What is Twain’s complain about in the essay ‘On the Decay of the Art of Lying’?

In the essay, ‘On the Decay of the Art of Lying’, Mark Twain eulogizes the timeless tradition of telling lies for various reasons, be it recreation, escaping a punishment, solace or just to give a good feeling. Lying, in Twain’s opinion is “man’s best and surest friend.” Though Twain says that his simple complain is about the decay of the art of lying.

Twain says that the art of lying should be used “more in the spirit of admiration then faultfinding”. One should know how to use the art in the most befitting manner and this can come through its careful and diligent application. Twain states an example of the ladies who lived in a far country, where he too once lived. The ladies would go around paying calls to others under the pretence of wanting to see each other but the actual thought was to stay out of home. Twain says that mild form of lying is probably correct for the noble idea was to make others feel good when the ladies expressed their happiness of having met a few, and not for reaping any profit.

Twain states another example wherein the people in the far country would exchange common greetings like “How do you do?” or the exchange of joy at meeting a stranger. He says that these exchanges were a mere act of formal greeting for, neither the enquirer nor the one responding was serious about knowing or putting up their true records. The judicious and thoughtful application of lies was done to abstain one from hurting the other person. On the contrary, the truth would have made both the parties unhappy. Twain called this as ‘Courteous Lying’ which is a sweet and a loving art which should be promoted for unselfish and charitable purpose.

Twain in a complaining tone says that he bemoans the growing prevalence of brutal truth. He suggests the need to eradicate this practice. “An injurious truth has no merit over an injurious lie.” Both, an injurious lie and an injurious truth are uncommendable. He rather counts on unselfish lying over an injurious truth. This is so because one who speaks an unselfish lie is “an heroic soul who casts his own welfare in jeopardy to succor his neighbours” in the eyes of the angles. Hence, such a magnanimous lier should be praised.

Hence, Twain says that, lying being a universal act, should be done thoughtfully and judiciously for an unselfish act and not an evil one. Lying should be unselfish in nature, healing in effect, done charitably and humanely as against it being cruel, hurtful and malicious in nature. One should lie gracefully and graciously as against being clumsy and awkward. Lie should be spoken firmly, frankly and with head held high rather than being ashamed of. He then concludes by saying that by judicious use of lying, the world can get rid of the pestilent truth which is rotting the land.

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