Essence, Accident, and Honesty
31 July 2011
Any ontology that distinguishes between essential properties and accidental properties implies truths about each class of property. Truths of essential properties are essential truths; truths of accidental properties are accidental truths. Thus is our definition of honesty predicated upon our ontology. Tor the moment, we will accept this ontology and consider its consequences for honesty.
Suppose we distinguish among truths (and after the manner of Aristotle’s essence/accident metaphysics) those truths that are essential and those truths that are accidental. In this way we can readily define “little white lies” as taking liberties with accidental truths while leaving essential truths untouched. Under this division of truths the essence of honesty consists in being honest about essential truths, even if accidental truths occasionally get lost or misrepresented.
It has been the traditional function of literature to tell us essential truths of the big picture of life while making no attempt to slavishly follow the facts, or indeed making up the “facts” from whole cloth. None of this detracts from the value of a great novel, and may well add to its value, since the detachment from particular facts may give a work a degree of universality that it would not possess otherwise.
It could even be argued that we need to detach ourselves from what is immediate and present in order to see things whole and in their proper context. This seems to be what Proust suggests when the family in Swann’s Way, indifferent if not cruel to their pregnant kitchen-maid, come to sympathize with her condition not from her presence, but abstractly, through the description of labor pains in a medical book:
One night, shortly after her confinement, the kitchen-maid was seized with the most appalling pains; Mamma heard her groans, and rose and awakened Françoise, who, quite unmoved, declared that all the outcry was mere malingering, that the girl wanted to ‘play the mistress’ in the house. The doctor, who had been afraid of some such attack, had left a marker in a medical dictionary which we had, at the page on which the symptoms were described, and had told us to turn up this passage, where we would find the measures of ‘first aid’ to be adopted. My mother sent Françoise to fetch the book, warning her not to let the marker drop out. An hour elapsed, and Françoise had not returned; my mother, supposing that she had gone back to bed, grew vexed, and told me to go myself to the bookcase and fetch the volume. I did so, and there found Françoise who, in her curiosity to know what the marker indicated, had begun to read the clinical account of these after-pains, and was violently sobbing, now that it was a question of a type of illness with which she was not familiar. At each painful symptom mentioned by the writer she would exclaim: “Oh, oh, Holy Virgin, is it possible that God wishes any wretched human creature to suffer so? Oh, the poor girl!”
Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, Volume One, Swann’s Way, “Combray”
Here we have the intuitive antithesis of phonocentrism, at least as far as the understanding and its moral concomitants are concerned. We find a similar figure of thought in Camus:
“To understand this world, one must sometimes turn away from it; to serve men better, one must briefly hold them at a distance.”
Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays, Part I, Lyrical Essays, III, Summer, “The Minotaur, or Stopping in Oran,” p. 109
As soon as we make the above distinction between essential truths and accidental truths, we see the possibility of the antithesis to the essence of honesty, namely, persons who are dishonest about essential truths but particularly punctilious about accidental and incidental truths. In fact, now that I think about it in these terms, I’m sure that I have known people like this. They tend to use their incidental truthfulness as a way to gain a sympathetic ear for their dishonesty in regard to essential truths.
I can’t think of any word that adequately expresses this condition of truthfulness (or untruthfulness, if you prefer) — i.e., that condition of compromising essential truths while respecting accidental truths — but Herman Melville perfectly nailed it in his description of Claggart, the antagonist of Billy Budd in the story by that name:
In a list of definitions included in the authentic translation of Plato, a list attributed to him, occurs this: “Natural Depravity: a depravity according to nature.” A definition which tho’ savoring of Calvinism, by no means involves Calvin’s dogmas as to total mankind. Evidently its intent makes it applicable but to individuals. Not many are the examples of this depravity which the gallows and jail supply. At any rate for notable instances, since these have no vulgar alloy of the brute in them, but invariably are dominated by intellectuality, one must go elsewhere. Civilization, especially if of the austerer sort, is auspicious to it. It folds itself in the mantle of respectability. It has its certain negative virtues serving as silent auxiliaries. It never allows wine to get within its guard. It is not going too far to say that it is without vices or small sins. There is a phenomenal pride in it that excludes them from anything mercenary or avaricious. In short the depravity here meant partakes nothing of the sordid or sensual. It is serious, but free from acerbity. Though no flatterer of mankind it never speaks ill of it.
Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Chapter 11
It would be going too far to call this condition the essence of dishonesty, but it perhaps approximates this dire label.
Harry Frankfurt in his popular philosophical book On Bullshit identifies the essence of bullshit as the bullshiter’s indifference to the distinction between the true and the false. If we make the distinction that I am here suggesting between essential and accidental truths, we can define bullshit of a high order of magnitude as an attitude of indifference between essential truths and accidental truths. As with my above example of people who are honest about trivial accidents while misrepresenting essential truths, I think I have known people like this too, utterly indifferent to whether they compromise themselves over the incidental or the essential. Perhaps this is what it is to be a pathological liar.
We can also make a distinction between essential falsehoods and accidental falsehoods. If we take a classic work like Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, only a unbelievable pedant would condemn the work for its few factual errors. Such things I would deem accidental falsehoods. No fair-minded person would place undue importance on accidental falsehoods, though we often see both in public and private life, in micro-politics and macro-politics, the attempt to exploit accidental falsehoods to impugn the truthfulness and reliability of someone who attempts to speak of essential truths.
Essential truths that are imperfectly expressed — perennial truths that characterize the human condition over the longue duree — may be indifferent to details and particular circumstances. Here is how Whitehead identified the essential truths of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, which Whitehead sees as being even more comprehensive that Gibbon himself intended:
“Gibbon’s history demonstrates a twofold tale. It tells of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire through a thousand years. We see the greatness of that empire at its height, its military organization, its provincial administration, its welter of races, the rise and clash of two religions, the passage of Greek philosophy into Christian theology. Gibbon displays before us the greatness and the littleness of soldiers and of statesmen, of philosophers and of priests, the pathos, the heroism, and grossness of the general multitude of humanity. He shows us the happiness of mankind and the horrors which it has endured.”
“But throughout this history, it is Gibbon who speaks. He was the incarnation of the dominant spirit of his own times. In this way his volumes also tell another tale. They are a record of the mentality of the eighteenth century. They are at once a detailed history of the Roman Empire, and a demonstration of the general ideals of the silver age of the modern European Renaissance. This silver age, like its Roman counterpart seventeen hundred years earlier, was oblivious of its own imminent destruction by the impact of the Age of Steam and Democracy, the counterparts of the Barbarians and of the Christians. Thus Gibbon narrates the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and exemplifies the prelude to the Decline and Fall of his own type of culture.”
Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, New York: The Free Press, 1967, Chapter 1: Introduction, p. 5
Ideally, mythology relates essential truths through the medium of accidents that couldn’t really be called false because they have little or no relationship to reality. Indeed, the most interesting myths are those which identify as a setting circumstances so fantastic that they could be called spectacularly false, if we could make a distinction between the merely false and the spectacularly false. If indeed we can make this distinction, we see that myth occupies a position beyond incidental falsehoods incorporated into essential truths.
I have elsewhere cited an ancient aphorism from Stephanus of Byzantium: Myth is that which never way, but always is. This captures both the essential truth and the accidental falsehoods that characterize mythology.
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