Lies, Damned Lies, and a Spirit of Confusion

Today we see linguistic and moral confusion in almost everything said about the subjects that have us most perplexed: man and woman, marriage and children.

“He is a liar and the father of lies,” said Jesus of Satan (John 8:44). They who are committed to holiness must be committed to clarity of intention and speech: “Let your speech be yea, yea: no, no: and that which is over and above these, is of evil” (Matthew 5:37).

The lie is the distinguishing feature of evil, because of its self-devouring commitment to what is not: it is an inner vacuity. Shakespeare’s villain Parolles identifies himself as a “corrupter of words,” and the sardonic Porter in Macbeth remarks wryly upon the liar who equivocates his way down the primrose path to perdition. Orwell’s dystopian regime in 1984 rests upon a ground floor of terror and violence, but its bedrock foundation is the lie: witness the hero Winston Smith’s work at the “Ministry of Truth,” sending precious archival materials down the “memory hole,” where they will be lost forever. It is why Dante situates fraud below violence in the Inferno’s decrepit descent into non-being and idiocy; so we find the giant Nimrod, builder of the heaven-aspiring Tower of Babel, sputtering gibberish, and the consummate liar Satan uttering not a single word, but telling the same old lie again and again with every flap of his bat-like wings, “I rise by my own power.”

The result is, literally, confusion—pouring together, a disorderly mélange, a chaos. I believe, in our day, that we see this linguistic and moral confusion in almost everything that is uttered about the subjects that have us most perplexed: man and woman; marriage and children.

Examples abound.  A recent paper in a journal of medical ethics has recommended “after-birth abortion” as a morally sound measure for those parents to take who, once they see their child, determine that they would have killed it in the womb if they had known about its specifics beforehand. I note here that “abortion” itself was already a linguistic dodge, as its early meaning, the morally neutral “miscarriage,” was applied to soften the perception of an intentional killing. Nobody could sensibly say, “I am going to the doctor’s to miscarry,” because the absurdity of the infinitive would be immediately apparent; that is what made the more technical noun handy.

But now our moral pathfinders wish to extend the utility of the initial lie. Of course they must, for the sake of feeling, limit themselves to the vicinity of birth. No one can sensibly say of her two-year-old son, “Johnny is proving altogether too much for me to handle. I’m going to take him down to the doctor’s to have him aborted, poor guy.” So it will have to be near enough to the birth for the pretense to take hold.  It is as if one were to fly to Paris, land on the tarmac, have a look about, and say, “I think after all that we shall abort our flight to Paris,” as if one had not already arrived there. What would then imply a completed trip to Paris? Wine and cheese on the Champs-Elysees? What would imply a fils accompli? A highchair and jars of stewed apricots?

We may find the same embrace of confusion in the odd alliance between feminism and the homosexual movement. Each of those terms in itself embodies a confusion or a contradiction. Feminism should mean the promotion of what is peculiar to women as women: what is feminine. But that is precisely what it does not mean, or at least what it does not mean on odd-numbered days. On odd-numbered days, the feminist argues vociferously that there are no important differences between a male homo sapiens and a female homo sapiens. There are all kinds of important differences between a male equus equus and a female equus equus, or between a bull and a cow, or a stag and a doe, or a silverback orangutan and his consort, but when we come to the most complex of all the mammals, whose marks of sexual differentiation are more pronounced than those of horses, cows, deer, apes, dogs, cats, and what have you—well then, presto, they suddenly disappear. On the odd-numbered days, that is; for on the even-numbered days, we learn that women are superior to men. If there are no important differences, then, as far as the common good is concerned, it should not matter much if all of a nation’s congressmen are in fact men, or women, or half and half, or whatever. Then, since the feminist does cheer the advance of (some) female leaders, she must acknowledge the fact of difference; but if men and women are indeed different, we should expect to find talents and dispositions for various things unequally divided among them. Thus does the feminist saw off the limb upon which she is sitting.

A similar contradiction bedevils us when we use the rather recently coined term “homosexual.” Sex implies difference-in-relationship. The sexes are, literally, distinguished and separated one from another. That is what the Latin sexus means: it is related to a host of Indo-European words having to do with separation, division, or distinction: cf. Latin scindere, Greek schism, German verschieden, English shed. But the separation-from, in this unique case, implies a being-for. To be male is to be oriented toward the female; that is what it means to belong to a sex. If we could imagine a group of human beings endowed with an organ not present in others, say a sixth finger, that would not constitute a sex, because there would be nothing intrinsically male or female about it. There is nothing that six-fingered people and five-fingered people need to complete in one another. 

Now then, the “homosexual” at once claims to belong to a sex, and not to belong to a sex. He says, “I am a man,” but he denies the implications of the manhood. If he makes common cause with the feminists and insists that there are no crucial differences between men and women, we may reasonably ask him, “What then attracts you so?” Unless he confesses a puerile fetish for the male organ, he must admit an attraction to the whole constitution of a man—not simply the form of the body, but the masculine nature itself. But that masculine nature is, by obvious biological design, oriented toward the female.

The result is confusion. We can observe the confusion, indeed, in the gallimaufry of invented terms for every sexual proclivity under the rocks and bushes of human desire. Take the term “transgendered.” What does it mean? Again, if there are no important differences between a man and a woman, why not simply and charitably make everyone’s life easier and bow to custom? After all, one does not build a bridge from one end of a flatland to another. If “gender” is arbitrary or nugatory, why the “trans”? What’s to cross? But to bless the confusion we must nod when people say, “I am a woman in the body of a man who is attracted to men who are attracted to women,” or, “I am a man with a surgically altered female body from the waist up, in love with a male who is really a woman attracted to masculine women.” There are not sufficient letters in the alphabet to identify the endlessly dividing categories of self-deception.

Or consider the matter of marriage and divorce. To this day, almost all marriage ceremonies include vows of perpetual fidelity, “as long as we both shall live.” The ring itself is a symbol of endlessness and of an indissoluble bond. It signifies, in Spenser’s words, “the knot that ever shall remain.” Now, people either intend that vow, or they do not. If they do intend the vow, why do they commit Ehebruch, to use the telling German word for adultery, vow-break? Why do they break the vow even more radically by divorce? If they do not intend the vow, or if they place unspoken conditions upon it, they are lying, and at what may be the most solemn occasion of their lives. Most of us will never be soldiers on a battlefield, or captains of a ship; or priests called to defend the faith with their very lives. The one time we will be called upon to give ourselves without reserve is when we utter the marriage vow. To tell a lie at that time would be as if a president of the United States, his hand on the Bible, were to swear to defend the Constitution against all enemies, while harboring a secret intention to become one of those enemies if the right occasion presented itself; or as if a witness in court were to swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, while harboring a reservation, “Depending upon what the lawyer asks me.” This vow-that-is-not thus strikes at the heart of every human enterprise. It uses the law to undermine the law, or uses the state to undermine the state; or employs the trappings of marriage to undermine the very possibility of marriage.

Lies, lies. Planned Parenthood does not plan parenthood. Its business is to take women who are already mothers and make away with their unborn children. Birth control is not birth control. It is either conception-prevention, or, in the case of incipient human offspring already conceived, birth-prevention. Sex education is not education in the meaning of sex. It masquerades as how-to instruction in hygiene, as if the only concern of a boy or a girl were to keep the works clean while enjoying, when the “right time” comes, sexual expression. Even at that, the rising sewer of diseases is hardly mentioned, and least of all those odd and dangerous diseases, other than AIDS, that result from the unnatural things that some men do with other men. “You really shouldn’t live in the sewer,” says the teacher, “but everybody does, so make sure you wear a pair of galoshes, and watch out for the rats.”

But the sexual lie whence all these others spring is common now and unregarded. It is the lie that says, with the body, “All that I am is yours,” while insisting, by virtue of not yet having made the solemn vow of marriage, “I am for now still my own.” It is “unrealistic,” we are told, to tell young people that they should embrace the virtue of chastity. One might as well say that it is unrealistic to tell them that they should embrace the virtue of truth. No one is without sin, nor will we ever find heaven upon earth. But it is one thing to fall, and another thing to insist upon calling the fall an ascent. It is one thing to deceive oneself and to believe in a “marriage” without the vow of marriage. It is another thing to enshrine the deceit. It is one thing to tell a lie; it is another thing to adore the lie. That is the constant and dire temptation that all human societies must face. Some face it on account of their desire for glory; others on account of their avarice; we face it on account of our hedonism. We are not fighting in a different war from that wherein other societies have fought. We are only fighting in a rather more contemptible field.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Anthony Esolen 20 Articles
Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He also translated Dante's Divine Comedy for Modern Library Classics. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire.