In an excellent series of blog posts Edward Feser has been defending (against a surprising amount of protest) Saint Thomas’s teaching that lying is always contrary to the natural law. Since words are natural signs of what is in the mind it is perverse to use them to signify what is contrary to one’s mind. Now while speech itself is natural, the particular meaning of speech is established be convention, and, Feser points out, this can mean that, depending on the context, certain speech, which might seem to be a lie if one took it literary, is not in fact a lie:
Fictional stories and jokes do not count as lies […] because circumstances make it clear that they are not intended to be taken to communicate what the speaker really thinks is true. Similarly, given circumstances and the conventions of English usage, utterances like “Fine, thanks” are widely understood to be mere pleasantries, the sort of thing one will say out of politeness however one is actually feeling. In typical circumstances, they are simply not conventionally used to express a meaning like “I am completely free of anxiety, physical pain, or difficulty of any sort.” Hence it is […] silly to classify them as “lies”.
The question of how speech is conventionally meant to be taken becomes particularly complicated in the case of speaking to children, because children often have an imperfect understanding of the conventions of speech. The most hotly contested post in Feser’s lying series is one on Santa Clause. Telling your children that Santa is real, Feser argues, is a lie. He quotes Fr. Thomas Higgins:
A child can distinguish between fable and fact. When we purport to tell him things “for real” he does not expect a fairy tale. An example in point is the Santa Claus legend. We obtrude the story upon his belief, insisting that we are not weaving tales and commanding his acceptance – it is nothing but lying.
But Higgins is making the case simpler than it really is. A child is still in the process of learning how to distinguish between fable and fact. Depending on the child and how old it is etc. this process can be at very different stages. In fact children often take fables as fact, this is true even of fables that they themselves have invented. They slowly learn to distinguish between “pretend” and “real”; as they grow older they realize that their dolls are pretend persons whereas their brothers and sisters are real. Now I think that there are probably ways of telling the Santa Clause Myth that really make a lie out of it and harm the process of sorting out real and pretend in the child, but I think there are probably ways of telling it as what it is, namely figurative speech, which is not a lie. The child will initially take it literally but gradually learn to take it figuratively. My parents did not do the Santa thing, but they did have Saint Nicholas fill our shoes with chocolates on his Feast Day, and my experience was that we gradually came to see that it had been meant figuratively—there was no rude awakening, because our parents never said “this is not pretend;” they simply told the story and left us to develop the correct interpretation.
What is the point of such a procedure? Wouldn’t it have been better to tell the children from the start that it was not “really” Saint Nicholas who was filling the shoes? I don’t think so. It is important that children learn the different shades of speech, the conventions that determine when speech is taken literally and not. One has to guard against the naively priggish literalism of Belloc’s schoolmate:
There was a sturdy boy at my school who, when the master had carefully explained to us the nature of metaphor, said that so far as he could see a metaphor was nothing but a long Greek word for a lie.
There is a wonderful portrayal of the whole problem in the first chapter of Joseph Roth’s novel Radetzkymarsch (to take an example from Austrian literature for a change). Trotta, an infantry lieutenant, saves the Austrian Emperor’s life at the battle of Solferino by the rather un-romantic means of knocking His Apostolic Majesty down. Trotta is a Slovene, and (in stereotypically Slovenian fashion) a pusillanimous, miserly prig. He is covered in honors by the grateful monarch, and everything goes well till he reads an account of the Battle of Solferino in one of his son’s school books. Trotta’s heroic act has been turned into an exciting cavalry charge. Trotta is outraged. “It’s a lie!” he bellows, but everyone just answers him, “It’s for children.” “Children need examples that they can understand,” one of his friends says, “they will learn the real truth (die richtige Wahrheit) later.” Poor Trotta writes to the Imperial and Royal Ministry of education. The minister writes back in hilarious bureaucratic German, explaining “Euer Hochwohlgeboren” (Trotta is the son of a hedge-clipper) that in school books historical events have to be described in a way proportioned to the the imagination of children, “without changing the truthfulness of the events described.” So who is right the courageous but plodding Trotta or the imaginative minister? His Apostolic Majesty seems to side with Trotta when that noble officer takes his complaint all the way to the Imperial and Royal Throne:
“Your Majesty” said the captain, “it’s a lie!”
“There’s a great deal of lying goes on,” agreed the Emperor.
“Es wird viel gelogen:” that’s one thing we can be certain of!