A. E. Housman knew what he was talking about when he praised athletes dying young before they “wore their honours out” and had to watch their bodies age and the mementos of their former glory collecting dust on the mantle piece or window sill. Recently another Major League Baseball player, Carlos Ruiz, the talented and affable catcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, was suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs. This summer outfielder Melkey Cabrera and pitcher Bartolo Colon, along with the renowned cyclist and seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, were punished for trying to cheat time. Skip Bayliss of ESPN went so far as to wonder aloud whether Derek Jeter, the majestic shortstop for the New York Yankees, had not yielded to the same temptation since Jeter enjoyed one of the finest seasons of his career at age 38, two years after showing palpable indications of decline.
Bayliss was careful not to accuse Jeter, but, given recent developments, it’s hard to ignore the questions that he posed and the doubts that he raised. Yet, the most important aspect of this morality play is not whether some aging athletes have discovered better living through chemistry. It is, rather, the impossibility any longer of discerning what is true and what is real.
Should lying ever become pervasive, warned the sixteenth-century French thinker Michel de Montaigne, it would by itself unravel the fabric of society. Lying involves the corruption of language, and the corruption of language brings the distortion of reality and the debasement of life. What would Montaigne think not only of athletes who falsify their prowess, but also of entertainers who falsify their talents, bureaucrats who falsify expense reports, businessmen, bankers, and financiers who falsify the record of their profits, academics and other professionals who falsify their resumes, clergymen and educators who perpetuate or conceal the sexual abuse of children, and politicians who would lie in their prayers if they thought God were eligible to vote?
George Orwell proved mistaken about the impulse of totalitarianism to become more tyrannical as time went on. In important respects, the opposite happened. Despite the flaws of Orwell’s political vision, his concern for the degeneration of truth has stood the test of time, and become increasingly relevant. More than the prospects of a dreary and vile totalitarian regime, Orwell feared the degradation of language and the loss, or more accurately perhaps, the sacrifice of truth. He understood that remaining centered in the self, as Winston Smith’s mother had done in 1984, was the only alternative to a hectic, unruly, deranged, and falsified life. If men and women continue to live on borrowed ideas, embracing and repeating them only because they have heard someone else do so, then they will not be deceiving others. They will deceive only themselves. Farewell to repose. Farewell to serenity. Farewell to truth. Farewell to all that is real. Under such circumstances, life will become, as it is already becoming for many, empty, untrustworthy, and erratic, dominated by fictions and falsehoods from which no one in the end will be spared. And that’s no lie.
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