On the Decay of the Art of Lying by Mark Twain

On the Decay of the Art of Lying by Mark Twain

About the author .. In our childhoods, almost all of us read ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ with great delight. In fact, for most of us reading these books marked the rite of passage from Enid Blyton’s books to more serious and enjoyable fiction. The author, who wrote the two adventure accounts of Sawyer and Finn, is the quintessential American, Mark Twain(1835-1910). His real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens. He was the sixth child of his parents. He imbibed all the values Americans call their own — down-right honesty, humor, wit, love for technology, entrepreneurial spirit, liberalism, and regard for human dignity. Mark Twain was a prolific writer, and a much-sought after pubic speaker. He had a very imaginative mind and a compassionate heart. In many of his stories, an underprivileged boy remains at the center.

Mark Twain’s life was punctuated by many resounding successes and heart-breaking financial failures. At one time, he had to approach the court for bankruptcy protection. The mechanical typewriter he developed with great zeal and investment virtually tore his finances apart. But, he retrieved himself from this ignominy through his earnings and lectures and paid back all his creditors to the last penny.

Among his books, the most popular are ‘Jumping Frogs of Calaveras Country’, ‘The Prince and the Pauper’, ‘The Tramp Abroad’ and a few others. Americans still adore him as their most iconic writer, and a venerated liberal intellectual.

The Essay … The title of this essay appears misleading to those not initiated to Mark Twain’s sense of humor. They may believe that the author is a perverse person out to corrupt the society with his immoral sermons. Actually, the case is just the opposite. Mark Twain is too upright a man to stoop so low as to ask people to resort to falsehood. Through this essay which bristling with humor, satire, and sarcasm, he has implored his readers / listeners to look within and discover that in quotidian lives, all of them resort to falsehood one way or the other.  One need not be so apologetic about it, as saying something that’s not entirely correct is a necessity for civilized living. A puritanical love for truth may be morally correct, but speaking it with brutal honesty needlessly hurts the listener. It is always advisable to couch the truth with some cosmetic pleasant words to reduce its sting. 


Para by para explanation …

“Observe, I don’t mean to suggest …………….. I shouldn’t need to utter the lament or shed a single tear.”

Note .. Mark Twain says that Lying has not died with the passage of time. It is a virtue that helps a person in so many ways – recreation, a solace or a way to escape a difficult situation. It is man’s best friend, and can never vanish from the face of earth, simply because it has so much utility.  So, what bothers Mark Twain. He is worried at the way the Art of Lying has decayed or deteriorated. People lie stupidly, irresponsibly and needlessly without applying their minds. This tendency bothers the author. He is addressing a gathering of old and senior citizens who have longer and richer experience of life than the author himself. So, he admits that he is approaching the subject of the art of lying with circumspection and care. He expects the audience to learn the art of responsible lying so that the practice serves them instead of degrading them.

I do not say this to flatter. ……………………. confine myself to generalities.

The speaker (Mark Twain) had praised the wisdom of some in the audience quite generously. In the next step, he intended to cite the names of a few and cite their ability through some examples, but he decided to step back from this public mention. He felt it might offend the people whom he had in mind.

  1. No fact is more firmly established ……………………. unscientific lie is often as ineffectual as the truth.

The speaker affirms that lying is a necessity in the circumstances that we live in. Therefore, it is a Virtue. But, the speaker states, such a Virtue has to be learned expertly, so that its full utility and potential are realized. For such learning of the practice of judicious ‘lying’ to happen, it has to be taught in schools as curriculum subject. It can also be discussed in the fireside in homes, and propagated through newspaper columns. An untrained, un-groomed person resorting to lying is no match to a person trained and educated in the art of lying in terms of making an impact and bringing in the benefits. Lawyers are trained to lie in behalf of their clients. So, an ordinary man, when pitted against a lawyer, will find himself outwitted and rendered ineffective. A injudicious lie, when uttered, brings the speaker embarrassment and disrepute. So, Mark Twain, feels it is better to avoid lying and sticking to the truth, if one is not adept in the art of lying.

  1. Now, let us see what the philosophers say. …………………….. but, that’s a platitude.

Now, Mark Twain turns to the philosophers for guidance. It is said that children and fools always speak the truth. Conversely, grown-ups and wise men never speak the truth. According to the historian Parkman, truth can become an absurdity when carried too far. Parkman also says that truth must be spoken only when it is necessary. Those of us, who feel guilty for not speaking the truth always, and on all occasions, are actually stupid, and nuisance creators. Living with a person who speaks only the truth and nothing else will be a very untenable idea. Even such strict truth speakers do tell lies at times. So, their claim of not resorting to falsehood will not stand scrutiny. The Speaker asserts that everyone, without exception, lies, every day, every hour, while asleep or awake. If not through words, they deceive others by their body language. Even in sermons, the venerable men resort to lying.

  1. In a far country where I once lived the ladies used to ……………………………………….. and were a credit to their intelligence and an honor to their hearts. Let the particulars go.

On one occasion, a group of women set out to meet their friends in their homes, but the visiting ladies were not very keen to go. They chose to go because they wanted to appear friendly. In other words, in their hearts, they had no desire to go, but went to appear nice. When they found that as many as fourteen of the ladies were not at home, they were both glad and relieved to see this. Even for the two women they met, their mind would have been equally indifferent. However, to say out of sixteen ladies, fourteen were not at home would have been rude. So, they said the same thing, though in a round-abut way. The distant land Mark Twain visited had this practice of couching a truth in soft polite words, so that the sting of a brutal truth does not jar the listeners.

  1. The men in that far country were liars, every one. Their mere ………gilded forms of charitable and unselfish lying.

Then the Speaker proceeds to describe the men folk in that land where the group of women went meet eighteen of their friends with no desire to socialize, but to artificially appear nice. The Speaker says that the men folk too were equally casual in their feelings for their fellow men. They would routinely greet a friend saying, ‘How do you do? However, they had no real concern about the person they are posing this question to. It was just a formality. Quite curiously, the person being greeted would also answer in the same perfunctory style, without disclosing the joy or sorrow he is encountering. If the second person said that his health was failing, the first person would feel elated instead of being concerned. Thus, the practice of exchanging greetings was based on pretence and falsehood.

The Speaker cites another such dialogue that is so very deceitful. If a person says, “I am glad to see you.” he is being far from truthful. Inside his mind he might be having a burning rage against the person he is being so congenial with. However, he manages to conceal it through a pretence which is just a plain lie. When one person leaves, the other says, “Must you go?” This is plain deceit. The expression lies about the speaker’s inner feelings. Thus the mutual acrimony gets hidden through the exchange of niceties. In such a situation, falsehood appears so desirable. If the two persons become truthful, and vent their inner hateful feelings truthfully, disaster would follow.

Mark Twain concludes that the practice of telling lies, when cultivated judiciously, can greatly benefit society by ensuring harmony and goodwill.

  1. What I bemoan is the growing prevalence of the brutal truth. Let us do……….truth–a fact that is recognized by the law of libel.

An unpleasant truth, which the Speaker terms “injurious truth’ does us great harm at times. In the same breath, an injurious lie can also prove to be quite damaging to human relationships. So, the Speaker concludes, both the unpleasant truth and lie should be eschewed. If a person feels not speaking the unpleasant truth would sully his soul, he should realize that it is never immoral or unjust to conceal the truth if it proves to be hurtful. In the same way, telling a lie that saves a man from a great difficulty is a very desirable trait. Because the end result is so good, the person’s lies would never be treated as failing of his character. This distinction is recognized in the law of the libel.

  1. Among other common lies, we have the silentlie……………………. you’ll naturally feel a peculiar interest in Willie’s case–as personal a one, in fact, as the undertaker.”

The Speaker narrates a dinner table conversation with a righteous lady of high moral standing. During the chit chat, Mark Twain, the guest, caused some good deal of discomfort for his host saying, “We all are liars.” The lady was offended, and shot back saying, “Why, do you include me?” She asked the Speaker to not mention it because the children were around. Obviously, she didn’t want her children to know that their mother was a liar. After a while, when the children were gone, she broached the subject again. The Speaker reaffirmed his view that his host was indeed a liar. She was taken aback, and offended. She demanded to know a single instance where she had lied.

The Speaker drew her attention to a service slip she had filled in for a nurse deputed to her house to attend upon a sick member of the family. The host had given her a clean chit ticking all boxes in the form. The nurse had failed in a minor aspect, but the host graciously overlooked it.  It so happened that the nurse got hired for another patient in a different household. Sadly, the patient died. The Speaker ascribed the death to the nurse’s negligence. He told his host that her giving a clean chit and hiding the lapse of the nurse caused the death of the patient. Thus, the host had lied.

  1. But that was not all lost. Before I was half-way through she was ………………………………  I can confidently put into the hands of this experienced Club–a ripe body, who may be termed, in this regard, and without undue flattery, Old Masters.

Alarmed at the death of a patient at the hands of the nurse highly rated by her, the ‘truth-speaking’ host hurried to Willie’s house where the tragedy had happened. She went to apprise the bereaved family about the apparent neglect by the nurse which she had noticed earlier. Such a report was totally un-necessary, because the patient had already died.

This drama was farcical because, the Speaker had contrived the story of the death in Willie’s family. Nonetheless, the lady sent a note to the hospital that had deputed the nurse. In the note, the host mentioned the failing on the part of the nurse which had been omitted in the earlier feedback form.

Mark Twain now returns to his argument. He says the lady (his host earlier) could not be faulted for lying per se, but she could be accused of lying injudiciously. She could have reprimanded the nurse, (who did her duty despite her sickness) for her lapse, but in the feedback form she should have heaped praise on her for her dutifulness. At the same time, instead of saying that the nurse slept off while on duty, she (th host) could have written, “   …. when on the watch, she never snores.” Such a diplomatic statement would have been truthful, but not offensive in any way.

The Speaker now proceeds to close his case. He says that we all lie. Lying, as such, is not a bad thing, so long as it is said thoughtfully, judiciously, and with abundant caution. The Speaker maintains that if lying does some good to others, the needy, the poor and those in distress, it is desirable. Lying to serve one’s own interest, or to hide one’s own crimes is surely not acceptable.

While lying, one should be straight forward, smart, erect, and unflinching. A sulking, drooping stance should be avoided. There should be no feeling of shame or remorse for lying, because it is being said for other person’s good, not for self interest. One need have no sense of guilt while lying judiciously for an altruistic purpose.

In conclusion, the Speaker leaves it to the collective wisdom of his listeners to do some more study about the way lies can be told to serve a good purpose. The listeners could think of refining the ways of lying.


Questions and answers will be added soon.


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