Illusion

1 The ceaseless birth of illusion

We don’t start with truth and deviate from it. Illusion is our homeland, and truth makes a few brief incursions within its borders, which we repulse with ease.

There is such an unquenchable thirst for illusions from age to age, that we have to keep rephrasing them and furnishing them with new forms. But the love of truth burns so low, that it can feed forever on the same fuel.

Lies may have shorter lives than truth, but they reproduce more rapidly.

Truth may have time on its side, but error has numbers. ‘Truth is the cry of all,’ as Berkeley wrote, ‘but the game of the few.’

Though immune to ideas, we are susceptible to infectious opinions.

Truth is as easy to eradicate as lies are quick to infest us. Lies spread by contagion. But some we are immune to, whereas others we need to be inoculated against by assenting to them for a while.

We lie as we breathe, instinctively, habitually and unawares. The heart and head lie as the lungs take in air. We notice that we are lying not when we lie best but when we strain to do it, as we don’t notice that we are breathing except when we gasp. We suck the exhilarating air of our illusions, and we feel healthy and expansive just by inhaling it.

Don’t we prize a book, denomination, party or creed not for the one big lie that it means to tell but for the swarms of small ones that it takes for granted?

2 We are steeped in illusion

We all wear motley, though the patches of truth and falsity differ for each of us. All of us are either fools or frauds, and many of us prove to be both. We should try to curb our folly, use no more fraud than we need to get by, and know what we are.

I trust that I’m advancing in truth, when I swap a coarser fallacy for a more subtle one. ‘Dream delivers us to dream,’ Emerson wrote, ‘and there is no end of illusion.’

We grow honest not by impulse but only after routing hard resistance.

We live by lies, till we die for real.

From year to year we get farther from real life but no nearer to our dreams.

Most of our ills are all in our mind. And so most of our remedies are in our mind too.

We must have some affinity for fraud, since we are glad to lie for such low pay.

I tell as many kind lies as cunning ones. So I square my reckoning, and can lay claim to a love of the truth.

It’s easier to get a lie into a head than to dislodge it. But you hardly insert a truth before it starts trickling out. Our fancies snag faster in our brains than the real thing, since we have tailored them to suit our own wants.

3 The ugliness of truth

Truth is so dowdy, or else, like the goddess Diana, so refulgently lovely, that she is seldom shown nude. Though we don’t believe in the truth, we are still disgusted to see it rudely bared in front of our face.

If truth is, as Nietzsche said, a woman, why does she act like such a prude, and not deign to undress even for her most respectful wooers?

All of us tell the truth if we have no choice. But why be gratuitously honest?

A lie is a truth that you don’t want to hear. But the lies that your side tells are a requisite tactic to defeat the more insidious deceit. ‘Nothing has an uglier look to us than reason,’ Halifax wrote, ‘when it is not of our side.’ A falsehood that helps to confound our enemies counts as a fact for us. As Nietzsche remarked, ‘how good bad music and bad reasons sound when we march against an enemy.’ And when facts rebut our faith, we redouble it to show that we are not to be cowed by mere evidence.

4 Human kind cannot bear very much reality

We try to heal our hearts with lies, not because we desire misinformation itself, but because truth would do us no good.

Most of us know just enough of the truth to make us content with our plausible coinages. We know our hearts too well to wish to know them better. We would rather be consistently and decently deceived than scandalously and hurtfully disabused. Better a reputable dupe than a ridiculous clear-eyed eccentric. We strain like puppies at the leash of error, but we lack the will to snap it.

Truth is savagely abstract. But illusion is so beguiling because it’s safely conventional yet complacently personal.

Life robs us of all the supports that hold up our make-believe, and so leaves us too poor to let go of it.

‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality,’ as T. S. Eliot wrote. But neither can it bear very much illusion. We can’t bear to face the truth. Yet we don’t quite believe the faith that we take up to shield us from it. We can’t even rest in the lies which we have need of in order to live.

We rarely fix in words the illusions that we live by, and we may not even be quite aware of them.

5 Illusion is a fortress

Truth may make the windows of your house, but strong illusions make the walls that hold it up. Yet these too will tumble down, if they are not shored up by the lies of others. And from whatever material you seek to build your happiness, it will soon cave in, if you don’t ground it on the unshakable dream of your importance.

Truth is no help in time of trouble, but our illusions are an ever-present guide and consolation.

Illusion is a fortress which truth would pull down on our heads to crush us.

How do we go on, but by dismissing from our mind from one moment to the next how much the years have gouged from us and the dismal lessons that they have taught us? Our brains would split, if we believed each day and hour the things that we know to be true.

In this world of deceit and discouragement, the best you can hope for is that the years will be kind to your illusions.

Most of us would go mad, if we were stripped of our mad aberrations. You can’t even be wise, if you’re not sheltered by a thatch of dry self-deception.

How could all the tender shoots of truth live on, if they weren’t shaded by the broad overspreading tree of unreality?

You have to submit to be duped by faith, so that you can go on seeking a despairing wisdom.

6 The lie gives life

Our lives are saved by lies, and would be wrecked by the truth.

Nothing human can survive in truth’s lifeless lunar atmosphere. You can breathe no air but that of your vital half-lies. Even the most lucid of us are kept vertical by our flimsy evasions.

A seeker woos truth like an unrequited lover. It’s the hapless ones who find their way to win her. The fortunate get fantasy, her more kind-hearted sister.

Truth leaves us naked and exposed in a gale of affliction, when hospitable illusion would shelter us. Your aberrations nerve you, where the truth would weaken and discourage you. What deludes me makes me stronger. In the shipwreck of our hopes we have to cling to our buoyant delusions to stay afloat.

Truth is as alien to our nature as illusion is necessary to our being.

That truth will shield us from woe is one of the illusions that we use to shield ourselves from the truth.

We can live through the rest of our lacks, so long as we lack self-observation too. If we gave up our hypocrisy, the world would wither to a wilderness. And if we gave up self-deception, solitude would contract to a torture chamber. ‘The art of living,’ as Pavese wrote, ‘is the art of knowing how to believe lies.’

Some of us suffer from our illusions like a plague, but most profit from them like a fund of capital.

We thrive best in the rank air of our teeming illusions.

We need uplifting lies, to reconcile us to the poor trash that we have won, or else to rouse us to attempt the high exploits of which we might be capable.

7 Dying for illusion

Some people may give up their peace of mind in order to seek out the truth, but far more give it up to keep their illusions. They will glibly bet their souls on a creed which they have not gone to the trouble of understanding. They’re prepared to die for their prejudices, but they won’t live for their principles. Why are they so willing to kill or be killed for tenets which they were too lazy to examine? ‘People,’ Russel remarked, ‘would sooner die than think. In fact, they do.’ Defoe said that there were a hundred thousand englishmen poised to make war on popery, who were not sure if it was a man or a horse.

Those who lay down their lives for a cause don’t prove a thing, not even that they believe in it or know what it is. But a creed may not be untrue even if millions die for it, though its adherents assume that they prove it true if they can make more of its adversaries die.

We have never cared to live for the truth. But we are quite ready to kill for our illusions.

8 The illusion of disillusion

We grow disillusioned with the world when it refuses to share the illusions that prop up our own importance.

We don’t fear lies but the motives for which they are told. And we don’t fear truth but the effects it might have on us. I’m disillusioned by those subterfuges that profit someone else more than me, and I’m disgusted by the deceptions that have ceased to serve my own needs. Those who are glad to give their assent to a lie from which they had hoped to gain are the first to squeal when they find that they too might be hurt by it.

How disillusioned I may be by those things about which I was sure I had got rid of all my illusions. And what enchanting illusions I keep up as to objects by which I have been heartily disenchanted. Our lies are so durable because they are so elastic. And if they do snap, there is always a new one near at hand to take their place.

9 The economy of prejudice

If we tried to use our reason, most of us would aggravate our initial slips into catastrophic conclusions. By some happy chance we are more judicious, or at least more harmlessly muddled, than our principles or our prejudices ought to make us. ‘The average man’s opinions,’ Russel wrote, ‘are much less foolish than they would be if he thought for himself.’

Reasoning would isolate us, and cut us off from our unreflecting herd, and leave us shivering in the dark. But we want to huddle close in a bright warm fug of shared prejudices.

We may be too remiss to track down the truth, but how perseveringly we work to keep up our indolent bunkum. Why do we tax our miraculous capacities to dream up ways of avoiding the truth, when we could have used them to find it out with so much less toil?

10 Lies keep the peace

In social life truth is the first casualty of peace. How could we get on so harmoniously with one another, if we didn’t find it politic to act as if we were fooled by each other? ‘If people knew what others say of them,’ Pascal wrote, ‘there would not be four friends in the world.’ Truth is the nuclear deterrent which keeps the truce between friends, since we know that no one will dare to use it.

Anyone who dares to get off the gaudy merry-go-round of mutual flattery is not fit to live in society.

Our lies keep us tied to the world. They are what we share most intimately, since they frame the rules of the game which we all hope to win. And we try to foist them on as many people as we can, since we add to our own sum by imposing them on others.

In suffering for an illusion, we can at least be sure that we are not alone, as we would be if we were suffering for the truth.

How tenderly the brute world treats our delusions. Yet how unforgivingly it treats those who woo the truth. It indulges the dishonest more than kind people hope, or than stern moralists fear.

11 Hooped together by illusion

Society is held together by hypocrisy, and the individual is held together by self-deception. Baseless lies are the sole solid foundation on which a state can be based.

Our lies unite us. Civilization, as Yeats said, is ‘hooped together by manifold illusion.’ Stable states are ballasted by one vast underlying fallacy. Unstable states are bound by knots of frayed mismatching ones. More resilient cultures don’t have the strength to bear the truth, but they do have stronger and more trenchant errors. Civilization lives by lies and self-deception, refashioning life as a parade of particoloured masks and facades. Yet it is the one intermediary through which you can grasp the truth.

Our society is kept humming by its practical information and by its gratifying illusions, its new contrivances and its old lies.

A cause proves its worth partly by the goods that we give up to serve it. And the first thing that all of us are willing to give up is the truth. People are as ready to tell hopeful and unifying lies in a good cause as in a bad one.

12 Social illusion

Most of us reckon that a thing becomes real when it makes its way into the world at large and others take it up. But a few know that it becomes a sham as soon as it does so. Does anything seem so crack-brained as a fallacy that no one else shares? Yet this is just one more piece of collective trickery. What we put most of our faith in is the fallacies that a great number of others share.

Truth is the thing that seems least real in this world of cheap charades.

Real things, such as truth or beauty, make unreal ones, such as opinion, money or success, appear unreal. But unreal things do the same to real ones. New truths lay bare the falsity of authorized cant. But authorized cant mocks new truths as if they were mere oddities. For most of us a truth is one of those superfluous things that means nothing to us if it doesn’t mean something to others.

Why is it that a thing comes to seem credible, admirable or estimable for us because others credit, admire or esteem it? ‘I feel all my opinions loosen and fall of themselves,’ as Hume notes, ‘when unsupported by the approbation of others.’

13 Fake cause, real feeling

False convictions stoke in us real fervours, and the most truthless transport us with the most force.

It’s those ideas that are uncontaminated by fact that infect us with pure feeling.

Images and icons rouse in us more intense feelings than the real thing.

We feel a genuine enthusiasm for fake things. But we can muster only a lukewarm respect for real ones.

A fake is in every case more convincing than the real thing. It’s the hokiest rigmarole that sparks the most heartfelt thrills.

Most of us are too shrewd to be fobbed off with what’s real and precious, yet we are mesmerized by shallow fakes.

Tinsel fakes thrill our hearts more than the real thing. They seem to have a buried life that they know they don’t lead. What is used or borrowed sounds more plaintive, since it echoes all the pasts that it once had and has now lost.

14 Revelation and repetition

We are struck by revelations, not when a notion first butts on our mind, but when we finally accede to one that has long been rattling round in our heads. A revelation is not the beginning of enlightenment but the culmination of an obsession. It is not an event but a process. It’s not the first flash of an unforeseen illumination. It is the last parting of the darkness as the sun peeps over the horizon.

A thought is like a tune, which has no chance of captivating you till you have heard it several times.

We are struck as if by a revelation when we hear our moral nostrums played on with an anguished gravity.