Cleaving the Body

People who read Dante for the first time may well be surprised that of the two great ways to embrace what is evil—as opposed to loving what is good but in an evil way—the poet says that fraud is worse than violence. This is because violence suppresses or negates what separates man from the beasts, while fraud perverts it. The former is wild and bestial. The latter is calculated and demonic. Hence the allegorical guardian of the rings of violence is the Minotaur, seething with animal rage, while the guardian of the rings of fraud—the Malebolge, “Pouches of Evil”—is the monster Geryon, who has the visage of an honest man, but whose animal body is particolored in knots and whorls, while his scorpion tail flicks about, ready to sting you from behind.

No doubt Dante was thinking of the words of Jesus, which he cited in an earlier scene, that Satan was “a murderer from the beginning,” and “a liar, and the father of lies.” Murder is based upon a falsehood, that the man you kill is not your brother; and lies are murderous, because they reduce their victims to objects to be manipulated, to be harmed, or to be killed. Now there are not many ways to be a glutton. And while there are many more ways to do savage wrong to yourself or your fellow man, there are, I think, even more ways to be a liar. That is because the human mind is meant to search through the whole created order, with all our many faculties of patient observation, memory, comparison, listening, arrangement of questions, deduction, judgment, openness to what is revealed from above, and so forth, and any deliberate and persistent perversion of one of these faculties makes you a hardened liar.

I do not mean that people who are not liars will always see the truth and say it. We do not often perceive truth in a flash of comprehension. Knowledge comes to us first through the senses, as Thomas Aquinas says, and then we must sift through our sensory experiences, and engage in the slow and plodding work of discursive reason. Habit and passion also cloud what we see. People are very seldom good judges of their own cases. They forget their faults and magnify those of the enemy; they see what they wish to see, and passion confirms it. The last thing we want to encourage when we are out to find the truth is the expression of powerful passion among the interested parties. Passion there will be, and to spare. As for habit, it is what Aristotle called our second nature, and it is impossible to be human without it. Habit establishes or confirms our inclinations, the way we lean. It is the bias in the ball in lawn bowling, the unequal weight built into the ball to lend it a natural tendency to curve toward the heavier side.

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All this means that it is not easy for us to arrive at the truth in any controversy, so we need cool heads, those who are not party to the affair, who are dispassionate, disinterested in the true sense of the word (they have no personal, political, or financial interest or stake in it), and deliberate (which may appear to the contestants as sluggishness, dullness, or stupidity). The best judges are those who remember that human beings exaggerate, ignore, forget, imagine, proceed from false premises, and leap to false conclusions, even when they are not lying outright; that human beings are least to be trusted when they protest loudly about their bad feelings; that most (not all, but most) human affairs are muddles; and that whatever we do see, we see only in part, and seldom with fine accuracy.

The liar, then, tries to persuade you of something that is not true, but he also labors to make it more difficult for you ever to see the truth. It is not just that he gives you wrong information. He tends to corrupt all those mental faculties that God has given us for searching out the truth. So, for example, the flatterer not only tells you pleasant things about yourself that are exaggerated or flat-out falsehoods. He makes it harder for you to turn a dispassionate eye upon yourself. The hypocrite not only engages in play-acting the part of a just or saintly man; he helps to establish hypocrisy as a norm, so that everyone comes up on the stage to mug and pose. The confidence man destroys confidence itself, so that his victim may end by trusting no one.

And then we have the great liar of our time, the sower of discord.

I refer to two of Dante’s examples here. Achitophel stoked the fire of hatred in Absalom against his father, David, because if Absalom were to be king, it would be so much the better for Achitophel. The poet and soldier Bertran de Born stoked the fire of ambition in the English prince Henry against his father, Henry II, because Bertran was itching for action in the field. The sower of discord profits by the enmity and the disorder. Dante therefore punishes them with perhaps his finest example of contropasso, retribution that is emblematic of the crime: the sower of discord is severed in the body. Bertran de Born, worst of them all, carries his severed head in his hand, like a lantern.

Advertisers know that “sex sells.” Enmity also sells. Newspapers at their best have had but an uneasy relationship to truth, but now that they must compete against social media and the internet, all bets are off, and so likewise for those newer engines, too. Enmity sells. Enmity, not amity, commands attention. Hatred is immediately interesting. Placid forbearance is not. Rash judgment is quick and flagrant. Patient sifting is slow and pallid.

Grant that it is wicked to sow discord. But how is it a lie?

Here we need to consider what the Apostle James sees as the most destructive of our organs, the tongue, and its manifold capacity for calumny. Let me give an example from something I witnessed some years ago at Providence College.

The college had recently fired its basketball coach and hired a very good man in his place. The previous coach had recruited some players who were, as they say, problematic. One night after the season had just concluded, two of the players got themselves quite drunk, and they decided they would clobber the next person they met on the street. They did just that. A very well-liked resident advisor, a senior at the college who was a foot shorter than they were, was minding his own business, walking the other way, when they jumped him, beat him to a pulp, and left him lying on the sidewalk, unconscious and bleeding from the head. The players were summarily expelled, and the coach’s days were over.

Upon hearing of the new hire, one of my colleagues, a staunch liberal, said on an email train that maybe now we would not be recruiting “thugs.” That set off a firestorm, because “thug,” which comes from the Hindu language and described those highway robbers and murderers in the Punjab who offered their crimes as homage to the goddess Kali, is supposed to be a racist term. The perpetrators of the crime—the worst, by far, that I had ever heard of at the college—were black, and the victim was, if I remember correctly, either Armenian or Georgian. The professor eventually apologized, and others on the list thanked his accuser for raising their awareness.

The sower of discord in this case did not care overmuch about the truth of what the professor said. She did not acknowledge that the students who committed the crime had indeed behaved as thugs. But she went out of her way to calumniate him, by casting his words in the worst possible light. For that, too, is a way to sin against the eighth commandment, and it is born from the impulse to detract. The net effect was by no means an advance in amity. It was instead a warning: if you say something that such a person finds objectionable, or if you say something in a manner that is not approved—and there is often no telling beforehand whether the matter or the manner will fall afoul of the judges—you will be subjected to the same treatment. You will be an object of calumny. The result is that people either do not say what they see as the truth, or they hasten to see and say what the calumniator says.

The problem is not one of race or class, or of political or ecclesiastical party. It is a human problem. But everything in our current way of speaking to one another, or about social or religious controversies, is like gasoline to the fire. What we need is an unflinching and, if I may be allowed the paradox, a dispassionately passionate commitment to truth, truth without compromise to falsehood, along with boundless charity for persons. For poor, short-sighted, muddled, soft-headed, hard-hearted, and selfish human beings such as we are hasty to judge our neighbors and sluggish to condemn ourselves.


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