The Truth About Human Nature: We Aren’t So Truthful
After watching the recent cinematic version of Gulliver’s Travels with my thirteen-year-old son, I asked him what he thought the moral of the story was. He replied, “Don’t lie.” That’s not a bad answer: both the original book and the new adaptation, starring Jack Black as a modern-day Gulliver, have at their core the issues of truth-telling and lying, authenticity and hypocrisy, and illusion and reality. But while the new film shows Gulliver on a clear journey from self-deception to straightforwardly depicted authenticity, in his original version, Jonathan Swift presents a much more complex understanding of how lying and honesty fit into human nature.
There is a long heritage to the idea that literature is not only an image but a lie. The ancient Greek poet Hesiod tells us that it is the special gift of the muses to “speak many false things as though they were true.” Plato famously banishes the poets from his ideal city, considering it anathema to true philosophy. Modern philosophy and science have advanced a notion of truth as pure and simple factuality that is opposed to the rich contextuality and ambiguity found in literature. Thomas Hobbes condemns metaphor as illusion, arguing that true statements are constructed of exact definitions and “perspicuous words.” John Locke attacks “all the artificial and figurative application of Words [that] Eloquence hath invented.” The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham claims that “between poetry and truth there is a natural opposition.”
The truth about truth is rather more complicated. Plato’s claim that “there is an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” for example, is belied by his use of the literary form of the dialogue, which attests to the more common recognition by the ancients of the power of literature — through images and indeed through lies — to lead us to the truth. Swift would surely not have disagreed that literature holds the power to deceive viciously. Yet he was on to a much more subtle understanding of how we can best find and communicate the truth — an issue whose difficulty is pointed to not only by the subject matter of his satirical masterpiece Gulliver’s Travels (1726) but by its very form as a satire. Satire purports to tear off the falsehoods that paper over our awareness; so why does it take the form of fiction — a lie?