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Enchiridion On Faith, Hope and Love
by Saint Augustine


CHAPTER VI

THE PROBLEM OF LYING

18. Here a most difficult and complex issue arises which I once dealt with in a

large book, in response to the urgent question whether it is ever the duty of a

righteous man to lie.34 Some go so far as to contend that in cases concerning the

worship of God or even the nature of God, it is sometimes a good and pious deed to

speak falsely. It seems to me, however, that every lie is a sin, albeit there is a great

difference depending on the intention and the topic of the lie. He does not sin as

much who lies in the attempt to be helpful as the man who lies as a part of a

deliberate wickedness. Nor does one who, by lying, sets a traveler on the wrong road

do as much harm as one who, by a deceitful lie, perverts the way of a life. Obviously,

no one should be adjudged a liar who speaks falsely what he sincerely supposes is

the truth, since in his case he does not deceive but rather is deceived. Likewise, a

man is not a liar, though he could be charged with rashness, when he incautiously

accepts as true what is false. On the other hand, however, that man is a liar in his

own conscience who speaks the truth supposing that it is a falsehood. For as far as

his soul is concerned, since he did not say what he believed, he did not tell the truth,

even though the truth did come out in what he said. Nor is a man to be cleared of

the charge of lying whose mouth unknowingly speaks the truth while his conscious

intention is to lie. If we do not consider the things spoken of, but only the intentions

of the one speaking, he is the better man who unknowingly speaks falsely--because

he judges his statement to be true--than the one who unknowingly speaks the truth

while in his heart he is attempting to deceive. For the first man does not have one

intention in his heart and another in his word, whereas the other, whatever be the

facts in his statement, still "has one thought locked in his heart, another ready on

his tongue,"35 which is the very essence of lying. But when we do consider the things

spoken of, it makes a great difference in what respect one is deceived or lies. To be

deceived is a lesser evil than to lie, as far as a man's intentions are concerned. But it

is far more tolerable that a man should lie about things not connected with religion

than for one to be deceived in matters where faith and knowledge are prerequisite

to the proper service of God. To illustrate what I mean by examples: If one man lies

by saying that a dead man is alive, and another man, being deceived, believes that

Christ will die again after some extended future period--would it not be

incomparably better to lie in the first case than to be deceived in the second? And

would it not be a lesser evil to lead someone into the former error than to be led by

someone into the latter?

19. In some things, then, we are deceived in great matters; in others, small.

In some of them no harm is done; in others, even good results. It is a great evil for a

33Cf. Confessions, Bk. X, Ch. XXIII.

34Ad consentium contra mendacium, CSEL (J. Zycha, ed.), Vol. 41, pp. 469-528; also Migne, PL, 40,

c. 517-548; English translation by H.B. Jaffee in Deferrari, St. Augustine: Treatises on Various

Subjects (The Fathers of the Church, New York, 1952), pp. 113-179. This had been written about a

year earlier than the Enchiridion. Augustine had also written another treatise On Lying much

earlier, c. 395; see De mendacio in CSEL (J. Zycha, ed.), Vol. 41, pp. 413-466; Migne, PL, 40, c. 487-

518; English translation by M.S. Muldowney in Deferrari, op. cit., pp. 47-109. This summary of his

position here represents no change of view whatever on this question.

35Sallust, The War with Catiline, X, 6-7.


man to be deceived so as not to believe what would lead him to life eternal, or what

would lead to eternal death. But it is a small evil to be deceived by crediting a

falsehood as the truth in a matter where one brings on himself some temporal

setback which can then be turned to good use by being borne in faithful patience--as

for example, when someone judges a man to be good who is actually bad, and

consequently has to suffer evil on his account. Or, take the man who believes a bad

man to be good, yet suffers no harm at his hand. He is not badly deceived nor would

the prophetic condemnation fall on him: "Woe to those who call evil good." For we

should understand that this saying refers to the things in which men are evil and

not to the men themselves. Hence, he who calls adultery a good thing may be rightly

accused by the prophetic word. But if he calls a man good supposing him to be

chaste and not knowing that he is an adulterer, such a man is not deceived in his

doctrine of good and evil, but only as to the secrets of human conduct. He calls the

man good on the basis of what he supposed him to be, and this is undoubtedly a

good thing. Moreover, he calls adultery bad and chastity good. But he calls this

particular man good in ignorance of the fact that he is an adulterer and not chaste.

In similar fashion, if one escapes an injury through an error, as I mentioned before

happened to me on that journey, there is even something good that accrues to a man

through his mistakes. But when I say that in such a case a man may be deceived

without suffering harm therefrom, or even may gain some benefit thereby, I am not

saying that error is not a bad thing, nor that it is a positively good thing. I speak

only of the evil which did not happen or the good which did happen, through the

error, which was not caused by the error itself but which came out of it. Error, in

itself and by itself, whether a great error in great matters or a small error in small

affairs, is always a bad thing. For who, except in error, denies that it is bad to

approve the false as though it were the truth, or to disapprove the truth as though it

were falsehood, or to hold what is certain as if it were uncertain, or what is

uncertain as if it were certain? It is one thing to judge a man good who is actually

bad--this is an error. It is quite another thing not to suffer harm from something

evil if the wicked man whom we supposed to be good actually does nothing harmful

to us. It is one thing to suppose that this particular road is the right one when it is

not. It is quite another thing that, from this error--which is a bad thing--something

good actually turns out, such as being saved from the onslaught of wicked men.









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