9 Protesting Too Much: On Liars

Because I admire nearly everything he wrote, I tend to use Montaigne’s essays as a jumping off point, not questioning the premise of his ideas so much. This essay — on liars — is an exception, because I find it to be one of his least convincing pieces.

To begin, I find it a bit hard to believe that someone who served for years as a diplomat, government official and well-known political moderate wouldn’t have become skilled at shading the truth. While Montaigne did have a reputation for speaking bluntly, he didn’t write that way. Sure, he could pass off much of his posturing as irony, but given his unusually harsh judgment of lies and liars, it would seem that he would also have a problem with the ironic.

Feast your eyes on his way-over-the-top judgment of lying, which reads far more like postmodern polemics than Montaigne’s typical questioning manner:

If we realized the horror and weight of lying we would see that it is more worthy of the stake than other crimes. I find that people normally waste time quite inappropriately punishing children for innocent misdemeanours, tormenting them for thoughtless actions which lead nowhere and leave no trace. It seems to me that the only faults which we should vigorously attack as soon as they arise and start to develop are lying and, a little below that, stubbornness.

It’s unfortunate that the essay leads to such an unoriginal conclusion, because it begins with a far more interesting — and confessional — discussion of memory. Building on Quintilian’s thought that successful lying requires a good memory, Montaigne sketches in great detail his absentmindedness.

in my part of the world they actually say a man ‘has no memory’ to mean that he is stupid. When I complain that my memory is defective they either correct me or disbelieve me, as though I were accusing myself of being daft. They see no difference between memory and intelligence. That makes my case worse than it is.

I certainly do forget things easily but I simply do not treat with indifference any charge laid on me by my friends. Let them be satisfied with my misfortune, without turning it into precisely the kind of malice which is the enemy of my natural humour.

Defensive, isn’t it? At another point, Montaigne notes that he tends to forget birthdays and other important dates. But don’t take that to mean he doesn’t care — it just means that he’s honest! Which means what — that none of us really care enough to remember such things, we just fake it?

Well, Michel, maybe you too could have faked a bit … just to be diplomatic. Or would such dishonesty be worthy of “the stake”?

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