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 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.
Disputed Questions about the Limits
of Knowledge and Certainty in Various Matters
20. I do not rightly know whether errors of this sort should be called sins--when one thinks well of a wicked man, not knowing what his character really is, or when, instead of our physical perception, similar perceptions occur which we experience in the spirit (such as the illusion of the apostle Peter when he thought he was seeing a vision but was actually being liberated from fetters and chains by the angel36) Or in perceptual illusions when we think something is smooth which is actually rough, or something sweet which is bitter, something fragrant which is putrid, that a noise is thunder when it is actually a wagon passing by, when one takes this man for that, or when two men look alike, as happens in the case of twins--whence our poet speaks of "a pleasant error for parents"37--I say I do not know whether these and other such errors should be called sins.
Nor am I at the moment trying to deal with that knottiest of questions which baffled the most acute men of the Academy, whether a wise man ought ever to affirm anything positively lest he be involved in the error of affirming as true what may be false, since all questions, as they assert, are either mysterious [occulta] or uncertain. On these points I wrote three books in the early stages of my conversion because my further progress was being blocked by objections like this which stood at the very threshold of my understanding.38 It was necessary to overcome the despair of being unable to attain to truth, which is what their arguments seemed to lead one to. Among them every error is deemed a sin, and this can be warded off only by a systematic suspension of positive assent. Indeed they say it is an error if someone believes in what is uncertain. For them, however, nothing is certain in human experience, because of the deceitful likeness of falsehood to the truth, so that even if what appears to be true turns out to be true indeed, they will still dispute it with the most acute and even shameless arguments.
Among us, on the other hand, "the righteous man lives by faith."39 Now, if you take away positive affirmation,40 you take away faith, for without positive affirmation nothing is believed. And there are truths about things unseen, and unless they are believed, we cannot attain to the happy life, which is nothing less than life eternal. It is a question whether we ought to argue with those who profess themselves ignorant not only about the eternity yet to come but also about their present existence, for they [the Academics] even argue that they do not know what they cannot help knowing. For no one can "not know" that he himself is alive. If he is not alive, he cannot "not know" about it or anything else at all, because either to know or to "not know" implies a living subject. But, in such a case, by not positively affirming that they are alive, the skeptics ward off the appearance of error in themselves, yet they do make errors simply by showing themselves alive; one cannot err who is not alive. That we live is therefore not only true, but it is altogether certain as well. And there are many things that are thus true and certain concerning which, if we withhold positive assent, this ought not to be regarded as a higher wisdom but actually a sort of dementia.
21. In those things which do not concern our attainment of the Kingdom of God, it does not matter whether they are believed in or not, or whether they are true or are supposed to be true or false. To err in such questions, to mistake one thing for another, is not to be judged as a sin or, if it is, as a small and light one. In sum, whatever kind or how much of an error these miscues may be, it does not involve the way that leads to God, which is the faith of Christ which works through love. This way of life was not abandoned in that error so dear to parents concerning the twins.41 Nor did the apostle Peter deviate from this way when he thought he saw a vision and so mistook one thing for something else. In his case, he did not discover the actual situation until after the angel, by whom he was freed, had departed from him. Nor did the patriarch Jacob deviate from this way when he believed that his son, who was in fact alive, had been devoured by a wild beast. We may err through false impressions of this kind, with our faith in God still safe, nor do we thus leave the way that leads us to him. Nevertheless, such mistakes, even if they are not sins, must still be listed among the evils of this life, which is so readily subject to vanity that we judge the false for true, reject the true for the false, and hold as uncertain what is actually certain. For even if these mistakes do not affect that faith by which we move forward to affirm truth and eternal beatitude, yet they are not unrelated to the misery in which we still exist. Actually, of course, we would be deceived in nothing at all, either in our souls or our physical senses, if we were already enjoying that true and perfected happiness.
22. Every lie, then, must be called a sin, because every man ought to speak what is in his heart--not only when he himself knows the truth, but even when he errs and is deceived, as a man may be. This is so whether it be true or is only supposed to be true when it is not. But a man who lies says the opposite of what is in his heart, with the deliberate intent to deceive. Now clearly, language, in its proper function, was developed not as a means whereby men could deceive one another, but as a medium through which a man could communicate his thought to others. Wherefore to use language in order to deceive, and not as it was designed to be used, is a sin.
Nor should we suppose that there is any such thing as a lie that is not a sin, just because we suppose that we can sometimes help somebody by lying. For we could also do this by stealing, as when a secret theft from a rich man who does not feel the loss is openly given to a pauper who greatly appreciates the gain. Yet no one would say that such a theft was not a sin. Or again, we could also "help" by committing adultery, if someone appeared to be dying for love if we would not consent to her desire and who, if she lived, might be purified by repentance. But it cannot be denied that such an adultery would be a sin. If, then, we hold chastity in such high regard, wherein has truth offended us so that although chastity must not be violated by adultery, even for the sake of some other good, yet truth may be violated by lying? That men have made progress toward the good, when they will not lie save for the sake of human values, is not to be denied. But what is rightly praised in such a forward step, and perhaps even rewarded, is their good will and not their deceit. The deceit may be pardoned, but certainly ought not to be praised, especially among the heirs of the New Covenant to whom it has been said, "Let your speech be yes, yes; no, no: for what is more than this comes from evil."42 Yet because of what this evil does, never ceasing to subvert this mortality of ours, even the joint heirs of Christ themselves pray, "Forgive us our debts."43
The Plight of Man After the Fall
23. With this much said, within the necessary brevity of this kind of treatise, as to what we need to know about the causes of good and evil--enough to lead us in the way toward the Kingdom, where there will be life without death, truth without error, happiness without anxiety--we ought not to doubt in any way that the cause of everything pertaining to our good is nothing other than the bountiful goodness of God himself. The cause of evil is the defection of the will of a being who is mutably good from the Good which is immutable. This happened first in the case of the angels and, afterward, that of man.
24. This was the primal lapse of the rational creature, that is, his first privation of the good. In train of this there crept in, even without his willing it, ignorance of the right things to do and also an appetite for noxious things. And these brought along with them, as their companions, error and misery. When these two evils are felt to be imminent, the soul's motion in flight from them is called fear. Moreover, as the soul's appetites are satisfied by things harmful or at least inane--and as it fails to recognize the error of its ways--it falls victim to unwholesome pleasures or may even be exhilarated by vain joys. From these tainted springs of action--moved by the lash of appetite rather than a feeling of plenty--there flows out every kind of misery which is now the lot of rational natures.
25. Yet such a nature, even in its evil state, could not lose its appetite for blessedness. There are the evils that both men and angels have in common, for whose wickedness God hath condemned them in simple justice. But man has a unique penalty as well: he is also punished by the death of the body. God had indeed threatened man with death as penalty if he should sin. He endowed him with freedom of the will in order that he might rule him by rational command and deter him by the threat of death. He even placed him in the happiness of paradise in a sheltered nook of life [in umbra vitae] where, by being a good steward of righteousness, he would rise to better things.
26. From this state, after he had sinned, man was banished, and through his sin he subjected his descendants to the punishment of sin and damnation, for he had radically corrupted them, in himself, by his sinning. As a consequence of this, all those descended from him and his wife (who had prompted him to sin and who was condemned along with him at the same time)--all those born through carnal lust, on whom the same penalty is visited as for disobedience--all these entered into the inheritance of original sin. Through this involvement they were led, through divers errors and sufferings (along with the rebel angels, their corruptors and possessors and companions), to that final stage of punishment without end. "Thus by one man, sin entered into the world and death through sin; and thus death came upon all men, since all men have sinned."44 By "the world" in this passage the apostle is, of course, referring to the whole human race.
27. This, then, was the situation: the whole mass of the human race stood condemned, lying ruined and wallowing in evil, being plunged from evil into evil and, having joined causes with the angels who had sinned, it was paying the fully deserved penalty for impious desertion. Certainly the anger of God rests, in full justice, on the deeds that the wicked do freely in blind and unbridled lust; and it is manifest in whatever penalties they are called on to suffer, both openly and secretly. Yet the Creator's goodness does not cease to sustain life and vitality even in the evil angels, for were this sustenance withdrawn, they would simply cease to exist. As for mankind, although born of a corrupted and condemned stock, he still retains the power to form and animate his seed, to direct his members in their temporal order, to enliven his senses in their spatial relations, and to provide bodily nourishment. For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist. And if he had willed that there should be no reformation in the case of men, as there is none for the wicked angels, would it not have been just if the nature that deserted God and, through the evil use of his powers, trampled and transgressed the precepts of his Creator, which could have been easily kept--the same creature who stubbornly turned away from His Light and violated the image of the Creator in himself, who had in the evil use of his free will broken away from the wholesome discipline of God's law--would it not have been just if such a being had been abandoned by God wholly and forever and laid under the everlasting punishment which he deserved? Clearly God would have done this if he were only just and not also merciful and if he had not willed to show far more striking evidence of his mercy by pardoning some who were unworthy of it.
The Replacement of the Fallen Angels By
Elect Men (28-30); The Necessity of Grace (30-32)
28. While some of the angels deserted God in impious pride and were cast into the lowest darkness from the brightness of their heavenly home, the remaining number of the angels persevered in eternal bliss and holiness with God. For these faithful angels were not descended from a single angel, lapsed and damned. Hence, the original evil did not bind them in the fetters of inherited guilt, nor did it hand the whole company over to a deserved punishment, as is the human lot. Instead, when he who became the devil first rose in rebellion with his impious company and was then with them prostrated, the rest of the angels stood fast in pious obedience to the Lord and so received what the others had not had--a sure knowledge of their everlasting security in his unfailing steadfastness.
29. Thus it pleased God, Creator and Governor of the universe, that since the whole multitude of the angels had not perished in this desertion of him, those who had perished would remain forever in perdition, but those who had remained loyal through the revolt should go on rejoicing in the certain knowledge of the bliss forever theirs. From the other part of the rational creation--that is, mankind--although it had perished as a whole through sins and punishments, both original and personal, God had determined that a portion of it would be restored and would fill up the loss which that diabolical disaster had caused in the angelic society. For this is the promise to the saints at the resurrection, that they shall be equal to the angels of God.45
Thus the heavenly Jerusalem, our mother and the commonwealth of God, shall not be defrauded of her full quota of citizens, but perhaps will rule over an even larger number. We know neither the number of holy men nor of the filthy demons, whose places are to be filled by the sons of the holy mother, who seemed barren in the earth, but whose sons will abide time without end in the peace the demons lost. But the number of those citizens, whether those who now belong or those who will in the future, is known to the mind of the Maker, "who calleth into existence things which are not, as though they were,"46 and "ordereth all things in measure and number and weight."47
30. But now, can that part of the human race to whom God hath promised deliverance and a place in the eternal Kingdom be restored through the merits of their own works? Of course not! For what good works could a lost soul do except as he had been rescued from his lostness? Could he do this by the determination of his free will? Of course not! For it was in the evil use of his free will that man destroyed himself and his will at the same time. For as a man who kills himself is still alive when he kills himself, but having killed himself is then no longer alive and cannot resuscitate himself after he has destroyed his own life--so also sin which arises from the action of the free will turns out to be victor over the will and the free will is destroyed. "By whom a man is overcome, to this one he then is bound as slave."48 This is clearly the judgment of the apostle Peter. And since it is true, I ask you what kind of liberty can one have who is bound as a slave except the liberty that loves to sin?
He serves freely who freely does the will of his master. Accordingly he who is slave to sin is free to sin. But thereafter he will not be free to do right unless he is delivered from the bondage of sin and begins to be the servant of righteousness. This, then, is true liberty: the joy that comes in doing what is right. At the same time, it is also devoted service in obedience to righteous precept.
But how would a man, bound and sold, get back his liberty to do good, unless he could regain it from Him whose voice saith, "If the Son shall make you free, then you will be free indeed"49? But before this process begins in man, could anyone glory in his good works as if they were acts of his free will, when he is not yet free to act rightly? He could do this only if, puffed up in proud vanity, he were merely boasting. This attitude is what the apostle was reproving when he said, "By grace you have been saved by faith."50
31. And lest men should arrogate to themselves saving faith as their own work and not understand it as a divine gift, the same apostle who says somewhere else that he had "obtained mercy of the Lord to be trustworthy"51 makes here an additional comment: "And this is not of yourselves, rather it is a gift of God--not because of works either, lest any man should boast."52 But then, lest it be supposed that the faithful are lacking in good works, he added further, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to good works, which God hath prepared beforehand for us to walk in them."53
We are then truly free when God ordereth our lives, that is, formeth and createth us not as men--this he hath already done--but also as good men, which he is now doing by his grace, that we may indeed be new creatures in Christ Jesus.54 Accordingly, the prayer: "Create in me a clean heart, O God."55 This does not mean, as far as the natural human heart is concerned, that God hath not already created this.
32. Once again, lest anyone glory, if not in his own works, at least in the determination of his free will, as if some merit had originated from him and as if the freedom to do good works had been bestowed on him as a kind of reward, let him hear the same herald of grace, announcing: "For it is God who is at work in you both to will and to do according to his good will."56 And, in another place: "It is not therefore a matter of man's willing, or of his running, but of God's showing mercy."57 Still, it is obvious that a man who is old enough to exercise his reason cannot believe, hope, or love unless he wills it, nor could he run for the prize of his high calling in God without a decision of his will. In what sense, therefore, is it "not a matter of human willing or running but of God's showing mercy," unless it be that "the will itself is prepared by the Lord," even as it is written?58 This saying, therefore, that "it is not a matter of human willing or running but of God's showing mercy," means that the action is from both, that is to say, from the will of man and from the mercy of God. Thus we accept the dictum, "It is not a matter of human willing or running but of God's showing mercy," as if it meant, "The will of man is not sufficient by itself unless there is also the mercy of God." By the same token, the mercy of God is not sufficient by itself unless there is also the will of man. But if we say rightly that "it is not a matter of human willing or running but of God's showing mercy," because the will of man alone is not enough, why, then, is not the contrary rightly said, "It is not a matter of God's showing mercy but of a man's willing," since the mercy of God by itself alone is not enough? Now, actually, no Christian would dare to say, "It is not a matter of God's showing mercy but of man's willing," lest he explicitly contradict the apostle. The conclusion remains, therefore, that this saying: "Not man's willing or running but God's showing mercy," is to be understood to mean that the whole process is credited to God, who both prepareth the will to receive divine aid and aideth the will which has been thus prepared.59