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  • Truth and Lies in a Chestertonian Sense:Father Brown and the Fault of the Depraved Saint
  • Joshua Hren (bio)


In his essay, "Everybody's Protest Novel,"1 James Baldwin argues that "society is held together by our need; we bind it together with legend, myth, coercion, fearing that without it we will be hurled into that void, within which, like the earth before the Word was spoken, the foundations of society are hidden."2 When the myths and legends become cages, Baldwin continues, we can turn from them to the void if we dare, and from there new art can relieve us of the adroit lies that saturate social life.

Political order is similarly cemented by myth in Plato's Republic. Socrates declares, "We want one single, grand lie which will be believed by everybody—including the rulers, ideally, but failing that the rest of the city."3 The lie Socrates tells is actually a story whose logic solidifies certain men in inferior or superior positions. The people are to be told that "the rearing and education we gave them were like dreams," that in fact all those who inhabit the city are brothers. But brotherhood does not translate into egalitarianism. The god who made them mixed gold in some, silver in others, and iron and bronze in the remainder. Thus were born the castes [End Page 151] of the city.4 Stanley Rosen remarks that for Plato the founders and preservers of a political order must be "very seriously concerned with art" in that it is "more effective than philosophy in persuading us to behave in a particular way."5 Rosen argues that this is a "straightforward statement of the need for lying and what is today called 'brainwashing,'"6 which is "Plato's conception of the price to be paid for the establishment of the just city." The philosopher feels the desire to rule the entire city, with no restrictions placed upon superior knowledge and judgment. Rosen contends that those who are not tempted by this desire are not genuine philosophers, but neither are those who embrace the desire.

In Hermeneutics as Politics, Rosen studies Immanuel Kant's contingent admission that esotericism—"accommodation of the truth to political expediency [such as] in the noble lie"—has civilized and moralized us while contending that there is nothing more evil than using deception, "the rank growth of the weeds of a decent appearance," to preserve a good thing.7 At the same time, Kant argues, it is prudent to display a veneer of certainty over proofs if this is done not out of vanity but from a "desire to protect the common people from politically dangerous subtleties of reason."8 We are then put up against the wall and asked to answer a question: is prudent omission or obfuscation of facts really different from lying, or is the perpetration of prudence as a political virtue merely another means of casting a veil over noble lies?

In his examination of prudence as it plays out in Melville's "Billy Budd, Sailor," Dan Sabia notes that "political prudence names both a kind of virtue, or excellence, and a kind of faculty, of judgment."9 Traditionally the prudent few are contrasted with the many as they possess philosophical knowledge and are keen observers of the human condition, with much experience and thus considerable worldly knowledge that makes them good at "fashioning and evaluating moral and political principles and ends, as well as particular laws and institutions, policies and actions."10 Prudent policies are practical enough to work yet are "morally or ethically the best they [End Page 152] can be, given the typically constraining, complex, and contingent circumstances in and under which political decisions have to be made."11 Good fiction can help us probe complex and contingent circumstances in order to question the difference between prudence and noble lies in concrete dilemmas. In "Truth and Politics," Hannah Arendt argues that "the political function of the storyteller is to teach acceptance of things as they are," as this acceptance gives rise to the faculty of judgment.12


In G. K. Chesterton's story "The Sign of the Broken Sword," the detective...


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pp. 151-163
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