Reading Montaigne 1.09: Of liars

A fascinating essay in which Montaigne approaches lying from two different angles: pragmatically, as a function of memory, and philosophically, as a matter of vice.

Given my obsession with my own memory, Montaigne’s professed lack of memory is comforting… if Montaigne could manage the life he lived while professing to have a memory so poor that he does not “think there is another one in the world so monstrously deficient,” then why should I worry? Indeed, Montaigne believes that “excellent memories are prone to feeble judgments,” and that his lack of memory is an “evil” that has nonetheless saved him from the “worse evil” of ambition and protected him from a lot of hurt because he remembers injuries and slights less than most others.

Lying is itself intertwined with memory because, as Montaigne observes, “anyone who does not feel sufficiently strong in memory should not meddle with lying,” because they will have a hard time remembering their lies and keeping their stories straight. Montaigne notes that this is a problem with any kind of lie. If the lie is based on the truth, the memory of the true facts will constantly come to mind, causing confusion. If the lie is one of wholesale fabrication, then the complexity of what is to be remembered in order to maintain the fiction will place that much more demand on one’s memory.

This is all just as well because Montaigne himself finds lying “an accursed vice” that he himself finds impossible to engage in. We are men, and hold together, only by our word,” he writes, “I’m not sure I could bring myself to ward off even an evident and extreme danger by a shameless and solemn lie.”

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