IT was further proposed to consider the value of truth in a practical view, as it relates to the incidents and commerce of ordinary life, under which form it is known by the denomination of sincerity.
The powerful recommendations attendant upon sincerity are obvious. It is intimately connected with the general dissemination of innocence, energy, intellectual improvement, and philanthropy.
Did every man impose this law upon himself, did he regard himself as not authorized to conceal any part of his character and conduct, this circumstance alone would prevent millions of actions from being perpetrated in which we are now induced to engage by the prospect of secrecy and impunity. We have only to suppose men obliged to consider, before they determined upon an equivocal action, whether they chose to be their own historians, the future narrators of the scene in which they were acting a part, and the most ordinary imagination will instantly suggest how essential a varariation would be introduced into human affairs. It has been justly observed that the popish practice of confession is attended with some salutary effects. How much better would it be if, instead of an institution thus equivocal, and which has been made so dangerous an instrument of ecclesiastical despotism, every man were to make the world his confessional, and the human species the keeper of his conscience?
There is a further benefit that would result to me from the habit of telling every man the truth, regardless of the dictates of worldly prudence and custom. I should acquire a clear, ingenuous and unembarrassed air. According to the established modes of society, whenever I have a circumstance to state which would require some effort of mind and discrimination to enable me to do it justice, and state it with the proper effect, I fly from the talk, and take refuge in silence or equivocation. But the principle which forbad me concealment would keep my mind for ever awake, and for ever warm. I should always be obliged to exert my attention, lest, in pretending to tell the truth, I should tell it in so imperfect and mangled a way as to produce the effect of falsehood. If I spoke to a man of my own faults or those of his neighbour, I should be anxious not to suffer them to come distorted or exaggerated to his mind, or to permit what at first was fact to degenerate into satire. If I spoke to him of the errors he had himself committed, I should carefully avoid those inconsiderate expressions which might convert what was in itself beneficent into offence; and my thoughts would be full of that kindness, and generous concern for his welfare, which such a talk necessarily brings along with it. Sincerity would liberate my mind, and make the eulogiums I had occasion to pronounce, clear, copious and appropriate. Conversation would speedily exchange its present character of listlessness and insignificance, for a Roman boldness and fervour; and, accustomed, at first by the fortuitous operation of circumstances, to tell men of things it was useful for them to know, I should speedily learn to study their advantage, and never rest satisfied with my conduct till I had discovered how to spend the hours I was in their company in the way which was most rational and improving.
The effects of sincerity upon others would be similar to its effects upon him that practised it. How great would be the benefit if every man were sure of meeting in his neighbour the ingenuous censor, who would tell him in person, and publish to the world, his virtues, his good deeds, his meannesses and his follies? We have never a strong feeling of these in our own case, except so far as they are confirmed to us by the suffrage of our neighbours. Knowledge, such as we are able to acquire it, depends in a majority of instances, not upon the single efforts of the individual, but upon the consent of other human understandings sanctioning the judgement of our own. It is the uncertainty of which every man is conscious as to his solitary judgement that produces, for the most part, zeal for proselytism, and impatience of contradiction. It is impossible I should have a true satisfaction in my dispositions and talents, or even any precise perceptions of virtue and vice, unless assisted by the concurrence of my fellows.
An impartial distribution of commendation and blame to the actions of men would be a most powerful incentive to virtue. But this distribution, at present, scarcely in any instance exists. One man is satirized with bitterness, and the misconduct of another is treated with inordinate lenity. In speaking of our neighbours, we are perpetually under the influence of sinister and unacknowledged motives. Everything is disfigured and distorted. The basest hypocrite passes through life with applause; and the purest character is loaded with unmerited aspersions. The benefactors of mankind are frequently the objects of their bitterest hatred and most unrelenting ingratitude. What encouragement then is afforded to virtue? Those who are smitten with the love of distinction will rather seek it in external splendour, and unmeaning luxury, than in moral attainments. While those who are led to benevolent pursuits by the purest motives yet languish under the privation of that honour and esteem which would give new firmness to rectitude, and ardour to benevolence.
A genuine and unalterable sincerity would not fail to reverse the scene.1 Every idle or malignant tale now produces its effect, because men are unaccustomed to exercise their judgement upon the probabilities of human action, or to possess the materials of judgement. But then the rash assertions of one individual would be corrected by the maturer information of his neighbour. Exercised in discrimination, we should be little likely to be misled. The truth would be known, the whole truth, and the unvarnished truth. This would be a trial that the most stubborn obliquity would be found unable to withstand. If a just and impartial character were awarded to all human actions, vice would be universally deserted, and virtue everywhere practised. Sincerity therefore. once introduced into the manners of mankind, would necessarily bring every other virtue in its train.
Men are now feeble in their temper because they are not accustomed to hear the truth. They build their confidence in being personally treated with artificial delicacy, and expect us to abstain from repeating what we know to their disadvantage. But is this right? It has already appeared that plain dealing, truth, spoken with kindness, but spoken with sincerity, is the most wholesome of all disciplines. How then can we be justified in thus subverting the nature of things, and the system of the universe, in breeding a set of summer insects upon which the breeze of sincerity may never blow, and the tempest of misfortune never beat?
In the third place, sincerity is, in an eminent degree, calculated to conduce to our intellectual improvement. If from timidity of disposition, or the danger that attends a disclosure, we suppress the reflections that occur to us, we shall neither add to, nor correct them. From the act of telling my thoughts, I derive encouragement to proceed. Nothing can more powerfully conduce to perspicuity than the very attempt to arrange and express them. If they be received cordially by others, they derive from that circumstance a peculiar firmness and consistency. If they be received with opposition and distrust, I am induced to revise them. I detect their errors; or I strengthen my arguments, and add new truths to those which I had previously accumulated. It is not by the solitary anchorite, who neither speaks, nor hears, nor reads the genuine sentiments of man, that the stock of human good is eminently increased. The period of bold and unrestricted communication is the period in which the materials of happiness ferment and germinate. What can excite me to the pursuit of discovery if I know that I am never to communicate my discoveries? It is in the nature of things impossible that the man who has determined never to utter the truths he may be acquainted with should be an intrepid and indefatigable thinker. The link which binds together the inward and the outward man is indissoluble; and he that is not bold in speech will never be ardent and unprejudiced in enquiry.
What is it that, at this day, enables a thousand errors to keep their station in the world; priestcraft, tests, bribery, war, cabal and whatever else excites the disapprobation of the honest and enlightened mind? Cowardice; the timid reserve which makes men shrink from telling what they know; and the insidious policy that annexes persecution and punishment to an unrestrained and spirited discussion of the true interests of society. Men either refrain from the publication of unpalatable opinions because they are unwilling to make a sacrifice of their worldly prospects; or they publish them in a frigid and enigmatical spirit, stripped of their true character, and incapable of their genuine operation. If every man today would tell all the truth he knew, it is impossible to predict how short would be the reign of usurpation and folly.
Lastly, a still additional benefit attendant on the practice of sincerity is good humour, kindness and benevolence. At present, men meet together with the temper less of friends than enemies. Every man eyes his neighbour, as if he expected to receive from him a secret wound. Every member of a polished and civilized community goes armed. He knows many things of his associate, which he conceives himself obliged not to allude to in his hearing, but rather to put on an air of the profoundest ignorance. In the absence of the person concerned, he scarcely knows how to mention his defects, however essential the advertisement may be, lest he should incur the imputation of a calumniator. If he mention them, it is under the seal of secrecy. He speaks of them with the sentiments of a criminal, conscious that what he is saying he would be unwilling to utter before the individual concerned. Perhaps he does not fully advert to this artificial character in himself; but he at least notes it with infallible observation in his neighbour. In youth, it may be, he accommodates himself with a pliant spirit to the manners of the world; and, while he loses no jot of his gaiety, learns from it no other lessons than those of selfishness and cheerful indifference. Observant of the game that goes forward around him, he becomes skilful in his turn to elude the curiosity of others, and smiles inwardly at the false scent he prompts them to follow. Dead to the emotions of a disinterested sympathy, he can calmly consider men as the mere neutral instruments of his enjoyments. He can preserve himself in a true equipoise between love and hatred. But this is a temporary character. The wanton wildness of youth at length subsides, and he is no longer contented to stand alone in the world. Anxious for the consolations of sympathy and frankness, he remarks the defects of mankind with a different spirit. He is seized with a shuddering at the sensation of their coldness. He can no longer tolerate their subterfuges and disguises. He searches in vain for an ingenuous character, and loses patience at the eternal disappointment. The defect that he before regarded with indifference he now considers as the consummation of vice. What wonder that, under these circumstances, moroseness, sourness and misanthropy become the ruling sentiments of so large a portion of mankind?
How would the whole of this be reversed by the practice of sincerity? We could not be indifferent to men whose custom it was to tell us the truth. Hatred would perish from a failure in its principal ingredient, the duplicity and impenetrableness of human actions. No man could acquire a distant and unsympathetic temper. Reserve, deceitfulness, and an artful exhibition of ourselves take from the human form its soul, and leave us the unanimated semblance of what man might have been; of what he would have been, were not every impulse of the mind thus stunted and destroyed. If our emotions were not checked, we should be truly friends with each other. Our character would expand: the luxury of indulging our feelings, and the exercise of uttering them, would raise us to the stature of men. I should not conceive alarm from my neighbour, because I should be conscious that I knew his genuine sentiments. I should not harbour bad passions and unsocial propensities, because the habit of expressing my thoughts would enable me to detect and dismiss them in the outset. Thus every man would be inured to the sentiment of lovel and would find in his species objects worthy of his affection. Confidence is upon all accounts the surest foil of mutual kindness.
The value of sincerity will be still further illustrated by a brief consideration of the nature of insincerity. Viewed superficially and at a distance, we are easily reconciled, and are persuaded to have recourse to it upon the most trivial occasions. Did we examine it in detail, and call to mind its genuine history, the result could not fail to be different. Its features are neither like virtue, nor compatible with virtue. The sensations it obliges us to undergo are of the most odious nature. Its direct business is to cut off all commerce between the heart and the tongue. There are organs however of the human frame more difficult to be commanded than the mere syllables and phrases we utter. We must be upon our guard, or our cheeks will be covered with a conscious blush, the awkwardness of our gestures will betray us, and our lips will falter with their unwonted task. Such is the issue of the first attempt, not merely of the liar, but of him who practises concealment, or whose object it is to mislead the person with whom he happens to converse. After a series of essays we become more expert. We are not, as at first, detected by the person from whom we intended to withhold what we knew; but we fear detection. We feel uncertainty and confusion; and it is with difficulty we convince ourselves that we have escaped unsuspected. Is it thus a man ought to feel? At last perhaps we become consummate in hypocrisy, and feel the same confidence and alacrity in duplicity that we before felt in entire frankness. Which, to an ordinary eye, would appear the man of virtue; he who, by the depth of his hypocrisy, contrived to keep his secret wholly unsuspected, or he who was precipitate enough to be thus misled, and to believe that his neighbour made use of words for the purpose of being understood?
But this is not all. It remains for the deceiver, in the next place, to maintain the delusion he has once imposed, and to take care that no unexpected occurrence shall betray him. It is upon this circumstance that the common observation is founded that "one lie will always need a hundred others to justify and cover it." We cannot determine to keep anything secret without risking to be involved in artifices, quibbles, equivocations and falsehoods without number. The character of the virtuous man seems to be that of a firm and unalterable resolution, confident in his own integrity. But the character that results from insincerity, begins in hesitation, and ends in disgrace. Let us suppose that the imposition I practised is in danger of detection. Of course it will become my wisdom to calculate this danger, and, if it be too imminent, not to think of attempting any further disguise. But, if the secret be important, and the danger problematical, I shall probably persist. The whole extent of the danger can be known only by degrees. Suppose the person who questions me return to the charge, and affirm that he heard the fact, as it really was, but not as I represent it, from another. What am I now to do? Am I to asperse the character of the honest reporter, and at the same time, it may be, instead of establishing the delusion, only astonish my neighbour with my cool and intrepid effrontery?
What has already been adduced may assist us to determine the species of sincerity which virtue prescribes, and which alone can be of great practical benefit to mankind. Sincerity may be considered as of three degrees. First, a man may conceive that he sufficiently preserves his veracity if he never utter anything that cannot be explained into a consistency with truth. There is a plain distinction between this man and him who makes no scruple of the most palpable and direct falsehood. Or, secondly, it may happen that his delicacy shall not stop here, and he may resolve, not only to utter nothing that is literally untrue, but also nothing which he knows or believes will be understood by the hearer in a sense that is untrue. This he may consider as amounting for the most part to an adequate discharge of his duty; and he may conceive that there is little mischief in the frequently suppressing information which it was in his power to supply. The third and highest degree of sincerity consists in the most perfect frankness, discards every species of concealment or reserve, and, as Cicero expresses it, "utters nothing that is false, and withholds nothing that is true."
The two first of these by no means answer the genuine purposes of sincerity. The former labours under one disadvantage more than direct falsehood. It is of little consequence, to the persons with whom I communicate, that I have a subterfuge by which I can, to my own mind, explain my deceit into a consistency with truth; while at the same time the study of such subterfuges is more adverse to courage and energy than a conduct which unblushingly avows the laxity of its principles. The second of the degrees enumerated, which merely proposes to itself the avoiding every active deception, seems to be measured less by the standard of magnanimity than of personal prudence. If, as Rousseau has asserted,2 "the great duty of man be to do no injury to his neighbour," then this negative sincerity may be of considerable value: but, if it be the highest and most indispensable business of man to study and promote his neighbour's welfare, a virtue of this sort will contribute little to so honourable an undertaking. If sincerity be, as we have endeavoured to demonstrate, the most powerful engine of human improvement, a scheme for restraining it within so narrow limits cannot be entitled to considerable applause. Add to this, that it is impossible, in many cases, to suppress information without great mastery in the arts of ambiguity and evasion, and such a perfect command of countenance as shall prevent it from being an index to our real sentiments. Indeed the man who is frequently accustomed to seem ignorant of what he really knows, though he will escape the open disgrace of him who is detected in direct falsehood or ambiguous imposition, will yet be viewed by his neighbours with coldness and distrust, and esteemed an unfathomable and selfish character.
Hence it appears that the only species of sincerity which can in any degree prove satisfactory to the enlightened moralist and politician is that where the frankness is perfect, and every degree of reserve is discarded.
Nor is there any danger that such a character should degenerate into ruggedness and brutality. Sincerity, upon the principles on which it is here recommended, is practised from a consciousnes of its utility, and from sentiments of philanthropy. It will communicate frankness to the voice, fervour to the gesture and kindness to the heart. Even in expostulation and censure, friendliness of intention and mildness of proceeding may be eminently conspicuous. There should be no mixture of disdain and superiority. The interest of him who is corrected, not the triumph of the corrector, should be the principle of action. True sincerity will be attended with that equality which is the only sure foundation of love, and that love which gives the best finishing and lustre to a sentiment of equality.
1 Book VI, Chap. VI.
2Emile, liv. ii.