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Dark Counterpart

You might have heard the following quote by Samuel Johnson (recorded 1775):

“Courage is reckoned the greatest of all virtues; because, unless a man has that virtue, he has no security for preserving any other.”*

or Maya Angelou’s more contemporary paraphrasing:

“Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”

It’s an important and true idea: it doesn’t matter how much of a good person you are if you are too afraid of being judged, ostracised or fired to speak out when it matters. (And I here I will freely admit that I am probably too cowardly to run back into a burning building; thank god we have firefighters.)

Anyway, the interesting idea I read is that courage’s “dark counterpart” is lying: to borrow Maya Angelou’s wording, lying is the most important of the vices, because without lying you can’t practise any other vice consistently.

Like, you are not going to be able to cheat on your partner, embezzle funds from your company, or plot a successful terrorist attack if you don’t lie about it. (You might manage a one-off spur of the moment crime; hence the word ‘consistently’).

McKinley Valentine – The Whippet #133

I have a nagging feeling that Aristotle got there first, but have tried and failed to find a reference.

I think this idea touches on something important… and that it isn’t quite right.

There are a lot of vices you can practice consistently without lying. To pick a few from a list of Aristotelian vices, you can be rash, or cowardly, or self indulgent, or stingy, or profligate, or vain, or spiteful, or irascible… and not lie about it.

To pick a few others from The Seven Deadly Sins of the Catholic Church For Dummies (!!), you can be consistently proud, or envious, or lustful, or gluttonous, or slothful, without lying.

You just need to also be morally dull (so that you don’t recognise your vice as vice) or shameless (so that you don’t care what others think).

The kind of lying that we’re talking about (there are other kinds) is only necessary if the person comitting the vice or sin recognises that it’s undesirable and wants to avoid the shame that vice brings. So there’s a sense in which we lie because of a double lack of courage – the lack of courage to do what we know is right, and the lack of courage to own what we do.

Courage has been called the father of the other virtues; we could call lying the child of cowardice.


When and why do we lie to conceal virtue?

*I’m not actually sure that Johnson et al. are exactly right about this.

P.S. The Whippet is consistently good, and highly recommended.

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