Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Father of Lies

I wondered why Satan was called "the Father of Lies." Surely there are much worse things than a lie? Murder, theft, destruction? Certainly, they must be. And certainly, they are.

Indeed there are things far, far worse than a simple lie. But still, lying – especially that lie to yourself known as self-deception – comes first, before those other, much worse things. Lying, self-deception, is the father of all crime.

Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy, understood, when he wrote of the two fundamental sins that existed in all levels of his Inferno: forza, violence and force, and forda, fraud. Those who committed fraud he damned to the lowest level of Hell. Did he, in a sense, think lying worse that murder? I think so, because the lie comes before the murder.

Although Dante did not clearly spell it out, he is right. Before anyone can commit a crime against anyone, the one thing he must do is dehumanize him, turn him into a thing. The first thing any criminal must do is lie to himself – rationalize, even if unconsciously – that his victim isn't fully human, and as such deserved what he got. The criminal must commit a fraud against himself before he can commit a crime against others. The first crime, the first sin, is against himself.

You cannot murder someone whom you realize is a human being. But you can kill a human when you ignore his humanity and devalue him to a thing. When a soldier presses a button to send a missile to kill not only enemy combatants, but innocent women and children, the only way he can do it is if he lies to himself, and rationalizes, that he doing the Right Thing. He has to deny the humanity of those he is about to kill. The lie comes first, the crime, second. Self-deception is the father to the crime.

Self-deception is the way we are made, part of our fallen natures. As such, it can be used against us. That is the purpose of propaganda: to make us deceive ourselves into thinking we are Noble and Pure and Good, and our enemies (who yesterday might have been, and tomorrow, might be, our allies) are Evil. And being evil, of course they are not completely human, and therefore can safely be annihilated. But they are human, and evil only in our deluded minds.

This self-deception, this fraud we commit against ourselves, can have consequences which most cannot predict. Some can, though. One who could was Dostoevski, when he wrote of the effects of lying to yourself in The Brothers Karamazov:

"...above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lies comes to such a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no self-respect he ceases to love. And in order to distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures and sinks to bestiality in his vices – all this from continually lying to other men and himself."

Dostoevski, like Dante, is right: that fraud against yourself that is self-deceit, when taken to an extreme, is a crime against yourself. Such self-deception is also a crime against others, for it ultimately devalues them into things, and in that devaluation there disappears that simple awareness of the humanity of others known as agape.

Those who truly lie to themselves become unable to tell truth from lies. Can such a person truly respect himself or others? I think not. He sees others as things, not completely human. He has no respect for them, no simple agape. His lack of respect for himself he must cover with Hubris, the false conviction that only he is right and no one else.

That simple declaration, that Satan is the Father of Lies, is a profound observation. It applies to everyone, and most especially, to those who use political power to rule others, for they, in my opinion, always give way to passions and coarse pleasures and sink to bestiality in their vices. Even if they delude themselves their passions and coarse pleasures and vices – political power and war and murder and theft and Hubris – are really virtues.

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