Twain on Lying (from “History As It Might Have Been”)

After the lecture Mr. Twain said he would entertain a few questions from the audience. A young man toward the back of the theater stood and said, “Mr. Twain, you have made a good living from telling tall tales. That is, you have been paid to be liar.”

“Well, just a minute, son. I have made a living by being an entertaining provocateur, this is true. But I have not been paid to be a liar. I have been paid to be entertaining. I reject the label of ‘liar’ by virtue of the fact that I have let the audience in on the game. But what was your question?”

“When it is acceptable to lie then? Is it morally acceptable to lie if it is entertaining? Can I tell my parents a lie as long as we laugh? What about the Bible calling the Devil the ‘father of lies’? What if–

“Hold up there!” said Mr. Twain, raising his hand. “You’re piling too much wood on the small flame of my intellect. Let me get a little oxygen, and I will try to bring some light to the issue.” He then took a cigar from a breast pocket and his pen knife from another and furrowed his brow has he nipped the end to prepare it for smoking. Looking up he said, “When a man considers the consequence of a lie, that is, when he weighs the risk of being caught at it against the possibility of gain, he has stepped away from being honest. And if he continues in this vein he has moved on; he is a mathematician, a calculator, a planner. And if he likes his conclusion he has become a liar.”

The young man, still standing, asked, “How can he be a liar if chooses not to tell the lie? And how can he decide whether to tell the lie or not? What’s the calculus?”

Mr. Twain pulled a match from his vest and spent some moments lighting his cigar. When it was lit to his satisfaction, he said, “A man may sit down at a poker table and pick up the cards dealt him and looking at them decide to fold and walk away. But he can’t tell anyone he never gambled. He became a gambler when he sat down at that table. A liar becomes a liar when he begins to calculate using an untruth to his advantage even if he leaves his cards on the table.”

“Well, am I a liar then for asking these questions?” asked the young man, with some heat.

“Well, son, you know your own heart better than I do,” he answered. “But I would caution members of the audience against loaning you money.”

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