utterances are lies, and thereby sin 10 , could we not still imagine a situation whereby a lie is to be condoned in order that a greater evil is avoided? Augustine offers examples such as one's deception in disclosing the location of a neighbor's gold to a thief, or deception regarding one's knowledge of the location of a [condemned] man for the sake of preserving his life, or one's deception whereby defilement of oneself or another is avoided. As gripping as these examples seem to be in their demonstration of the possible advantage, nay necessity, of lying, Augustine will remain consistent with the position elaborated thus far. In the case of defilement, as was already pointed out, the priority of the mind over the body preserves the latter from any defilement which occurs despite the resolve of the mind to persist in truth. Therefore, it is better suffer the temporal abuse of men than to commit the sin of lying, knowing that such abuse cannot accomplish the spiritual defilement it threatens. In the case of the possible execution, Augustine maintains the principle that all lies which aim at the increase of the temporal life of one's self or another are to be avoided. And, he asserts, if we believe ourselves, by such a lie, to be providing that man further opportunity to accept the Gospel and thereby gain eternal life, we overlook the fact that no one is led to eternal life through the aid of a lie. And lastly, in the case of theft, it continues to hold true that one ought not to lie for any temporal goods, regardless of the fallout. For, although the friend may resent our not lying to protect his gold, our highest aim for him is salvation, an aim which, as we have said, cannot be accomplished through the aid of a lie. We ought, therefore, to will to preserve the truth and suffer possible resentment, rather than to sacrifice the truth upon which our friend's salvation depends, merely for the sake of preserving of our friendship.

In this manner, Augustine demonstrates that all eight types of deception are lies to be avoided, and can in no way be condoned or recommended as acceptable behavior, and concludes, "Whoso shall think there is any sort of lie that is not sin, will deceive himself foully, while he deems himself honest as a deceiver of other men" 11 . And indeed this conclusion is required if he is to remain consistent with the basic assumptions with which he begins. First, he holds without any reservation that Scripture accurately describes spiritual reality. From Scripture he derives the sole deterrent of lying, namely, that God forbids it and punishes the liar. From Scripture, likewise, he derives his understanding of the eternal state which serves as the ethical end 12 . The presence of the eternal state and God's judgment provide the central pillars upon which the entire ethic rests. The mind maintains its sanctity to the degree it wills the eternal good over the temporal good. And in all cases, the mind is to preserve the doctrine of Religion. In this way, all moral responsibility pertaining to the veracity of the individual is to God, and one's social relationships and duties must be made subject to this hierarchy. Whereas man, as social animal, is constantly tempted to elevate the significance of the species as moral determinant, Augustine's eschatological ethic undoubtedly appears callous and rigid at times. Indeed, he himself recognizes this, yet adds that neither should another's indignation at our moral stance cause us to waver from our position, for one cannot possibly hope to achieve both a pursuit of right deeds and a removal of the repulsion from the mind of the objector created by such right deeds.

I admire Augustine's ethic and respect its consistency with basic convictions regarding the nature of Christianity. There is, however, one intuition that I do not yet share with him, and that is the notion that no individual is ever saved with the aid of a lie. Augustine employs this notion twice is response to the assertion that some lies may aid the reputation of Christians in general, as in the case of the neighbor's thankfulness for one's deception of the thief. It would seem that in order for this notion to remain true in all cases, a much larger assumption must be granted, namely, that no (ultimate) good can be realized where an evil, such as a lie, is present. But this hardly bears true in both experience and Augustine's own theology. Regarding experience, can any individual claim that his or her salvation was brought about in an environment free from sin? I think not. Rather, God continually demonstrates that He is able to work despite the folly of man. Regarding Augustine's theology, his entire solution to the problem of evil is that God can orchestrate evil to accomplish his perfect purpose. What does all this imply? Despite the fact that Augustine sets out to prove only that all lies are sin, he nevertheless makes this one statement regarding the possible "usefulness" or relative advantage of committing a lie in some situations. His answer is that no good can ever come of a lie. Therefore, although I agree with Augustine's position on the moral status of willful deceptions, I have yet to come to the conclusion that such deceptions, in all cases, yield no possible good or real advantage.


1 Augustine later wrote Contra Mendacium [Against Lying], which deals with the question of seeking certain advantages through deception in his response to the Priscillianist heresy.

2 More accurately, Augustine's view on the temporal and eternal life are present and presupposed at this point.

3 This comprises the sole deterrent to the individual's impulse to lie. As mentioned above, the scope of this treatise is to identify lies as sin rather than discuss possible relative advantages or disadvantages in committing the sin of lying.

4 De Mendacio , 9.

5 Let it simply be stated here that the history of modern moral and social theory demonstrates clearly our inability to arrive at even uniform definitions of these temporal goods, let alone by what means and to what degree we might communally endeavour after them.

6 De Mendacio , 25.

7 Ibid.

8 De Mendacio , 36. This would seem to be necessary, lest we admit that one's veracity belongs only to one's relation to God, who alone is able to judge the heart from which true or false "statements" are made.

9 This fact is clearly seen in the trends and development of modern hermeneutics.

10 That is, according to Scriptural pronouncement.

11 De Mendacio , 42.

12 One might claim that the notion of the existence of an eternal state does not depend upon Scripture, yet Augustine's ethic is clearly informed as to the particular nature of the eternal state, which we can plausibly attribute to Scripture.