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Pinnochio, Aquinas and the virtue of the truth

· ​Ethics and practice ·

Each time Pinocchio told a lie, his nose grew long. So we have all come to believe, from the popular films and stories which have grown out of Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio. The original story is more complex. It is when he is under interrogation by a fairy, that Pinocchio tells his first real lie. This is the occasion for the growth of Pinocchio’s already large nose. Every time he tells a lie about the four gold coins hidden in his pocket his nose grows, and the fairy laughs at him. Poor Pinocchio ends up in tears, confused and ashamed — and the fairy has pity on him, and rectifies the nose. When Pinocchio asks the fairy how she knew he was lying, she replies: “Lies, my dear boy, are found out immediately, because they are of two sorts. There are lies that have short legs, and lies that have long noses. Your lie, as it happens, is one of those that have a long nose.” Collodi is doing an interesting teaching job here - lies are bad because they are bad for the person telling the lie. Lies that have short legs cannot outrun the truth, the truth will always catch up; lies that have long noses make the liar look ridiculous. Lies are harmful to the teller of the lie.

Pinocchio in an illustration by Enrico Mazzanti (Florence, 1883)

To lie is a vice, as it damages the person telling the lie. In like fashion, to tell the truth is a virtue, because it is good for the person telling the truth. This gives us our connection to the work of Thomas Aquinas, the Dominican theologian. His words acquire particular relevance today in a world of increasing fake news in politics, information and commercial publicity. In a world of post truth Aquinas argues for the intrinsic value of the activity of truth-telling, both for the individual actor and for the flourishing of society. He first establishes that truth-telling is a virtuous act because it is good – virtue being ‘that which makes its possessor good, and renders their action good.’ To say that truth telling is a virtue is to say that by the act of telling the truth I, the truth teller, am rendered ‘good’, and likewise my action.

The virtue of truth-telling is perfective of the person telling the truth, and it also has political implications. According to Aquinas, truth-telling is ‘connected’ to justice as a kind of satellite virtue, a necessary supplementary virtue within the broad realm of acting justly. In other words when one considers truth-telling, one is immersed in the activity of justice; hence its value and relevance in our life, since the virtue of justice, of human justice, is pivotal to societal and political flourishing. Justice is concerned with the establishment of right relations between people. It demands that I give the other what is their due. Similarly with truth-telling – I give the other what is their due, we owe it to one another that we be truth-telling, for the good of society, for political good. It is a matter of justice that we be truthful to one another. In short, truth-telling is a supplementary virtue to justice. We owe it to one another: it is a matter of justice that we tell the truth, so that we can trust one another. This is essential for the preservation of human society. ‘Since the human is a social animal’, wrote Aquinas, ‘one human naturally owes another whatever is necessary for the preservation of human society. Now it would be impossible for people to live together, unless they believed one another, as declaring the truth one to another. Hence the virtue of truth does, in a manner, regard something as being due.’

Mutual truthfulness is indeed a question of justice. There is, however, an important distinction to be made here, as Aquinas points out. The virtue of truth-telling differs from the virtue of justice in that it dispatches not a legal debt, but a debt of what he terms honestas. This concept of honestas is complex. The term doesn’t easily render itself in a single English word. A good translation might be “proper respect”, where “proper” refers to honesty, and “respect” to honour. Honestas, one might say, is about being honourable in relationship. It is a matter of acting towards others with proper integrity. ‘It is ex honestate, out of integrity that one should be truth-telling’.

Leaving further theorizing aside, a central activity of the virtue of truth-telling is the truthful manifestation of oneself in society. This is effected by both words and deeds. It is why one of the first things most parents teach their children is to tell the truth. They would like their children to grow into truthful people, in word and in deed, and thus make a positive contribution to the world we live in. As the child grows, and learns more about communication, they realise that things are a little more complex than their parents seem to have told them, and that while their parents expect them to always tell the truth to them, their mother and father don’t always tell them the whole truth, for a myriad of reasons. Sometimes it may be inappropriate to do so, and sometimes it may be better to wait until a child is older, before one shares the whole truth. An example might be in the case of a family suicide. Here there may be a case for compassionate truth-telling. On another front there is the strategic need for courageous decisions to speak truth. Here Malala Yousafzai comes to mind and her decision to speak the truth in regard to women’s education in Pakistan.

Guercino, “St Thomas Surrounded by Angels” (detail, 1662)

How should we behave then? Immanuel Kant believed it was always necessary to tell the truth even to the point of refuting the idea that one might tell a falsehood to protect another. Writing in the midst of the Second World War Dietrich Bonhoeffer disagrees strongly. In his Ethics he writes: ‘From the principle of truthfulness Kant draws the grotesque conclusion that I must even return an honest ‘yes’ to the enquiry of the murderer who breaks into my house and asks whether my friend whom he is pursuing has taken refuge there.’ Bonhoeffer deems this to be an act of ‘self-righteousness of conscience’. On this occasion for Bonhoeffer it is virtuous not to disclose the full truth.

At exactly this point prudence comes into play. The virtue of truth-telling is complex and dependent on the exercise of good decision making in numberless everyday circumstances. It is not of course to countenance telling lies. As the Pinocchio story illustrates lying is a vice. On the other hand, though, Bonhoeffer’s arguments emphasise that good human decision-making must always be the context within which the virtue of truth-telling is practiced for the good of the self, of the people in our care and of the community. Without the virtue of prudence, which enables us to make good choices, there is no justice, no fortitude, no temperance. For Aquinas the lynchpin of virtuous living is always the exercise of good decision making, the virtue of prudentia which regulates them all. This is no less so when it comes to truth-telling. To tell the truth is a good thing – yet not all truth-telling is good. And of course, it must be remembered, as Terry Eageton reminds us, that for Aquinas, as for all believers ,‘all virtues have their source in love (caritas). Love is the ultimate form of soberly disenchanted realism, which is why it is the twin of truth’.

Fáinche Ryan
Director of the Loyola Institute, Trinity College, Dublin

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