Illusion

We clutter our hearts with so much other sludge, how could they have room to love the truth? We bow down to idols, because we assent too soon, and crave too much, and think too little.

We all wear motley, though the patches of truth and falsity differ for each of us. We are all 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.

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

Don’t we love 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?

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.

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

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

1 Steeped in illusion

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.

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.

We try to heal our hearts with illusion, 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.

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 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.

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

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

We live by illusion, till we die for real.

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

‘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.

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.

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

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?

2 United by illusion

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

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 few of us take the trouble to find our own truths or even to forge our own illusions. It’s more economical to get them on loan from others.

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.

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.

Truth is savagely abstract. But lies are so beguiling because they are safely conventional yet complacently personal.

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.

3 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 makes a mock of 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 by being credited, admired or esteemed by others? We judge things not as they are, but as others judge them to be. We are fooled not so much by appearances as by the views that the rest of the world holds of them. ‘I feel all my opinions loosen and fall of themselves,’ as Hume notes, ‘when unsupported by the approbation of others.’ We live by imagination, but mainly by the imaginations of others. ‘Mirror on mirror mirrored is all the show,’ as Yeats wrote.

We seem most real to ourselves when we are with others. But we seem at our best when we are alone. Those around me, whose lives are so unreal to me, make my own appear real to myself. I seem genuine when I am most fake. And I can stay true to myself only by becoming nothing to everyone else.

What intractable rectitude makes us too nice to lie to those whom we most need to, and too squeamish to lie to the ones who can least detect it?

4 Belief

Because we have faith in so little, we can coax ourselves to lend our faith to nearly anything. Our self-interest will suffice to heal our unbelief.

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.

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.

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.

Some of us suffer from illusion like a plague, but most profit from it like a fund of capital.

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.

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.’