July 2, 2012

"Nothing seems to me to be rarer today than genuine hypocrisy."

From a list of 35 aphorisms about lying.

But none of the aphorisms on the list is the aphorism I am looking for. You know the feeling that there is an aphorism that's already out there for something you're trying to say in aphorism form. You can say it briefly, but not in the words that must be in the aphorism.

Here's as close as I can get to saying what seems to me to be a rough paraphrase for a reasonably well-known aphorism: He who lies about small things will lie about big things. Or: Little lies foretell big lies.

What I'm looking for is the "Where there's smoke, there's fire" of lying.

There should be a word for the feeling that there is already an aphorism for the idea that you could express in your own words. That feeling inhibits the composition of one's own new aphorism. I mean, if you were trying to remember the aphorism "Where there's smoke, there's fire" and instead wrote the notion up in your own snappy words, it would never replace "Where there's smoke, there's fire." "Where there's smoke, there's fire" is so perfectly apt. Hence the inhibition.

It's a separate question whether the idea expressed in the aphorism I'm looking for is actually true. I did find this old Metafilter question, asked by a woman who worried her husband's little lies. She expressed certainty that he wasn't lying about anything big (like infidelity), but she was catching many little lies, such as the fact that he'd said he'd carry a bag lunch to work, when in fact he ate at a restaurant. She also worried about her own worrying, since her husband was "a wonderful, patient, generous guy who treats me well and loves me more than anything," and she didn't want to be like the "extremely controlling parent" he grew up with and who probably caused him to develop a habit of telling little lies.

I thought of another aphorism in the vicinity of what I'm searching for: "Don't sweat the small stuff." Do little things not matter? Or can we tell something important about a person by the way they handle the details?

"God is in the details"... right? Or is it "The Devil is in the details"? Maybe if I knew which of those 2 expressions is the right one, I'd know the answer to the question whether the idea expressed in the searched-for little-lies aphorism is true. Interestingly, both "God is in the details" and "The Devil is in the details" have their own Wikipedia page.

According to the "God" page, "God is in the details" (or "detail") seems to date back to Gustave Flaubert (written in French), and the Devil version is a variant. Satisfyingly, the "Devil" page backs up the theory that God came first.
Google's n-gram function reveals that the phrase "the devil is in the details" does not appear in print before ca. 1975.
Flaubert died in 1880, and it's quite clear that "God is in the detail" was often attributed to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who died in 1969. Perhaps it was around 1975 that we began to lose our veneration for detail, the sense that the little things mattered. Now, to fret over details is prissy and fussy. You're a stickler. A controlling parent. A person who sweats the small stuff is... sweaty.

There's this, which I quoted the other day:
Wittgenstein once said that the following bit of verse by Longfellow could serve him as a motto:
In the elder days of art
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part,
For the Gods are everywhere.
The quote is from that book "On Bullshit," which I've been reading and which actually isn't the origin of this morning's search for an aphorism. The origin of that is a discussion we had yesterday about someone — nobody you know.

IN THE COMMENTS: JackOfVA and Kit Carson come up with what I'm sure I was trying to think of:  "Falsus in unum, falsus in omnibus" ("False in one thing, false in everything").

40 comments:

Astro said...

My favorite phrase that sums up a feeling/situation not easily expressed in (English) words is this phrase, from the French: L'esprit d'escalier.
It sums up that feeling you have when you've thought of a snappy comeback too late to use it.
The sense that, you are on the stairway leaving and a witty response to something someone said earlier just then comes to you.

pagejubi said...

The beakless penguin chews no ice.

Bob Ellison said...

There should be a word for the feeling that there is already an aphorism for the idea that you could express in your own words.

I like this idea. Probably the closest word for the feeling you describe is ennui. I used to sit at the piano, trying to come up with a genuinely new chord progression or melody, and repeatedly becoming depressed when I realized that I was too dangerously close to things that had already been done.

We could name the emotion you describe after a celebrity. Maybe the Sorkin effect.

AllieOop said...

What I find strange and disturbing are people who are chronic doubters. If you say you put on pink panties that morning they would say with much conviction, "No you didn't, because I know for a fact that pink panties are no longer manufactured in America!"

Sheesh, so frustrating.

Ron said...

Mot Juste on the tip of your tongue!

John M Auston said...

This isn't what you are looking for, but it needs saying.

Never was it given to mortal man
To lie quite so boldly as woman can.

-Alexander Pope

JackOfVA said...

falsis in unum, falsis in omnibus is almost what you are looking for, but not quite.

Kit Carson said...

falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus - False in one thing, false in all

or maybe you meant...

Don't sweat petty things and don't pet sweaty things.

phx said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JHapp said...

One of the most striking differences between a cat and Obama is that a cat only has nine lives.

mun said...

In the case where it is a politician it seems enough to just see if their lips are moving.

Shanna said...

She expressed certainty that he wasn't lying about anything big (like infidelity), but she was catching many little lies, such as the fact that he'd said he'd carry a bag lunch to work, when in fact he ate at a restaurant.

If he really is lying about taking lunch/eating a restaurant (rather than just changing his mind) she should be worried. Why would someone lie about a little thing like that?

falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus - False in one thing, false in all

This.

TMink said...

Methinks she doth protest too much.

Trey

Gov98 said...

No fault to Jack and Kit, but I'm near certain that you were probable thinking of a much more well-known phrase about lying that covers exactly what you were thinking...

Luke 16:10:

Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.

MikeR said...

Aphorism in unum, aphorism in omnibus. Not that I quite got what a bus has to do with it.

traditionalguy said...

And the there is Jesus' parable of the good slave who was faithful in a few things was then put in charge of many things by his Master and told," Enter into the joy of your Master." Matthew 25:23.

paul a'barge said...

You want the numero uno of hypocrisy? OK, here it is:
"Whenever you look at Barack Obama, you're looking at the Mt Everest of hypocrisy".

edutcher said...

My own personal one is:

There's no such thing as a single character flaw; a liar is a cheat is a thief is a philanderer, etc.

ndspinelli said...

In our current culture words are used as much to deceive as they are to illuminate. Actions are the purest form of communication. Always have been, always will.

Allie, the dynamic you describe is a by-product of the pathology I just described.

amqu said...

Luke 16:10

He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.

DKWalser said...

"What I find strange and disturbing are people who are chronic doubters. If you say you put on pink panties that morning they would say with much conviction, "No you didn't, because I know for a fact that pink panties are no longer manufactured in America!"

Sheesh, so frustrating."

So says the person who refused to believe the Romney's used a "chore wheel" to divvy up household chores while on vacation.

traditionalguy said...

My lifetime observation is that lying is a skill that is necessary for three professions: The Preacher, the Lawyer and the Thief.

Those are the three interchangeable parts of the professional world. Those good at one can do the other two.

AllieOop said...

DK Walser, yes true, but I based my assertion on legitimate observations I have made for many years of living in the vicinity of monied people.

Some people simply are doubters based on an erroneous assumption they have made, based on falsehoods, or pure paranoia.

MadisonMan said...

If you observe a person closely enough, you should be able to predict their actions. But you cannot be clouded by your own prejudices as you observe, and that's the hard part.

Howard said...

Money talks bullshit walks

if something sounds too good to be true it probably is

you can't cheat an honest man

Unknown said...

A Russian aphorism: "A truth spoken becomes a lie." A fascinating thought, isn't it? That something, some filter that comes between thought and spoken word, twists the meaning either on my side or on the hearer's side so that it is no longer a truthy truth...

Synova said...

I was surprised that there wasn't some version of "all lies contain a kernel of truth" on the list. Or that the best lies or most powerful lies are 99% truth, or something like that. But I suppose they were using quotes of people that they could actually find as quotes.

I don't know if there's a known amorphism attached to the idea but I tend to believe that those who expect dishonesty are themselves dishonest. Sure, there are some people who have been burned and so expect to be burned again, and there is nothing wrong with a bit of worldly-wise caution, but I can't bring myself to trust someone who expects that the normal people around them are all thieves and liars.

William said...

JFK said that where there's smoke, there's generally a smoke making machine. But that's probably only true in Washington....I liked the quotes from Mark Twain and Samuel Johnson. When I read quotes from French philosophes I wonder who they have spent their lives amongst to develop such calculated cynicism.

AllieOop said...

Exactly Synova! To live and behave as if everything that anyone says is suspect is a sad and miserable way to live. I tend to believe a person at face value until he/ she proves they are untrustworthy.

ken in sc said...

I had a visiting psychology professor once tell our class that the purpose of language was to deceive. Before language, if someone wanted to know where there was water, you could show them or not, but you could not deceive them. I can think of cases where this is not true. However, I think his point is still valid. Language allows lying more easily.

MadisonMan said...

A lie goes around the block while the truth is still putting on pants.

Truth is, in general, boring. Lies are interesting.

Howard said...

Mad Man: contrariwise "Truth is stranger than fiction"

AllieOop: What you find sad is the reality of the soul-crushing white patriarchy. Back in the day, the first aphorism taught little white boys in 'merica is "believe nothing of what you hear and only half of what you see" The REAL Allie Oop knows this... you sound and look more like Ooola

Synova said...

"I had a visiting psychology professor once tell our class that the purpose of language was to deceive. Before language, if someone wanted to know where there was water, you could show them or not, but you could not deceive them."

Before language, how did someone *ask?*

Synova said...

In any case, I disagree with the psychology professor. The purpose of language is to communicate.

The purpose of intelligence, or sentience, is to conceive of the abstract.

To lie.

Fiction is a lie. Imagining what might happen tomorrow is a lie. It's an untruth that we create in our heads in order to anticipate or to understand or to do anything else we need to do "ahead of the data."

Without the ability to *fabricate* we'd be something other than sentient. But we could still have language, understand words, ask and be led to water.

Science fiction is fond of aliens who are appalled that humans can lie. We're told that animals can't lie, as if that's something to admire.

I don't think that the SF authors or the admirers of innocent creatures have thought it through. If we meet aliens who have enough imagination to engage in something more creative, scientifically, than happy chance, they will be able to lie.

Gabriel Hanna said...

Fiction is a lie. Imagining what might happen tomorrow is a lie.

No they are not lies. A lie is an deliberate statement, known to the speaker to be false, that intends to deceive.

There are many kinds of untruth, but without the intention to deceive they are not lies. They might be mistakes, misstatements, fiction, jokes, or satire, but not lies.

Jose_K said...

You first discover a liar than a lame person

Jose_K said...

The decandence of tht of lying. Twain
and the same tiltle for Wilde

Synova said...

"A lie is an deliberate statement, known to the speaker to be false, that intends to deceive."

Someone can say something true with the intent to deceive. I have no objection to the definition of "intent to deceive" applied to "lie" but the ability to deceive rests right where I put it.

Without the ability to conceive of something not in evidence, we couldn't lie.

We can chose not to use this ability to lie. But the ability is there and bound tightly with all the other creative ability of the human brain necessary to tell stories, conceive of gods, or do any science at all.

The Crack Emcee said...

Ann,

How can you write this post and not understand my Romney/Mormon criticism?

Doug said...

It is discouraging how many people are shocked by honesty, and how few by deceit. - Noel Coward