The Acts of the Apostles recounts a startling run-in between the apostles and Ananias and Sapphira. Having sold property and presented the proceeds to the early Church community, the couple then failed to present all the proceeds and then lied about how much they received from the sale. Upon lying to Peter, Ananias suddenly falls down and dies; three hours later the same happens to Sapphira.
Each time someone speaks, he fashions a representation of himself. This does not only hold when he describes himself explicitly, such as how he is feeling or what he did or didn’t do. Each time someone utters anything, he represents his thoughts, knowledge, experiences, or memories. If he speaks truly, the representation he puts forward corresponds to the way he really is. If he speaks falsely, the representation does not correspond.
The first reason to speak is to share what is one’s own by letting another see what he sees. To speak is to act socially. We engage in a society with another; we give a part of ourselves to be known. If we shared information to be used for some other purpose, we can then get on with whatever we wanted to do by sharing that information.
To have a society with another—or even for speech to work—the other must believe the representations we put forward. We must be trustworthy, and we are only trustworthy if we are truthful. That society, that trust, makes our speaking possible, and we owe one another what is necessary for that society (ST II-II q. 109, a. 3, ad 1). Life with others is impossible without trust, and human life is impossible without others. When we speak, we owe the truth.
When we lie, the representation isn’t us—it’s a fiction. We propose to the one with whom we share the fiction to believe we are the fiction. We create division between ourselves and another, because there is division between who we are and who we say you are. Eventually others find this out, and the increase of lies told to support the fiction unravel.
When we are truthful—in the sense that we have a virtue—we observe two means between two sets of extremes. On the one hand we do not exaggerate or deny who we are. On the other hand, we reveal who we are at the appropriate times. We hold our tongues when something should be kept private or not shared at that time, and we do not fail to speak when the situation demands it. We do not withdraw and hide from society by sending fictional proxies in our stead. Rather we invest who we really are in our communion with others. We are ordered within society as we truly are and thus rightfully. We flourish that way.
It is easy to forget how much we need others. This does not merely characterize our reliance on others for bodily necessities or other goods provided by the market. We need relationships with other people: both friends and family. We need to be part of, integrated into the societal fabric. Through trust others can partake in our lives and we in theirs. Truthfulness facilitates this integration, because through it we show others who we are.
Our complete beatitude consists in integration into the life of the Trinity, which requires life in the Church. Perhaps Ananias and Sapphira fell because they cut themselves off from that life-giving vine by misrepresenting themselves to the Holy Spirit. They sowed division between themselves and the nascent Church. Cut off, they could not survive. We, however, need not withdraw. In putting our real selves forward, we stay rooted to the vine, and in that vine we have life and bear fruit.
Image: Lipsanoteca di Brescia (retro)