Deception and Greatness

Early on in Descartes’ Fourth Meditation, one encounters the following principle:

“Trickery or deception is always indicative of some imperfection.”

To see the truth of the principle, think about the various situations in which trickery and deception are employed: all of them have to do with human imperfection, weakness, and finitude.

The athlete uses “fakes” on his opponents because he is not overwhelmingly faster or stronger than his opponents; he is “weak,” in that sense. In many cases, the better the athlete, the less fakes he needs to use–my students provided excellent examples of this in Wilt Chamberlain and Tom Brady.

Women wear makeup to hide “imperfections,” or at least to seem more perfect than they are. As the guy on Duck Dynasty famously said, “Makeup can hide a lot of evil.”

Students cheat on exams and papers because they fear they cannot otherwise earn the grades that they want; cheating is a sign of weakness and imperfection, not strength. Sure, students do clever things in their attempts at cheating–but that does not change the fact that in regard to the course material, the student who cheats lacks the perfection of knowing it.

A lot more examples can be supplied, but I think I have given you enough to establish the truth of the point; but what is its relevance? Descartes employs this principle in order to argue that God is not a deceiver. However, I would like to retrieve this quote to a different purpose: as a ideal of, and an acid test for, greatness. If it is true that trickery and deception are signs of imperfection, of weakness in some respect, then we could posit that the relatively more perfect  or “great” someone is, the less he or she will need to resort to deception.


Of course, if we approach this in an absolute way, we would all fail that test. “All men are liars,” as Psalm 116 puts it. To be human is to be imperfect, at least in the sense of being finite, and so human life will seemingly always involve some level of deception and trickery, even if it is as innocent as wearing makeup. But we can still strive for it as an ideal, and so improve ourselves.

Try to be such a strong person that you need not resort to trickery and deception. Try to live so uprightly that you don’t have to try to hide your internet browsing history from your wife. Try to be so excellent at your job that you need not pander and grovel in the hope of career advancement. Try to forge loving relationships of such intensity that “white lies” are no longer necessary.

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