Chapter XV Spoken Truth

We have not yet come to 'telling the truth,' because no one can tell the Truth who does not see it and know it in his heart, and who does not believe, with Sir Roger de Coverley, that "there is a great deal to be said on both sides" of most questions.

Veracity.––First among the handmaidens of Truth, that is, spoken Truth, is Veracity––the habit of letting our words express the exact fact so far as we know it. Having spoken what we believe to be the fact, let us avoid qualifications. Do not let us say, 'At least I think so,' 'At least I believe so,' 'Perhaps it was not so,' 'All the girls were there, at least some of them,' 'We walked ten miles, at any rate six'; such qualifications imply a want of Veracity; we are self-convicted of a loose statement, and try to set ourselves right with our conscience by an excess of scrupulousness which has the effect of making our hearers doubt the Truth of what we have spoken. But what are we to do, when, having said a thing, we begin to doubt if it is true? Words once spoken must be let alone: it is useless to unsay or qualify, explain or alter, or to appeal for confirmation or denial to another person. When we think how final words are, we shall be careful not to rush into statements without knowledge; we shall not come in with the cry, 'Mother! mother! there are a thousand cats in the garden.' 'Are there, George? Have you counted them?' 'Well, anyway, there's our cat and another!' We must be sure of our facts before we speak, and avoid speaking about matters concerning which we have only the vaguest knowledge. People are too apt to assume in conversation an intimate knowledge of matters of literature and art, for example, that they know very little about.

Scrupulosity is not Veracity.––At the same time it is well to remember that Scrupulosity is not Veracity, and that to put an end to talk by tiresome scrupulousness is not the behaviour of a truthful person. One can avoid a false assumption of knowledge without saying, 'I do not know'; a remark inconvenient to the other person.

Another kind of Scrupulosity is very tiresome in talk. Somebody says, 'l saw seven men in the lane,' and the scrupulous person corrects him with, 'Excuse me, I think it was six men and a youth.' 'I met Mr. Jones on Tuesday,' and the correction is, 'I think, if you recollect, it was on Wednesday.' 'It has been fine all the week': correction, 'No, I think not; there was a shower on Thursday'; and so on, to distraction; for there are few habits which more successfully put an end to conversation than the distinctly priggish one of looking after the Veracity of other people in matters of not the smallest moment. Common politeness requires us to assume the good faith of the speaker; and, that being assumed, it is not of the least consequence whether there were ten or twelve people in the hayfield, whether a flock of sheep, passed on the road, numbered eighty or a hundred. Veracity requires us to speak the fact so far as we know it, to take pains not to talk about what we do not know; but it by no means requires us to keep watch over the conversation of others and correct their information by means of our own, probably even less accurate.

Exaggeration.––Another more or less casual departure from Veracity comes of the habit of Exaggeration. We have 'a thousand things to do': perhaps we have four; 'everyone says so,' which means that our friends Mrs. Simpson and Mary Carter have said so, or perhaps only Mrs. Simpson. Few heads of a household do not know the tiresome tyranny of––'We always do so-and-so': probably we have done it once. In the case of sickness, war, calamity, people are eager to make the most and the worst of what has happened, and the headlines of the newspaper showing the biggest number of casualties are most often quoted and most readily believed, though to-morrow may show how false they are. We cannot keep a delicate sense of Truth if we let ourselves listen to and carry rumours. Let us use our Common Sense to sift what we hear, and still more what we read, and wait for facts to be ascertained before we help to spread reports. Men have been ruined, the good name of a family destroyed, through the thoughtless carrying on of an idle rumour.

Exaggeration in speech, even when it is more foolish than mischievous, is a failure in Veracity. One cannot be 'awfully sorry' not to go for a walk and 'awfully glad' to get a letter, and leave anything to say when we have lost our best friend or gained a great happiness.

The Habit of Generalising.––The habit of generalising, of stating something about a whole class of persons or things which we have noticed in only one or two cases, is one to be carefully guarded against by a person who would fain be, like our King Alfred, a truth-teller. 'All the cups are cracked,' when one is so. 'All the streets are up': perhaps two are. 'Oh, no, I can't bear Rossetti's pictures': the critic has seen but one. 'I love Schumann's songs': again, the critic has heard one. Let us stop generalisations of this kind before they escape our lips. They are not truthful, because they give the idea of a wider knowledge or experience than we possess; and, by the indulgence of this manner of loose statement, we incapacitate ourselves for the scientific habit of mind––accurate observation and exact record.

Of Making a Good Story.––Many persons are tempted to make a good story of a trifling incident. If a dog cock his tail at a whistle, they see enough fun in the situation to make you 'laugh consumedly.' All power to their elbow, as the Irishman would say. Humour, the power, of seeing and describing the ludicrous side of things, is a gift that, like mercy, blesses him that gives and him that takes. It is a dangerous gift, all the same. The temptations to Irreverence, Discourtesy, even to a touch of Malice, for the embellishment of a story, are hard to be resisted; and, if these pitfalls be escaped, the incessant making of fun, perpetration of small jokes, becomes a weariness to the flesh of those who have to listen. The jocose person has need of self-restraint, or he becomes a bore; and his embellishments must be of the sort which no one is expected to believe, like the golden leg of Miss Kilmansegg, or his Veracity is at stake and he perils Truth to win a laugh.

The Realm of Fiction––Essential and Accidental Truth.––What shall we say of fable, poetry, romance, the whole realm of fiction? There are two sorts of Truth. What we may call accidental Truth; that is, that such and such a thing came to pass in a certain place at a certain hour on a certain day; and this is the sort of Truth we have to observe in our general talk. The other, the Truth of Art, is what we may call essential Truth; that, for example, given, such and such a character, he must needs have thought and acted in such and such a way, with such and such consequences; given, a certain aspect of nature, and the poet will receive from it such and such ideas; or, certain things of common life, as a dog with a bone, for example, will present themselves to the thinker as fables, illustrating some of the happenings of life. This sort of fiction is of enormous value to us, whether we find it in poetry or romance; it teaches us morals and manners; what to do in given circumstances; what will happen if we behave in a certain way. It shows how, what seems a little venial fault is often followed by dreadful consequences, and our eyes are opened to see that it is not little or venial, but is a deep-seated fault of character; some selfishness, shallowness, or deceitfulness upon which a man or woman makes shipwreck. We cannot learn these things except through what is called fiction, or from the bitter experience of life, from the penalties of which our writers of fiction do their best to spare us.

The Value of Fiction depends on the Worth of the Writer.––But you will see at once that the value of fiction as a moral teacher depends upon the wisdom, insight, and goodness of the writer; that a shallow mind will give false and shallow teaching; and, therefore, that it is only the best fiction that is lawful reading, because in no other shall we find this sort of essential Truth.

Fiction affects our Enthusiasms.––Not only are morals and manners taught, but our enthusiasms, even our religion, are kindled by fiction, whether in prose or verse. Our Lord Himself gave some of his deepest teaching in the fabulous stories known to us as parables; and, when severely literal people (who do not realise that, as we have said, Truth is of two sorts, the merely accidental and the essential, the passing and the everlasting, the Truth for to-day and the Truth for all time), would fain throw scorn upon the Bible records by telling us that the Garden of Eden and the Serpent and the Apple, the Flood, and much besides, are mere fables or allegories, we are not staggered.

Essential Truth.––The thing that matters to us in the Bible stories is their essential Truth. All godly people have known the walls of Jericho to fall before their faith and the trumpet-blast of their prayers. They have known seas of difficulty, which threatened to overwhelm them, divide to let them go forward. They have heard the voice of the Lord in the cool of the evening speaking to quiet and obedient hearts; and they know out of the experience of their own lives that by means of song and story, psalm and prophecy, the Bible reveals the ways of God with man, and all that there is in the heart of man. These are the things that matter; so they are quite ready to wait the verdict of the critics as to whether a certain narrative records facts that took place in a given year; whether such a book was written by one man, or by two. All this is deeply interesting, but has nothing to do with the essential, permanent Truth, the revelation of the otherwise unknown about God and about man which stamps the several books of the Bible with the divine seal.