How to Party like an Animal

What we can learn from the orgies of old.


Parties today are really nothing like they used to be.

To commemorate the destruction of the bloodthirsty lioness Sekhmet, the Ancient Egyptians held communal Festivals of Drunkenness at the beginning of their calendar year in mid-August, when the Nile is swelling.

Revelers drank to the point of passing out, only to be awoken by the beating of drums. The celebrations, which had an important religious dimension and typically took place in temples and shrines, also included dancing and public sex, in part to imitate and propitiate the flood and fertility to come.

The word “orgy,” ultimately from the Greek orgion, entered the English language in the 1560s to mean “a licentious revelry.” Today, people think of an orgy as a party involving open and unrestrained sex between strangers. But originally, orgia referred to the secret rites of Ancient Greek mystery cults such as the Dionysian Mysteries and the Cult of Cybele, which aimed, above all, at ecstatic union with the divine.

Dionysus, who, like Jesus, died and was reborn, was the god of wine, regeneration, fertility, theatre, and religious ecstasy, and was most fervently celebrated around the time of the vernal equinox. Let me paint you a picture of a Dionysian orgy.

The procession begins at sunset, led by torchbearers and followed by wine and fruit bearers, musicians, and a throng of revelers wearing masks and, well, not much else. At the back is a giant phallus representing the resurrection of the twice-born god. Everyone is pushing and shoving, singing and dancing, and shouting the name of the god mixed in with ribaldry and obscenity.

Arriving at a clearing in the woods, the crowd goes wild with drinking, dancing, and every imaginable manner of sex. The god is in the wine, and to imbibe it is to be possessed by his spirit—although in the bull’s horn the booze is interlaced with many other mind-bending substances. Animals, which stand in for the god, are hunted down, ripped apart with bare hands, and consumed raw with the blood still warm and dripping.

The “Dionysian” impulse for irrationality and chaos can be understood as a natural inversion of, and release from, the habitual “Apollonian” order and restraint imposed by the state and state religion. In the Birth of Tragedy (1872), the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche recognizes it as a primal and universal force:

Either through the influence of narcotic drink, of which all primitive men and peoples speak, or through the powerful coming on of spring, which drives joyfully through all of nature, that Dionysian excitement arises. As its power increases, the subjective fades into complete forgetfulness of self. In the German Middle Ages under the same power of Dionysus constantly growing hordes waltzed from place to place, singing and dancing. In that St. John’s and St. Vitus’s dance we recognize the Bacchic chorus of the Greeks once again, and its precursors in Asia Minor, right back to Babylon and the orgiastic Sacaea.

By diverting the Dionysian impulse into special rites on special days, the orgy was intended to keep it under control, preventing it from surfacing in more insidious and perfidious ways. More than that, it transformed it into an invigorating and liberating—and, in that much, profoundly religious—celebration of life and the life force.

It permitted people to escape from their artificial and restricted social roles, and regress into a more authentic state of nature, which modern psychologists have associated with the Freudian id or unconscious. It appealed most to marginal groups, since it set aside the usual hierarchies of man over woman, master over slave, patrician over commoner, rich over poor, and citizen over foreigner.

In short, it gave people a much-needed break—like modern holidays, but cheaper and more effective.

The Dionysian cult spread through the Greek colonies to Rome. In 186 BCE, the Roman Senate severely restricted it, but illicit Bacchanalia persisted, especially in Southern Italy, gradually folding into the much tamer Liberalia in honour of Liber Pater (“Free Father”), the Roman god of wine and fertility who so resembled Bacchus/Dionysus as, eventually, to fold into him.

As with the Dionysian cult, the Liberalia featured a giant phallus, carted through the countryside to fertilize the land and safeguard crops—after which a virtuous Roman matron would crown the phallus with a wreath. “Depravity” also featured in other Roman religious festivals, such as the Floralia, with prostitutes dancing naked, and the Lupercalia, with naked noblemen running through the streets and whipping willing ladies with strips of goatskin.

The 4th-century reign of Constantius II marked the beginning of the formal persecution of paganism by the Christian Roman Empire. But the springtime fertility orgy survived through the centuries, albeit in attenuated forms. At last, unable to suppress it, the Church integrated it into its calendar as Carnival—which, still today, involves the reversal of social norms and roles, licentiousness, and feasting ahead of the deprivations of Lent.

May Day celebrations across Europe and North America trace their origins to the Roman Floralia and corresponding Celtic traditions. In medieval times, people danced around the gigantic phallic symbol of the Maypole before descending into the fields or woods for indiscriminate sex, supposedly to fertilize the land. In 1644, the Puritans outlawed Maypoles in England, with the Long Parliament’s ordinance damning them as “a Heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness.”

“Ecstasy” literally means “to be or stand outside oneself” (“ex-stasis”). It is a trance-like state in which consciousness of an object is so heightened that the subject dissolves or merges into the object. Albert Einstein himself called it the “mystic emotion” and spoke of it as “the finest emotion of which we are capable,” “the germ of all art and all true science,” and “the core of the true religious sentiment.”

More than ever before, modern society emphasizes the sovereign supremacy of the ego and the ultimate separateness and responsibility of each and every one of us. From a young age, we are taught to remain in tight control of our ego or persona with the aim of projecting it as far out as possible. As a result, we have lost the art of letting go—and indeed, may no longer even recognize the possibility—leading to a poverty or monotony of conscious experience.

As I argue in my new book, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, letting go can threaten the life that we have built or even the person that we have become, but it can also free us from our modern narrowness and neediness, and deliver, or re-deliver, us into a bigger and brighter world.

Little children have a quiescent or merged ego, which is why they brim with joy and wonder. Youth and ecstasy are the echoes of a primordial wisdom.

Heaven & Hell 2e cover

How to Be Fearless

A philosophical cure for fear and anxiety


“Anxiety” said the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, “is the dizziness of freedom.” What could he have meant by that?

Anxiety can be defined as “a state consisting of psychological and physical symptoms brought about by a sense of apprehension at a perceived threat.”

Fear is similar to anxiety, except that with fear, the threat is, or is perceived to be, more concrete, present, or imminent.

Fear and anxiety can, of course, be a normal response to life experiences, protective mechanisms that have evolved to prevent us from entering into potentially dangerous situations and to help us escape from them should they befall us regardless.

For example, anxiety can prevent us from coming into close contact with disease-carrying or poisonous animals, such as rats, snakes, and spiders, from engaging with a much stronger or angrier enemy, and even from declaring our undying love to someone who is unlikely to spare our feelings.

If we do find ourselves caught in a potentially dangerous situation, the fight-or-flight response triggered by fear can help us to mount an appropriate response by priming our body for action and increasing our performance and stamina.

In short, the purpose of fear and anxiety is to protect us from harm and, above all, to preserve us from death—whether literal or figurative, biological or psychosocial.

On the other hand, severe or inappropriate anxiety can be maladaptive, preventing us from doing the sorts of things that most people take for granted, such as leaving the house or even our bedroom. I once treated a patient with an anxiety disorder who, to avoid ever having to leave his bedroom, urinated into a bottle and defaecated into a plastic bag.

Such pathological anxiety is very common and often presents in one or more distinct patterns or syndromes, such as phobia, panic disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

As with the adaptive forms, these pathological forms of anxiety can be interpreted in terms of life and death. Common phobias such as arachnophobia (spiders), ophidiophobia (snakes), acrophobia (heights), achluophobia (darkness), and brontophobia (storms) are all for the sorts of dangers that commonly threatened our ancestors. Today, man-made hazards such as motor cars and electric cables are much more likely to strike us, but most phobias remain for natural dangers, presumably because man-made hazards are too recent to have imprinted themselves onto our genome.

Panic disorder involves recurrent panic attacks during which symptoms of anxiety are so severe that the person fears that he or she is suffocating, having a heart attack, or losing control. Very soon, the person develops a fear of the panic attacks themselves, which in turn sets off further panic attacks. A vicious cycle takes hold, with the panic attacks becoming ever more frequent and severe and even occurring “out of the blue.”

As with phobias, the ulterior fear in panic disorder is of death and dying, as it is also with PTSD, which is a reaction to a traumatic life event, such as a car crash or physical or sexual assault. Common symptoms of PTSD include anxiety, of course, but also numbing, detachment, flashbacks, nightmares, and loss of memory for the traumatic event.

The symptoms of PTSD vary significantly from one culture to another, so much so that PTSD is sometimes thought of as a “culture-bound syndrome.” Culture-bound syndromes are essentially culture-specific anxiety disorders, which, again, like all anxiety disorders, can easily be understood in terms of life and death.

Dhat, for example, seen in South Asian men, involves a sudden fear about the loss of semen in the urine, whitish discoloration of the urine, and sexual dysfunction, accompanied by feelings of weakness and exhaustion. Dhat may be rooted in the old Hindu belief that it takes 40 drops of blood to create a drop of bone marrow, and 40 drops of bone marrow to create a drop of semen, and thus that semen is a concentrated essence of life.

In addition to fear and anxiety and their pathological forms (such as phobias, panic disorder, etc.), there is a more abstract or philosophical form of anxiety that has been called “existential anxiety.” While fear and anxiety and their pathological forms are grounded in threats to life, existential anxiety is rooted in the brevity and apparent meaninglessness or absurdity of life, that is, in a kind of metaphorical death.

As I argue in my new book, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, existential anxiety is so disturbing that most people avoid it at all costs, constructing a false reality out of goals, aspirations, habits, customs, values, culture, and religion in a bid to deceive themselves that their lives are special and meaningful and that death is distant or delusory.

Unfortunately, such self-deception comes at a heavy price. According to the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, people who refuse to face up to “non-being” are acting in “bad faith” and living out a life that is inauthentic and unfulfilling.

Facing up to non-being can bring insecurity, loneliness, responsibility, and, consequently, anxiety, but it can also bring a sense of calm, freedom, and even nobility. Far from being pathological, existential anxiety is a necessary transitional phase, a sign of health, strength, and courage, and a harbinger of bigger and better things to come.

For the philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich, refusing to face up to non-being leads not only to inauthenticity, as Sartre had said, but also to pathological (or neurotic) anxiety.

In The Courage to Be, Tillich writes:

He who does not succeed in taking his anxiety courageously upon himself can succeed in avoiding the extreme situation of despair by escaping into neurosis. He still affirms himself but on a limited scale. Neurosis is the way of avoiding nonbeing by avoiding being.

According to this striking outlook, pathological anxiety, although seemingly grounded in threats to life, in fact, arises from repressed existential anxiety, which itself arises from our uniquely human capacity for self-consciousness.

Facing up to non-being enables us to put our life into perspective, see it in its entirety, and thereby lend it a sense of direction and unity. If the ultimate source of anxiety is fear of the future, the future ends in death; and if the ultimate source of anxiety is uncertainty, death is the only certainty.

It is only by facing up to death, accepting its inevitability, and integrating it into a life that we can escape from the pettiness and paralysis of anxiety, and, in so doing, free ourselves to make, and get, the most out of our lives.

This esoteric understanding is what I have come to call “the philosophical cure for fear and anxiety.”

Why We Garden: The Psychology and Philosophy of Gardening

Le_Jardin_de_Nébamoun.jpgIneni, architect to Pharaoh Thutmose I (d. 1492 BCE), had his garden painted into his tomb, along with a list of all the trees within it—presumably, so that they might be accounted for in the afterlife.

Ineni’s garden included:

  • 170 date palm
  • 120 doum palm
  • 73 sycamore fig
  • 31 persea
  • 16 carob
  • 12 grape vine
  • 10 tamarisk
  • 8 willow
  • 5 fig
  • 5 pomegranate
  • 5 garland thorn
  • 2 moringa
  • 2 myrtle

A grand garden of this sort symbolized control and mastery over nature, a haven of peace and plenty, of order and beauty, by which to project the status, power, and temperament of its owner. Other, more famous, examples include the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Gardens of the Real Alcázar in Seville, and the Gardens of Versailles.

The garden could also have a religious or philosophical message or dimension. For example, the Old Testament’s four rivers of Eden are represented by four watercourses in Islamic paradise gardens, and four paths in Christian cloister gardens. The Zen garden, by hinting at hidden principles, serves as an aid to meditation about the true meaning of existence.

The Gardens at Versailles reflect a rationalist, Cartesian vision of God-given ideas and principles for the intellect to apprehend or recognize, whereas English landscape gardens are more in the empiricist mold, presenting nature as a stream of sensory experiences skirting across the blank slate of the mind.

In either case, the garden represents a taming of nature, from dark and deadly forest, or disease-infested swamp, to an extension of our living space: open and structured to still our minds, but retaining enough mystery to sustain our interest and even, perhaps, capture our imagination.

Individual plants too can have a meaning. English churchyards often feature yew trees, which are poisonous, dark, and evergreen, and symbolize both death and immortality. A yew tree is commonly found near the lychgate, where, prior to the advent of mortuaries, cadavers guarded by vigils awaited burial.

In the ancient world, the palm tree symbolized victory, peace, and bounty, while the cedar of Lebanon symbolized pride, majesty, and dignity. Both also stood for righteousness, as in Psalm 92:12: “the righteous shall flourish like the palm tree, grow tall like the cedar of Lebanon.” Today, Cedrus libani is the national emblem of Lebanon, and a symbol of the peaceful Cedar Revolution of 2005.

Trees can also be planted to mark an important occasion, which is why British royals are often asked to brandish a shovel. In a recent annual tradition, the Friends of my local park purchase a noteworthy tree and invite a dignitary such as the Lord Mayor to plant it.

Today, gardening is more popular than ever. According to the National Gardening Survey 2018, more American households (77%) are gardening than ever before. In the U.K. 87% of homes have access to a garden, and 27 million people report a personal interest or active engagement in gardening, even if it is only on a balcony.

Sporting replacements of the BBC’s flagship Gardeners’ World achieve only a third of presenter Monty Don’s usual viewing figures of almost three million—which, in the U.K. is many more people than go to church.

Community garden projects and ‘guerrilla gardening’ are on the rise, as are garden towns and villages. Two years ago, one of my neighbours organized for thousands of daffodils to be planted on a neglected and overlooked common, transforming it into a Wordsworthian idyll for the selfie generation. I wonder, do they know that ‘daffodil’ is Narcissus in Latin?

Gardening is more and more recognized, and even prescribed, for its health benefits. These include: increased muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness; improved sleep and diet (if you grow your own produce); reduced stress, anxiety, and depression; a greater sense of community and belonging; and better self-esteem.

You don’t even have to get your hands dirty: some of these benefits accrue simply from visiting a garden, or even just looking over one—although it probably helps to notice and mentally engage with the greenery.

Researchers in Korea randomly assigned hospital patients recovering from thyroidectomy to rooms with plants and flowers, and rooms without, and found that the test group fared significantly better, asking for less pain relief and requiring less time in hospital. So yes, it makes sense to bring flowers, and, at home, to have indoor plants.

Even street trees greatly benefit our health. An American study looking at the city of Toronto found that, for cardio-metabolic conditions (heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity…), an increase of just 11 trees per city block compared to an increase in annual personal income of $20,000.

How might gardening help with mental health? To various degrees, we live inside the stories we tell ourselves. But gardening drags us out of our tortured heads and back into the natural world, which blunts the ideological and emotional extremes to which detached, abstract thought is prone.

In 1920, a mentally strained Ludwig Wittgenstein took up the post of assistant gardener at Klosterneuburg Abbey, explaining in a letter to a friend that he had been longing for “some kind of regularized work which, of all the things I can do in my present condition, is the most nearly bearable…”

Voltaire’s Candide (1759) is an attack on the highly abstracted, convoluted, and strained philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, and famously concludes with the phrase “we must cultivate our garden.”

In the Philosophy of Existence (1938), Karl Jaspers describes this disinterested process of looking outside oneself—or phenomenology, as it is sometimes called—as “a thinking that, in knowing, reminds me, awakens me, brings me to myself, transforms me.”

Just picture the gardener’s pure and simple delight at the first crocuses or tulips, a bird’s nest, a swarm of bees…

If gardening makes us feel better, it also makes us into better people. It is a moral education, a school of life, instilling virtues such as pragmatism, patience, perseverance, reliability, and humility, which then transfer out into other spheres.

In his treatise on agriculture (c. 160 BCE), Cato is quite clear that farmers make the bravest and strongest soldiers, and that, of all men, they are “the most highly respected, most stable, and least hated.”

In Plato’s Phaedrus (c. 370 BCE), Socrates compares the wise man to the good husbandman, who is careful to scatter the right seed in the right soil in the right season. Similarly, the good teacher is careful to sow the right words in the right soul at the right time. For Plato, the Divine Teacher, teaching is the gardening of the soul.

Building on these notions, Epicurus (d. 270 BCE) sought in his garden just outside Athens to return to an agricultural golden age of harmony, community, and self-sufficiency—to ground a flourishing life in the midst of a flourishing garden.

A garden is a microcosm of the outside world. Gardeners are acutely aware of the rhythms and cycles of nature: which flowers are in their prime, when to plant out the seedlings, when and how and how much it last rained. Just as music is time made audible, so the garden is “time made visible” [Clive James].

Winter is difficult, yes because it is dark and cold, but also because time is no longer structured by a succession of flowerings and fruitings. Time becomes amorphous, to be entertained and endured rather than savoured and celebrated like the season of magnolias, cherry blossom, rhubarb, plums, or chestnuts.

More than just keen observers of time, gardeners are real-life Time Lords, able to speed up time by working in the garden, and later to slow it right down by sitting back and surveying the fruits of their labour. Some gardeners are even able to step out of time altogether, working year round to create timeless moments of perfection.

But moments are all they will ever be. When you paint a picture or write a book, it is there for ever (and isn’t that just amazing?), but when you mow the lawn you have to do it all over again in just a few days’ time. The gardener is like Sisyphus, the mythological king made to repeat for all eternity the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll back down again.

In his essay of 1942, The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus concludes: “The struggle to the top is itself enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Even in a state of utter hopelessness, Sisyphus can still be happy. Indeed, he is happy precisely because he is in a state of utter hopelessness, because in recognizing and accepting the hopelessness of his condition, he at the same time transcends it.

The Paradox of Laziness

We are being lazy if there’s something that we ought to do but are reluctant to do because of the effort involved. We do it badly, or do something less strenuous or less boring, or just remain idle. In other words, we are being lazy if our motivation to spare ourselves effort trumps our motivation to do the right or best or expected thing—assuming, of course, we know what that is.

In the Christian tradition, laziness, or sloth, is one of the seven deadly sins because it undermines society and God’s plan, and invites the other sins. The Bible inveighs against slothfulness, for example, in Ecclesiastes:

By much slothfulness the building decayeth; and through idleness of the hands the house droppeth through. A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry: but money answereth all things.

Today, laziness is so closely connected with poverty and failure that a poor person is often presumed lazy, no matter how hard he or she actually works.

But it could be that laziness is written into our genes. Our nomadic ancestors had to conserve energy to compete for scarce resources, flee predators and fight enemies. Expending effort on anything other than short-term advantage could jeopardise their very survival. In any case, in the absence of conveniences such as antibiotics, banks, roads or refrigeration, it made little sense to think long-term. Today, mere survival has fallen off the agenda, and it is long-term vision and commitment that lead to the best outcomes. Yet our instinct remains to conserve energy, making us averse to abstract projects with distant and uncertain payoffs.

Even so, few people would choose to be lazy. Many so-called ‘lazy’ people haven’t yet found what they want to do, or, for one reason or another, are not able to do it. To make matters worse, the job that pays their bills and fills their best hours might have become so abstract and specialised that they can no longer fully grasp its purpose or product, and, by extension, their part in improving other peoples’ lives. Unlike a doctor or builder, an assistant deputy financial controller in a large multinational corporation cannot be at all certain of the effect or end-product of his or her labour—so why bother?

Other psychological factors that can lead to ‘laziness’ are fear and hopelessness. Some people fear success, or don’t have enough self-esteem to feel comfortable with success, and laziness is their way of sabotaging themselves. William Shakespeare conveyed this idea much more eloquently and succinctly in Antony and Cleopatra: ‘Fortune knows we scorn her most when most she offers blows.’ Other people fear not success but failure, and laziness is preferable to failure because it is at one remove. ‘It’s not that I failed,’ they can tell themselves, ‘it’s that I never tried.’

Some people are ‘lazy’ because they understand their situation as being so hopeless that they cannot even begin to think it through, let alone do something about it. As these people are unable to address their circumstances, it could be argued that they are not truly lazy—which, at least to some extent, can be said of all ‘lazy’ people. The very concept of laziness presupposes the ability to choose not to be lazy, that is, presupposes the existence of free will.

In a few cases, ‘laziness’ is the very opposite of what it appears. We often confuse laziness with idleness, but idleness—which is to be doing nothing—need not amount to laziness. In particular, we might choose to remain idle because we value idleness and its products above whatever else we might be doing. Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s favourite prime minister, extolled the virtues of ‘masterful inactivity’. More recently, Jack Welch, as chairman and CEO of General Electric, spent an hour each day in what he called ‘looking out of the window time’. And the German chemist August Kekulé in 1865 claimed to have discovered the ring structure of the benzene molecule while daydreaming about a snake biting its own tail. Adepts of this kind of strategic idleness use their ‘idle’ moments, among others, to observe life, gather inspiration, maintain perspective, sidestep nonsense and pettiness, reduce inefficiency and half-living, and conserve health and stamina for truly important tasks and problems. Idleness can amount to laziness, but it can also be the most intelligent way of working. Time is a very strange thing, and not at all linear: sometimes, the best way of using it is to waste it.

Idleness is often romanticised, as epitomised by the Italian expression dolce far niente (‘the sweetness of doing nothing’). We tell ourselves that we work hard from a desire for idleness. But in fact, we find even short periods of idleness hard to bear. Research suggests that we make up justifications for keeping busy and feel happier for it, even when busyness is imposed upon us. Faced with a traffic jam, we prefer to make a detour even if the alternative route is likely to take longer than sitting through the traffic.

There’s a contradiction here. We are predisposed to laziness and dream of being idle; at the same time, we always want to be doing something, always need to be distracted. How are we to resolve this paradox? Perhaps what we really want is the right kind of work, and the right balance. In an ideal world, we would do our own work on our own terms, not somebody else’s work on somebody else’s terms. We would work not because we needed to, but because we wanted to, not for money or status, but (at the risk of sounding trite) for peace, justice and love.

On the other side of the equation, it’s all too easy to take idleness for granted. Society prepares us for years and years for being useful as it sees it, but gives us absolutely no training in, and little opportunity for, idleness. But strategic idleness is a high art and hard to pull off—not least because we are programmed to panic the moment we step out of the rat race.

There is a very fine divide between idleness and boredom. In the 19th century, Arthur Schopenhauer argued that, if life were intrinsically meaningful or fulfilling, there could be no such thing as boredom. Boredom, then, is evidence of the meaninglessness of life, opening the shutters on some very uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that we normally block out with a flurry of activity or with the opposite thoughts and feelings—or indeed, any feelings at all.

In Albert Camus’s novel The Fall (1956), Clamence reflects to a stranger:

I knew a man who gave 20 years of his life to a scatterbrained woman, sacrificing everything to her, his friendships, his work, the very respectability of his life, and who one evening recognised that he had never loved her. He had been bored, that’s all, bored like most people. Hence he had made himself out of whole cloth a life full of complications and drama. Something must happen – and that explains most human commitments. Something must happen, even loveless slavery, even war or death.

In the essay The Critic as Artist (1891), Oscar Wilde wrote that ‘to do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual’.

The world would be a much better place if we could all spend a year looking out of our window.

Neel Burton

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

The Philosophy of Lying

In Plato’s Cratylus, on the philosophy of language, Socrates says that the Greek word for truth, aletheia, is a compression of the phrase “a wandering that is divine”.

Since Plato, many thinkers have spoken of truth and God in the same breath, and truth has also been linked with concepts such as justice, power, and freedom. According to John the Apostle, Jesus said to the Jews: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

Today, the belief in God may be dying, but what about truth? Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, claimed that “truth isn’t truth”, while Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s counsellor, presented the public with what she called “alternative facts”.

Over in the U.K. in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, Michael Gove, then Minister of Justice and Lord Chancellor, opined that people “have had enough of experts”. Accused by the father of a sick child of visiting a hospital for a press opportunity, Prime Minister Boris Johnson replied, “There’s no press here”—while being filmed by a BBC camera crew.

The anatomy of a lie

What constitutes a lie? A lie is not simply an untruth. For centuries, people taught their children that the earth was at the centre of the universe. This was not a lie, insofar as they believed it to be true.

For something to be a lie, the person putting it out has to believe that it is false, even if, by chance, it happens to be true. If I tell you, “I’m not actually my father’s biological son”, believing that I am, and it so happens that I am not, I am still telling a lie.

Of course, it could be that I am being sarcastic, or joking—and, if I have made this sufficiently clear, I could not be counted as lying. For my statement to be a lie, it is not enough that I believe it to be false. I must also intend you to believe that it is true, that is, I must also intend to deceive you. If my intention in deceiving you is a good one, I am telling a white lie; if it is a bad one, I am telling a black lie; and if it is a bit of both, a blue lie.

When Olympias told her son Alexander the Great that his father was not Philip of Macedon but Zeus himself, she would only have been lying if (1) she believed this to be false, and (2) she intended to deceive Alexander. Olympias—who, according to Plutarch, slept with snakes in her bed—probably did believe it to be true, which highlights an important problem with lying, namely, that people can believe the most fantastical things.

A special case is when someone tells the naked truth, intending others to interpret it as a lie or joke. In Game of Thrones, after killing the Freys, Arya Stark runs into some Lannister soldiers, who share with her their meal of roast rabbit and blackberry wine. When one of the soldiers (not the one played by Ed Sheeran) asks, “So why is a nice girl on her own going to King’s Landing?” Arya replies, point blank, “I’m going to kill the queen.” After an awkward silence, everyone including Arya bursts out laughing.

If I am late to a dinner party, I can tell a small lie about some heavy traffic, or I can tell a bolder lie about being pushed into a muddy ditch by a chihuahua and having to go home to get changed. The more unusual and imaginative (and embarrassing) the lie, the more it is likely to be believed.

Or I could try instead to hide the lie. For example, I might lie by omission or “mental reservation”: “Sorry, I had a flat tyre” (last month). Or I might lie by equivocation (playing on words), as Bill Clinton famously did when he stated, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky.”

A special kind of lie is the bluff, which involves pretending to have an asset or intention or position that one does not actually have. An infamous example of a bluff is former prime minister Theresa May’s Brexit mantra that “no deal is better than a bad deal”.

Lies versus bullsh*t

Is there any difference between telling lies and talking bullsh*t? According to the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, lies differ from bullsh*t in that liars must track the truth in order to conceal it, whereas bullsh*tters have no regard or sensitivity for the truth or even for what their intended audience believes, so long as this audience is convinced or carried by their rhetoric.

Bullsh*tters will say whatever it takes, from moment to moment, to limp on to the next moment.

For Frankfurt:

“Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullsh*tter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullsh*t is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

Pathological lying

Pathological lying—also sometimes called compulsive lying or mythomania—is a controversial construct, and not tightly defined. It refers to habitual lying, typically for no discernible external gain. It is often although not always a feature of the four Cluster B personality disorders, namely, borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder, and is in Factor One of the Psychopathy Checklist.

As with pathological lying, most lying is actually carried out for internal, or emotional, gain, to attract attention or sympathy, or to alleviate feelings of abandonment, rejection, or worthlessness.

We often lie to ourselves and to others from a position of vulnerability: we lie not out of strength or smartness, but out of need and necessity.

The philosophy of lying

St Augustine’s treatise on lying begins with, “There is a great question about lying…” [Magna quæstio est de mendacio…].

It may be permissible to lie when the positive consequences clearly outweigh any negative consequences. Thus, it may be reasonable to lie in a life and death situation, for instance, to save someone from being discovered by a murderer. And it may be reasonable to lie if the person being lied to has forfeited their right to the truth, for example, by threatening violence.

But such situations are few and far between. Much more common are the small white lies that lubricate our social interactions, such as greeting acquaintances with “good to see you” and starting a letter to a stranger or antagonist with “Dear”.

Outside vis majorand social convention, it is usually a bad idea to lie. In the fifth century BCE, Herodotus wrote that from their fifth year to their twentieth, the Persians of the Pontus were instructed in three things: “to ride a horse, to draw a bow, and to speak the Truth.”

“The most disgraceful thing in the world [the Persians] think is to tell a lie; the next worst, to owe a debt: because, among other reasons, the debtor is obliged to tell lies.”

The first person to suffer from a lie is none other than the liar. Lying feels bad and damages pride and self-esteem. It is a slippery slope that leads to further and greater lies and other ethical violations. Having told a lie, it can take a lot of thought and exertion and sacrifice to avoid being found out. If found out (or even merely suspected), the liar loses authority and credibility, undermines their reputation and relationships, and may suffer further sanctions, including being lied to in return. Last but not least, by keeping them under the radar, lying prevents critical issues from being addressed and dealt with.

And then there is the harm to others. To lie is to treat people as means-to-an-end rather than as ends-in-themselves, which is why being lied to is experienced as disrespectful and demeaning. It also leads people to act on false information, which can have untold and unforeseen consequences.

When faced with a choice between a life of limitless pleasure as a detached brain in a vat, and a genuine, human life along with all its struggle and suffering, most people opt for the latter. This suggests that we value truth for its own sake, as well as for its utility. To deny us a part of reality is therefore to impoverish our life.

There is a line of reasoning that, since the natural end of speech is to communicate the thoughts of the speaker, lying is a perversion of language. Curiously, language runs into serious metaphysical difficulties as soon as a lie is introduced. Consider the sentence: “This statement is false.” If the statement is false, it is true; but if it is true, it is not false.

The strongest argument against lying is perhaps that it could not be made into a universal principle. If everyone started lying here and there and everywhere, everything would quickly come apart. For just this reason, Plato bans even poetry from his ideal state, reasoning that poetry is “thrice removed from the truth”.

It’s worrying that we as a society are increasingly tolerant of lies. When people take to lying, they have to tell more and more lies to shore up their earlier lies. This tangled web we weave undermines trust, to the point that we no longer believe anything, least of all the truth.

In the fifth century BCE, the Persian King of Kings Darius the Great had the following advice engraved for his successor Xerxes:

“Thou who shalt be king hereafter, protect yourself vigorously from the Lie; the man who shall be a lie-follower, him do thou punish well, if thus thou shall think. May my country be secure!”

If Darius knew it then, why do we not know it now?