“Their sons are carefully instructed from their fifth to their twentieth year, in three things alone—to ride, to draw the bow, and to speak the truth.”
“The most disgraceful thing in the world, they think, is to tell a lie.”
Herodotus, The Histories, (writing about customs of the Persians)
Though the ancient Greeks considered Persians to be ‘barbarians,’ they still found in them things worthy of emulation. And so might we.
It is remarkable, and heartening, to see again and again in history how human persons across all cultures have certain common insights into who we are, and who we should be.
We are to be truth-tellers. Eyes are for seeing, and lips for speaking the truth, for saying aloud the truth we have seen. To be able really to know the truth: this is an honor reserved for persons. Other animals can perceive things that are true. But they do not know that what they perceive is true, and thus they do not really know the truth, as such. One consequence is that even if an animal can communicate something that is true, it can never really lie.
But wonder of wonders: we humans can know that our thoughts have captured reality as it is. We can know the truth: the correspondence of mind and reality. And we can speak it. Or not.
It seems that even those committed to truth-telling sometimes spend too much energy wondering: can I ever legitimately say something I know is not true? The precise details of the morality of truth-telling do need to be properly worked out, and this will include that sometimes truths can be left unsaid. But these details can only be rightly understood, and practiced, in a context where the root approach is that of the Persians. To tell a lie is simply disgraceful: it undermines our relationships, and who we are.
Yet how often, even in little ways, are young and old alike tempted to speak what is not true. We need to habituate our children, and ourselves, to be truth-tellers.
This is at the core of human life and community. It is an excellence of a high order.
Herodotus (484-425 BC) was an early Greek historian and came to be known as the ‘Father of History.’