Homo Mendax — O What Tangled Webs We Weave

The British imperial poet Rudyard Kipling once stated that the first man to speak must have been a liar. The “speech-thinker” Rosenstock-Huessy took Kipling to task for that remark, pointing out that were it true, the species could hardly have survived.

Nonetheless, it is difficult not to agree with Kipling to some extent that man is the lying animal — homo mendax — when one listens to the current rhetoric of the politicians, admen, businessmen, propagandists and public relations experts, priests, lovers, etc. Perhaps in some ironic way, it is true that deception and self-deception are at least a large part of the recipe that makes for the meaning of “human”. Or, perhaps it is true of only a particular age or stage in the life-span of a culture and civilisation — its decadence and decline.

Nietzsche’s “clever animal” seems to have expended most of its spiritual energy and creativity in inventing and discovering new ways and forms of lying. The different forms of deceit and lying are common, while the forms of truth-speaking are rare.  Truth is valued amongst some, perhaps, precisely because it is rare. “Why cast your pearls before swine?”

Consider how many forms of lying there are compared to truth-speaking — prevarication, mendacity, lip-service, hypocrisy, duplicity, dishonesty, insincerity, disingenuousness, pretense, half-truth, artifice, double-talk, fraud, delusion, misleading, red herring, the con, and on and on — and it becomes pretty apparent that the “clever animal” and tool-maker by and large has been more actively engaged in inventing, devising, and perfecting the various arts and tools of deception than in inventing new ways of truth telling. Homo mendax — the weaver of tangled webs.  The lies and deceptions of former generations then are visited down to each succeeding generation in a labyrinthine tangle of truth-decay.

Such, it seems to me, is our current situation in “Late Modernity”.  Even our accepted definitions of “man” are little more than lies full of conceit, vanity, and self-flattery — homo sapiens, homo faber, homo oeconomicus, homo ludens, the “rational animal”, and so on. The only one that actually seems to be closer to the case is homo grammaticus — the grammatical or speaking animal, for even the liar and prevaricator must be true to grammar in order to weave and articulate his deceptions, even if he has eschewed all truth, logic, and reason in pursuit of his aims.  Nietzsche, of course, attempted to puncture the inflated self-aggrandising self-definition of human by his counter-definition — “man is the sick animal” (but which was just his way of re-valuing and re-stating, on a new basis — “the sinful animal”).

There are little fibs that don’t matter and big lies that do matter. Big lies are those that obstruct insight and clarity, confound reason and obscure our perception — the ones that result, eventually (and as is the case today), in mass confusion, disorientation, perplexity, and loss of sober-minded clarity.

Homo mendax — “man is the lying animal”. Yet despite that something else seems to keep us on course despite ourselves and our egotism, our vanities, deceptions and self-deceptions, our idolatries and our seemingly incorrigible narcissism — the all-too unflattering truths of the “all-too human” condition.



7 responses to “Homo Mendax — O What Tangled Webs We Weave”

  1. Abdulmonem says :

    It seems that the creator of humanity knows that most of humanity do abhor truth, however despite that he perseveres with humanity in order to show them the impact of the ugly web they are weaving. Your post is a sign in that direction. I am in California now and seeing how deep the homo-economicus have fallen in the abyss of worshipping what he created and forgetting what god has created, forgetting the principle of gift on which the universe is established. the clean air is free ,tasty water is free ,trees are free the beauty of everything is free, my faculties are free . knowledge is free and do not let those who sell knowledge deceive you. All of Ibn Arabi books show you how to activate the divine knowledge. It seems that history proves that material civilization run contrary to self realization and recall the cry of Geathe what is the use of these buildings and streets when restlessness live deep in me.

    • Scott Preston says :

      You’re in California! That’s very surprising. Explains why I had to approve your comment, and why I no longer saw UAE as your comments’ country of origin. Have you moved to California permanently or just visiting?

  2. Abdulmonem says :

    Like Kipling are many. like Huessey are few. Gold is rare. God is after the human gold, no wonder the Koran says Abrahim is a nation by himself.

  3. LittleBigMan says :

    A wonderful essay. I think the first lie we make up is probably not a lie we speak, but it’s a lie that we think. I think that “our vanities, deceptions and self-deceptions” are the center of this lie making factory. So, it seems to me that speaking to another person, or interaction with another person, is not a necessary condition for one to be a liar.

    Making use of Eckhart Tolle’s distinction between “the conditioned” acts and acts based on “awareness,” our first lie is the thought that the conditioned “I” thinks and tells to the physical self. I suppose we call that “growing up.” Everyone I know is, to some level, lying to themselves first and foremost. Our physical reality is based on a camouflage and a lie, anyway.

    Robert Monroe, however, mentioned that while gaining awareness in his “Second Body,” everything became transparent and there was no hiding of thoughts and emotions for himself or those whom he met in that plane of existence.

    • Scott Preston says :

      It is the unconscious lies we tell ourselves and others that are the real falsehoods — the systemic and systematic lies that weave “a tangled web” of social relationships and destructive self-contradictions. The conscious ones — the tactical and strategic fibs we tell others — are quite serviceable and even commendable at times. There are harmful lies and harmless ones. I sometimes find myself, too, in a situation where I tell a fib in order to preserve my privacy and seclusion from being invaded and violated by unwelcome intruders. I am by inclination a solitary and a loner, and it is increasingly difficult, I find, to preserve such autonomy in today’s “plugged in” society. What is disappearing fast is the sacred space of sanctuary (and I’ll be writing about that shortly after reading an article today about new technology), and it is that space of sanctuary or refuge where you are truly you and individual.

      (Rosenstock-Huessy, once pondering what has happened to this space of sanctuary in modern society, concluded that it is now found only in the short commute — in the private automobile — between home and office. It is only in this “spacetime” between family man/woman and worker that one is truly with oneself, and not in a role. I’m assuming one commutes without the radio on).

      I read recently where a few Canadians resolved to tell only the truth, as an experiment. It was a disaster. Marriages and friendships broke down, hostilities broke out, life became very complex. There is a difference, though, between being merely blunt and speaking truth.

      In Castaneda, for example, don Juan advises Castaneda to, first, leave everyone who knows him well, and second, to cast a veil of secrecy over his life and activities — to lie about it, in other words. In one of the more humourous dialogues between Castaneda and don Juan, Castaneda objected that he couldn’t just lie like that. Don Juan responded that he, Castaneda, like everyone else lied all the time anyway, only now he had a purpose for lying, and it was a shield to protect his core from invasion and intrusion by others. In any case, there is a point of ultimate paradox where lie and truth are the same, and is implied in Seth’s repeated insistence that “you create the reality you know”. That point of “Ultimate Truth” is what gave the Buddha difficulties, when he almost abandoned any hope of teaching the dharma. What is, is also not. The point at which truth and lie are the same is what gives rise to “Olympian laughter”. It’s the dance of Shiva. My favourite Zen haiku poem,

      “Ten years in the forest dreaming.
      Now by the lakeshore
      Laughing a new laugh”.

      It is the Sufi master al-Halaj running through the streets laughing and shouting “I am Truth!”, and still laughing and dancing even when they dragged him away to his torture and execution for being a blasphemer. At the root of this is an unfathomably profound and inexplicable paradox about the nature of the real.

      • Scott Preston says :

        Another example just occurred to me. You’ve probably heard the expression “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak, do not know”. It’s a true statement, but simultaneously false. Those who knew could not contain themselves, and as such we have a wisdom tradition. We have the words of the Buddha. The very one who uttered those words “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know” must have been aware he was involving himself in a lie too? Speaking the truth while lying at the same time.

        It’s of the nature of those labyrinthine problems of reason and riddles of logic that so perplex the logician and philosopher: “Man is the lying animal”. Er, isn’t that statement itself necessarily a lie, too?

        • LittleBigMan says :

          “The conscious ones — the tactical and strategic fibs we tell others — are quite serviceable and even commendable at times.”

          Yes, very true. Especially those lies that save lives.

          I remember the advice to Castaneda from don Juan, too, at the same time, don Juan was recruiting Castaneda to join their group of 16 which later vanished as points of light as Castaneda was able to “see.” Castaneda, of course, did not join them in the journey that Nagual don Juan and his group took to other planes of existence.

          I miss reading all of Castaneda’s books, again.

          As for myself, I can’t say that I like to be left alone or that I’m extroverted. But I do know – in looking back – that throughout my life I have always enjoyed what I call ‘purposeful associations.’ As a kid, it was great to build a sand castle with a friend at the beach, or help a friend of my brother to build his flying model airplane. As a grown up, it was nice to help a team of fellow students build a concrete canoe, or work with others on literary projects, etc. I gain energy from these sorts of purposeful associations.

          After reading your posts above, it was great to see that my thoughts are on the right track. 🙂

          By the way, as I was completing various chores around my apartment today, I was listening and watching the first episode of Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Eckhart Tolle.

          The entire program was quite illuminating and enlightening. If anyone is interested but does not have the time to watch the entire program, I recommend the piece from 47:44 – 50:36. And also, the piece from 52:09 – 53:05.

          Here’s an excerpt from the segment from 52:09 – 53:05

          “The road to hell is paved with good intentions because no matter how good your intentions, as long as you are trapped in the ego, you’re always taken into conflict.” – Eckhart Tolle.

          ““Man is the lying animal”. Er, isn’t that statement itself necessarily a lie, too?”

          As you point out, the statement is at war with itself. 🙂

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