Such is the view, more, or less distinctly held, which a large proportion of the clergy of all denominations are apt to take on the subject of telling the truth. They are apt to regard it as something essentially distinct from the habit of investigating into facts—as one amongst many duties which people owe to each other in ordinary life, and which must be considered to be important in proportion to the gravity of the consequences which may accrue from a violation of it, or the circumstances with which it is connected. The extreme form of this view of the subject is to be found in those theories upon the duty of truthfulness which are maintained in casuistical writings, and which accurately distinguish between the cases in which a lie is a venial and those in which it is a mortal sin—between the guilt of a lie pure and simple and a lie under the sanction of an oath. It is not confined to any one form of religious belief, but it has a far greater affinity to Popery than to Protestantism, and might probably without much injustice be described as the clerical, or emphatically as the Roman Catholic, view of lying.
The Protestant or scientific view of the nature of truth is broadly distinguished from this, and appears to be connected with a far sounder and more philosophical estimate of morality than that which regards it as a mere collection of rules enforced by penalties. If men are viewed not merely as beings who are capable of being punished for breaking through a particular set of prohibitions, but as beings who have it in their power to improve the condition in which they live, to strengthen their faculties, to enlarge their whole sphere of action, and, in a word, to put out to interest a vast variety of talents of different kinds and degrees, truth will be something very much wider and deeper than a mere absence of the injury inflicted by deceit, just as goodness will be something altogether different from mere innocence. The importance of truthfulness, and the breadth of the way in which it is conceived, depend to a great extent upon the degree in which activity is included in our conception of morality. If people are to act at all, they must act upon things as they are, not upon things as they are not. But all action is guided by thought, and all successful action is guided by true thought – by thought which corresponds with facts, instead of diverging from them. Hence, in proportion to the degree in which our ideal of goodness is active, truth will come to be not a virtue, but the virtue— a thing needful, not on particular occasions in order to avoid particular frauds or injuries, but always and in all pursuits as an indispensable element of that success which it is the great object of life to achieve. Let people once get their minds saturated with the leading belief that they are put into the world to make the best of themselves in various directions, that every honest calling is a sacred thing to be honoured and respected as part of a vast general dispensation of which all men ought to promote the objects each in his own sphere, and truth will be viewed as the highest, the most universal, and the most entire of all obligations. Every deviation from it once admitted into the general scheme of things becomes a constant source of failure and confusion, like a mistake in a sum till it is set to rights. For instance, a legislator deviates from truth by misconceiving the object for which a law ought to be made, and he makes his law wrong. His mistake will repeat itself in a thousand ways, and will vex that part of mankind who are affected by it for centuries, it may be, but certainly as often as the law is put in force and until it is corrected. According to this view, there is the closest possible relation between error and falsehood. In fact, there is no difference between them, except that the one is wilful and malicious, and not the other; and the guilt of lying consists mainly in the fact that the liar is consciously and expressly faithless to the great object of life—namely, the general improvement of the human race, to which truth is as necessary as oxygen to the circulation of the blood. Dr. Newman tells us that, according to the morality of his present creed, an inpure wish is a much worse thing than a lie. This a natural consequence from his general view of morality. For well-known reasons, his teachers view with a semi-Manichaean horror every concession to the animal nature even if it begins and ends in the mind of the individual who makes it. A Protestant would say that the one offence differs from the other as wasting a sovereign differs from putting a bad sovereign in circulation. In the first case, the owner suffers for his weakness. In the second, he is accessary to the robbery of as many people as pass the coin to each other before it is finally nailed to the counter.
Perhaps no one has seized to fully this broad view of truth as Mr. Carlyle. The conception of it which we have been trying to describe is that which is to be found in nearly every one of his writings. Every part of his Life of Frederick the Great, even those chapters which record his occasional falsehoods, are full of praise of his hero's “veracity”—that is, of his power of seeing things as they really were, and of his consciousness that error and delusion, however seductive, never come to good. This may appear to superficial observation a small and obvious thing, but in reality Mr. Carlyle, is perfectly right in viewing it as one of the rarest and highest of all intellectual gifts, and as intimately connected with all personal virtues. The duties of the intellect are as severe and fully as important as the duties which more immediately relate to the passions, and they are active as well as passive, and indissolubly connected together. No one will long continue to speak the truth unless he habitually thinks the truth, nor will he be able to do this unless he keeps his mind in vigorous and healthy exercise.
Saturday Review, May 28, 1864.