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In his philosophical discussions Epictetus in paragraph 52 discusses lies.

Paragraph 52

“You must never lie!” That is a core principle of philosophy based on theorems. We derive this from demonstrations of the theorems that one ought not to lie. But “What are the origins of the principle we ought not to lie?”  “What are the origins of that theorem?” and “What are the origins of a need for demonstrations?” These questions devolve endlessly into variations of “What is demonstration, consequence, contradiction, truth, and falsehood?” Each of these topics is linked to the others and can never be wholly separated, but the quest is worthless if we do not obey the first one, and lie. Therefore, “I must never lie!” We may spend our time and energy arguing the myriad of other topics, and even analyze lying itself; and truth may ultimately be impossible to define precisely, but “We must never lie” or everything becomes meaningless.


That “I must never lie!” is absolutely necessary if I am ever to be attuned to the Universe I live within. Lying is thought to be an external act that somehow benefits the teller of the lie, but actions form habits, and the habits cycle endlessly back on their creator. Thus, it is within ourselves that lies will corrode away the possibility of ever finding tranquility and contentment. It is easier to observe ourselves lying to other people than to ourselves; therefore we must prevent lying where we can see it, before it infects our own habits, and then becomes impossible to root out of our own being. Lying to ourselves is certain to lead us unto a life of mental corruption and eventually despair.

That is fine for philosophy, but what about daily life? I have argued this several times in the last week with my friends, and it appears that most people are comfortable with a limited amount of other people lying to them. It eases social relationships. I have vehemently argued against lying in all its forms because if you can’t trust a person to be telling you their truth as they see it, everything they say becomes arbitrary and loses its veracity. If someone is known to lie then all of their actions must be taken to be totally self-serving and never for the public good, or yours either.

For example, say a mother has a son who has become an alcoholic, and she wants to get him into a rehabilitation facility. He doesn’t want to go, so she says she is driving him to someplace, say a movie, but instead drives into a gated rehabilitation center. She has betrayed the trust of her son, but she will argue that it was for his own good. Perhaps it is, but his trust of her will forever be broken, and that is probably more valuable in the long run.

My idea is she must ask herself the question, “Is this action I am about to do going to benefit me, and if it is going to benefit me, am I doing it for my comfort and gain, and not for my son?” If it is for her personal advantage then the negative effects will probably come back to haunt her and will also result in the rupture of her relations. If her present relationship doesn’t permit honesty it is probably because of lies in the past that are creating the distrust in the present.

Even in difficult situations, it is best to find an honest way to resolve them.