Murder is the worst crime you can commit. I think that most of us will agree. Not so Montaigne. For him there is at least one crime that is worse: Lying. As he writes in his essay Of liars: “In plain truth, lying is an accursed vice. We are not men, nor have other tie upon one another, but by our word. If we did but discover the horror and gravity of it, we should pursue it with fire and sword, and more justly than other crimes.”
On the face of it, Montaigne’s view seems surprising. Nevertheless there is some truth in it, for as Montaigne says a few lines after the quotation: “If falsehood had, like truth, but one face only, we should be upon better terms; for we should then take for certain the contrary to what the liar says: but the reverse of truth has a hundred thousand forms, and a field indefinite, without bound or limit.” In other words, lying undermines the faith we have in the speaker. We cannot trust a person if s/he lies. And if we cannot trust what someone says, what remains then? As Montaigne had just said (see the first quotation here): we have no other ties with each other than by what we say. We need it for inspiring trust. That’s why lying affects the basis of society, even to that extent that for Montaigne it’s the worst crime that can happen.
I think that the importance of trust for our living together is underestimated. It glues society together. It’s the cement of society. If we don’t trust someone, it is difficult to built a relationship with him or her. If a person lies to us on one occasion about something that is important to us, who knows maybe s/he’ll do it a next time as well. If we don’t have reason to think that this person has changed, we tend to avoid him or her and we don’t want to enter into a relationship with this man or woman any longer or we take our precautions in order to diminish the risk that we’ll again be deceived. As a consequence our relationship becomes difficult, often to the detriment of both of us. That’s one reason why corrupt societies are economically less flourishing than societies where corruption is more or less absent. For isn’t corruption also a kind of a lie?
Montaigne says of himself that “I have this vice in so great horror, that I am not sure I could prevail with my conscience to secure myself from the most manifest and extreme danger by an impudent and solemn lie.” Actually, I think that this has more to do with the type of personality Montaigne is than with a principled horror of lying whatever the circumstances – if it is true what he writes here, for who says always the truth about him or herself, even if s/he doesn’t lie? – For, would a modern Montaigne who had hidden an Anne Frank in a tower of his castle really say “yes”, if an SS-man would knock on his gate and ask whether she is staying there? (If I may believe him, Kant would have said that she is). Who lives within a lie must not be surprised that s/he will meet with a lie. And a lie to the SS-man is a word of truth and confidence to Anne Frank. Sometimes lying is necessary in order to restore trust.
Sources: Michel de Montaigne, “Of Liars”, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3600/3600-h/3600-h.htm#link2HCH0009James Lewis, “Commentary on Montaigne’s On Liars”, http://www.fourbythreemagazine.com/issue/deception/commentary-to-on-liars