MY BROTHER'S KEEPER
Letters from James Alexander (1804-1859)
to his younger brother, on the virtues and
vices, the duties and dangers of youth.
Truth and Falsehood
My dear brother,
Few names are considered more disgraceful than that of a liar. This is justly so; for the vice is odious, injurious to society, and offensive to God. Truth is the chief bond between man and man in society. If everyone spoke without regard to truth—our reputation, property, and lives would be in jeopardy every moment. We should never know when to believe a neighbor; or by believing a falsehood, we might be led into the greatest danger.
You will commonly take notice that boys who lie, very soon show that they are ready for other vices. He, who can so violate his conscience as to tell a willful lie, will soon find it equally easy to violate his conscience by cursing, swearing, or stealing. Indeed, lying and stealing are nearly related. Lying is dishonesty in words; theft is dishonesty in deeds. I know a young man at school who was noted for his disregard of truth. He became a physician, and very soon after was convicted of a very atrocious act of dishonesty. Another was for a long time suspected of no crime but falsehood; it was not long, however, before he was caught stealing from his friends. Both these were young men of liberal education.
The great reason why we should maintain the truth is, that God requires it of us. "Therefore, putting away falsehood, speak truth each one with his neighbor. For we are members of one another." Falsehood is hateful to God. We seem to offer him a direct insult whenever we speak what is untrue, because he is always present, and nothing can escape his omniscience.
Whenever we willfully deceive, we are guilty of falsehood, whatever be the words uttered. Indeed, we may lie without uttering any words at all—by mere body language. We may deceive by being altogether silent; and this is wrong in all cases where others have a right to any information from us. From this you will perceive that all equivocations, or expressions with two meanings, are falsehoods—when the person hearing them understands them so as to be deceived by them. I would earnestly recommend to you to avoid even the very appearance of evil in this thing, and never, even in jest, to sport with truth. It is so awful a thing to offend God by a lie, that it is the part of wisdom never to speak what is untrue, even for the purposes of amusement.
I am afraid that young people at our public schools are too little impressed with the importance of this subject. It is often thought quite a feat when a boy, by a clever falsehood, can escape punishment for a fault. And thus by treating a great sin in a very trifling manner, the conscience becomes seared as with a hot iron. It is alarming to see how readily children learn to depart from the truth, and how hard it is to eradicate the habit. I know people whom I consider pious—but who have never entirely overcome the propensity to stretch their expressions beyond the actual fact. This is what is called exaggeration or hyperbole, both which words mean about the same; that is, heaping up expressions beyond the simple matter described, or letting our language shoot over the plain truth. Avoid this. It is here, if anywhere, that you are in danger.
I cannot believe that you would tell a willful falsehood; but most young people are apt to exaggerate. Thus, if a servant neglects your horse two or three times, you will perhaps say in anger, "Thomas has forgotten to feed my horse every day," or, "he never thinks of feeding my horse." Thus, also, in describing a thunder storm, some people always describe it as the loudest and most alarming they ever heard in their lives. This sort of exaggeration is most common among those who have been accustomed to the use of hyperbolical or extravagant phrases in common discourse. Thus some people cannot speak of a hearty laugh without saying, "He almost killed himself with laughing." Every warm day is the hottest they ever felt; and every clumsy man is the ugliest man they ever saw. Beware of all such unmeaning exaggerations, for you may be assured they lead to the evil habit against which I am warning you.
It is commonly said, and with truth, that great talkers are apt to exaggerate. I hope you will never become noted as a great talker; although I have met with people who seemed to take a vulgar pride in their very loquacity. "In the multitude of words, there lacks not sin," and you will be upon the safe side by repressing your desire to talk. Very loquacious people commonly talk much nonsense, and, in order to excite attention, sometimes set their imagination to work, and give a high color to all they describe. Let me enjoin it upon you, to fix in your mind a sacred reverence for truth; and whenever you describe any incident, take care to describe it precisely as it occurred. Even let your description be flat or cold, rather than run the risk of exaggeration.
Let your soul be impressed with the solemn majesty of God, as being the witness of every word you utter—and you will lose all temptation to violate the truth.
Your affectionate brother,