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.