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The sovereign good



Long ago, a Greek village boy was accused of throwing a stone at a classmate. When charged with this offence, he opened his innocent eight-year-old eyes wide, and said, ‘I didn’t do it. The devil did it: he pushed me with his tail.’ There is an old saying in English, so old that sixteenth-century preacher Hugh Latimer himself mentioned it as being old in his time. Tell the truth and shame the devil. In the incident I recall, the devil was not shamed, but blamed. And the child had not told the truth.

Statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon, also of the sixteenth century, is probably most famous for his collection of essays, one of which is called ‘Of Truth’. The opening of the essay has always been very quotable: ‘What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.’ I’ve often thought how wise jesting Pilate was, for even then the question of the nature of truth was a thorny one. And Bacon was under no illusions about the limitations of human nature. He thought that most people had ‘a natural though corrupt love of the lie itself,’ and that ‘a mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure.’

It seems that Bacon was right then, and right now. But the attitude towards truth has changed, I think. Now we accept the idea that there are different sorts of truth: the phrases historical truth, narrative truth and emotional truth come trippingly off the lips of vast numbers of people. Then there are the complex notions of fantasy and fiction: we have long subscribed to the notion of novelists making up various ‘lies’ or fantasies in order to tell underlying truths about human nature. But we also have to accept, I think, that a gentleman’s word is no longer his bond.

I can remember a time when truth was closely bound up with the concepts of honour and shame. I was very young when the so-called Profumo case rocked Britain and contributed to the discrediting and eventual fall of the Conservative government. John Profumo, then Secretary of State for War, came from a privileged background and had had ‘a good war,’ having fought in and survived the D-Day landings. At the end of the conflict, he held the rank of Brigadier and had been awarded the British OBE and the American Bronze Star.

But in 1961, the 46-year-old Profumo began an extra-marital affair with the beautiful showgirl Christine Keeler, who was only 19. This lapse might have gone unnoticed had it not been for the strong rumour in 1963 that Keeler had been simultaneously involved with one Yevgeny Ivanov, the Soviet naval attaché. It seemed obvious, even at the time, that political capital was being made: the 1960s were the years of the Cold War, and the Profumo Affair, as the press dubbed it, was seen to be a grave security risk.


'A certain leader was asked what his favourite lie was. ‘I never lie,’ came the facile reply. ‘That’s my favourite one, too,’ riposted the interviewer.'


My grannies used to intone the Biblical warning regularly: Be sure your sin will find you out. I’ve always assumed this meant that your secret wrongdoing would not remain secret forever. My more light-hearted mother used to refer to what she called The Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not be found out. Both notions were certainly applicable to the Profumo case. In March 1963 John Profumo told Parliament he had never had an improper connection with Christine Keeler, but ten weeks of rumour later, he admitted, expressing his deep remorse, that he had lied to the House of Commons. The admission signalled the end of his political career.

Profumo resigned, but lived for another 43 years. During much of that time he redeemed himself via his philanthropic work and was helped by the wife who stood by him, famous British actress Valerie Hobson. One of the great and the good who applauded him during the second half of his life was Lord Longford, Catholic convert, Labour politician, and fervent advocate of penal reform, who said he admired Profumo more than anybody he had ever met.

How times have changed: it seems we can no longer rely on public figures to have integrity, and it is hard to imagine a Profumo-like scene of repentance taking place in western parliaments today. In 1963, Profumo’s lie to the House was considered unforgivable, for example, yet now lying seems to be a way of political life. During an interview on television, a certain leader was asked what his favourite lie was. ‘I never lie,’ came the facile reply. ‘That’s my favourite one, too,’ riposted the interviewer, quick as a flash.

Things have surely come to a pretty pass, or even to a stage of evident moral decline, when one world leader accuses a close ally of lying, as happened recently in the case of French president Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Scott Morrison regarding the cancelled $90 billion dollar submarine contract. There are many ways of obscuring the truth: Morrison shifted sideways, so to speak, declaring that he would not have Australians ‘sledged,’ ignoring the point that Macron had accused him and him alone. My grannies, who always set a high store by honesty, would have expected Morrison to make some sort of admission or concession at least. But that is not the way of politics in today’s world.

As for the eight-year-old, he might have been early impressed by Bacon’s idea that the candle-lights of lies are more attractive than the naked daylight of truth, but I imagine he now agrees with Bacon’s final thought that the knowledge and belief in truth is ‘the sovereign good of human nature.’



Gillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: Hand resting on a book, taking an oath. (Getty images)

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras



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Existing comments

The Truth is a burning fire it looks not at man’s desire
Popes cower before it denuding power
Bishops it mocks Priests defrock
Leaders stand in disarray it’s all relative they say
But honest it is not integrity is the loss
The denial of goodness to make it dark is to lose one’s heart.
To look into the living flame is to know one’s shame
To bend one’s knee is to be set free
The spark to become a flame in every mortal frame.
We are to become as lamps
We look within and acknowledge our own sin
We bow our heads as by the Master we are led
With cleansing grace, we start to see His face
The air becomes clear as we relinquish fear
Love and clarity of thought
Is what our suffering will have bought
As we stand by His side His Peace (Spirit), will reside
We no longer struggle alone as The Holy Spirit accompanies us home
Before the break of the new day
Our lamps will light the way.

‘Father’! With tongue and flame, give us unity again

“Humility is nothing but truth, and pride is nothing but lying.” ? St. Vincent de Paul

kevin your brother
In Christ

Kevin Walters | 25 November 2021  
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Sounds good Kevin, but there is little evidence that politicians who identify as Christians are any less untruthful than the rest. In fact, one might argue that the evidence suggests that they are more likely to lie.

Ginger Meggs | 26 November 2021  

Thank you for your comment, Ginger I suppose that this old adage is most applicable today “We (the people) get what we deserve”
Please consider reading my post on 26 November 2021 via the link
Is democracy going down the drain? (eurekastreet.com.au)
kevin your brother
In Christ

Kevin Walters | 27 November 2021  

From the article “But we also have to accept, I think, that a gentleman’s word is no longer his bond”

The Queen held her Church’s hand
This was her Sceptre to rule her land
The hero of the day was fair play
Honesty was the British way
It’s not so long ago when we stood row upon row
To cheer and respect
Now all is retrospect
Were her aids too slow, did they not know
She would have to go where her church did flow
Now, who is the hero of the day?
It must be Dell Boy he wins every way
Show me a scam and I am your man
If you want to rule a culture, what do you do?
Dissipate them through and through
When they know not right from wrong
Evil sings its merry song
kevin your brother
In Christ

Kevin Walters | 27 November 2021  

‘The inquiry of truth, which is the love-making, or the wooing of it, the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it, and the belief of truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature.’

Why, then, Israel Folau might ask, are some trying to change them from rights to revocable privileges?

roy chen yee | 25 November 2021  
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Where is the evidence, Roy, that Folau was seeking truth? An expression of strongly held opinion or conviction, perhaps, but a serious inquiry?

Ginger Meggs | 26 November 2021  

The form of words he used.

roy chen yee | 02 December 2021  

Profumo perhaps lied about the affair to Parliament, stating that there was “no impropriety whatsoever” in his relationship with Keeler.(Britannica). Was it a sovereign lie to protect England from embarrassment, a lie to protect himself, others, or not a lie at all? Really, we can surmise but cannot know; perhaps his values of impropriety were somewhat Clinton-esque such that it was "not sexual relations as I know it"; his later resignation deflected public examinations of Ivanov which had the greater sovereign risk. He'd feel a right dill today if he knew a politician could behave like Boris and still be voted PM. Are parliamentarians genuinely addicted to honesty just in a confined space with leather upholstery or is their public insouciance for the truth or integrity a deliberate challenge to the opposition? "Bring me unstuck, if you're good enough..." They may leave their dishonesty at the door of Parliament but their morals are still in their pocket, along with some DNA on a handkerchief and a phone full of secrets. I disagree with Gillian's syntax which denegrates a male majority; a gentleman's word is his bond (still); those who break that trust are simply not gentlemen. They are lawyers.

ray | 25 November 2021  

It is unfair to blame Morrison for the opportunist moralism of the prominent journalists. Having a paucity of virtue they focus on reducing everyone in their sights to their level. It is obvious that we couldn't continue with the French deal; Macron was playing politics identifying someone they could all hate in a reelection ploy. Morrison in such circumstances was constrained, as Jesus said "don't throw pearls before swine.

Nev Hunt | 25 November 2021  
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As if that was the only case of Morrison being loose with the truth...

Ginger Meggs | 26 November 2021  

Interesting take on it Nev, Macron playing politics while poor ScoMo is the constrained target or victim of confected and unwarranted French hostility. Not sure how Morrison releasing text messages with another leader shows constraint, but let's not let facts get in the way of your opinion because I'm sure ScoMo would never misrepresent anything for something as base as political advantage.

Brett | 26 November 2021  

Poor old Scott Morrison cops a lot of flack for his practised obfuscation which some would simply describe as lying. We must not forget that he has been trained and qualified in marketing which relies on window dressing, jingoism and self-advantage for the marketeer. (How on earth such an endeavour was elevated to the august halls of academe is one of the great enigmas of our day when one considers that the entire course on marketing could probably be covered before morning tea with the post-graduate refinement achieved before lunch. Fortunately most seem to be able to see through it but the Australian flag in the button hole, and on the face mask under an American baseball cap is very bad marketing for an Australian PM which he needs to sort out.

john frawley | 25 November 2021  
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‘Fortunately most seem to be able to see through it but the Australian flag in the button hole, and on the face mask under an American baseball cap is very bad marketing for an Australian PM which he needs to sort out.’

I’m afraid it goes more than that. If you’re going to run a wide, brown land, you should at least have a face which goes with a cigarette.


roy chen yee | 26 November 2021  

The late Fred Daly, a Catholic and Whitlam era minister, said the most devious politicians were the ones who publicly professed their Christianity. Of course there were and are decent politicians who would never give rise to a Profumo affair. The late Lord Longford also thought quite well of Myra Hindley. I thought of him as an Anglo-Irish eccentric. Will we exchange pleasantries in Heaven over tea and biscuits? I wonder.

Edward Fido | 26 November 2021  
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Fred Daly was a treasure in our national parliament and astute re those politicians who proclaim in loud manner their "Christianity"! Like the Pharisees of Jesus' day. "Look at me - I'm praying here for all to see. But I'll cross the road to the other side should I come across someone in need of care." Classic hypocrisy.

Jim KABLE | 01 December 2021  

'Give us this day our Daly Fred.' (1943)

With his 'sheep': https://www.moadoph.gov.au/blog/pets-in-the-spotlight/#

roy chen yee | 02 December 2021  

This is the first time I’ve ever heard Pilate described as “wise”.
Pilate was a moral coward. He knew Jesus was innocent and would probably have released him if he could have done so at no cost to himself. But the mob wanted Jesus crucified, and Pilate was a smart politician who knew which way the wind was blowing. Pilate gave in to the mob. He had an innocent man crucified for the sake of his own job.
The Truth was standing a few feet away from Pilate, but he couldn’t recognize it. Nothing has changed.

Ross Howard | 26 November 2021  
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To be fair to Pilate, Jesus did know what he was getting into and he didn't exactly make it easy for Pilate, nor did the crowd who rejected Jesus for Barabbas. You could say that Pilate tried and failed, and in the end chose the path of least resistance. Not the first politician, nor the last, to do that. But where would we be today if Pilate had released Jesus and sent him on his way, perhaps into exile?

Brett | 30 November 2021  

‘To be fair to Pilate, Jesus did know what he was getting into and he didn't exactly make it easy for Pilate.’

As in to be fair to Dutton, the Biloela family knew what they were getting into and they didn’t exactly make it easy for Dutton.

roy chen yee | 30 November 2021  

Irrelevant analogy, unless you’re saying the Biloela family is Christ-like and Dutton is Pilate-like, playing to the mob when he basically knows better. If you are saying that, then maybe there’s hope that we won’t have to agree to differ. 

Brett | 30 November 2021  

‘unless you’re saying’

You are blinded by appearance. The appearance is that Christ is a private individual and Pilate is a state power, and the Biloela family are private individuals and Dutton is a state power.

The substance is the moral description of what each claimant wants.

Jesus wants Pilate to confirm that a privilege that Jesus has given to himself (the right to wander around Israel doing what he pleases as long as he doesn’t affect Roman state interests) is also a legal right. Yes, Jesus wants to change everything, but from the inside. Pilate is willing to accept that that is the case because he is willing to set Jesus free.

The Biloela family want Dutton to confirm a privilege that they have given to themselves (the right to wander around Australia doing what they please) as a legal right. But they have also to show that that won’t affect Australian state interests. If they can’t do that, and tribunals have said they can’t, they’re just asking for charity. There’s nothing wrong with that but a charity is a gift, not a right. The claimants here are asking for a gift whereas the claimant in the biblical scenario was asking for confirmation of a right.

There is a superficial appearance of analogy but at the substantive level, there isn’t, although by saying, ‘If you are saying that, then maybe there’s hope that we won’t have to agree to differ’ you must think there is. If so, we have to agree to differ.

roy chen yee | 01 December 2021  

In reply to your essay of 2 December Roy, it is still an irrelevant analogy, as you agree in your final paragraph. But don’t verbal me by saying I “must” agree; I set a clear condition on how I could reluctantly accept your analogy. You knocked that back. Indeed, as you said, at the substantive level there isn’t an analogy. I certainly agree with that, and it makes me wonder why you threw a red herring into a discussion on political honesty. Is that irony? We might have been better served if you focussed your theological insights onto the final question in my 30 November post.

Brett | 06 December 2021  

‘If you are saying that…we won’t have to agree to differ.’ You’re saying, for the purpose of justifying Pilate, that the Biloela family is Christ-like and Dutton is playing to the mob and I’m saying that, on the facts, that’s not so.

‘But where would we be today if Pilate had released Jesus….?’

I don’t know. There’s a mystery element to Christianity simply because God’s ways are above ours.

What would your moral posture be if you had died when the kids were still young and in need of a dad and gone to heaven? Happy as Larry with God for making it into salvation or mad as hell at God for the permissive will (who knows, maybe an active will, even) that puts the dear ones in a spot? You can strut by asking clever questions of others concerning God’s policy making but it is hypocrisy to ignore that the same questions concerning God’s policy making can be asked of your actual or hypothetical circumstances.

Anyway, Job suggests that until everything is made clear at the Universal Judgement, God isn’t going to be bothered answering questions posed from a partial view (and an infinitesimally small partial view, at that).

roy chen yee | 06 December 2021  

'I set a clear condition on how I could reluctantly accept your analogy.'

'Reluctantly'? Apart from adding something new to keep the conversation going (shades of Phil the Greek), 'reluctantly' is as irrelevant as whether you agree wholeheartedly or reluctantly to get pregnant. It's the final condition that matters and, in this case, you agree that the Biloela family is Christ-like and Dutton is Pilate-like.

roy chen yee | 07 December 2021  

Thanks for another thought-provoking essay. So many of us in recent times have pondered the nature of truth and lying, whether it’s a question of Trump-era ‘alternative facts’ or our own Prime Minister’s apparent contradiction of statements he has made on camera, to dozens of journalists.
We must all hope that the next generation of leaders will reassert and demonstrate the importance of honesty in public and private.

Juliet | 26 November 2021  

It is interesting to see amongst the replies how some people excuse politicians for using various shades of 'the truth'. There is a difference between being straightforward and honest and being deliberately misleading and thus dishonest. Gentlemen belong in the former category. Very few politicians, these days, are gentlemen or gentlewomen so to speak.

Stephen | 26 November 2021  

Ray. Re: Profumo lying. I suspect that Profumo's insistence on "no impropriety" may have referred to the suggestion that he had not passed on any classified information to Keeler who was also having the odd romp with a Russian official at the height of the cold war to whom she might possibly have passed on some of Britain's security secrets. It probably had nothing to do with the sexual liaison when such trysts were embraced with gusto by the British population at large in the liberation that came with "the pill" and fuelled the sexual revolution (immortalised for posterity on the silver screen in the personage of Bond - James Bond, 007, an improbable cold war warrior but a frequenter of forbidden resting places).

john frawley | 27 November 2021  
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john, I generally concur; the Profumo Affair viewed today seems pretty tame although the implication of an intermediary femme fatale lends the story a salacious blend of Bond, opportunistic "could be" conspiracy and pathos human interest; tabloid journalist candy. Today we'd see the girl interviewed by Oprah, an exclusive sponsored magazine spread on her diet and fashion choices and ABC 4 Corners investigation into her being a victim... set to the stilted piano in C-minor and compulsory strings... but no evidence. I think the lesson is found somewhere between the necessity for a lie and the quality of the ensuing statement; assuming "no impropriety whatsoever" leaves very little wriggle room in relation to any aspect.

ray | 29 November 2021  

'Things have surely come to a pretty pass….’

The time for sympathy for Macron passed when we saw his scant respect for the territorial integrity of the UK. France has a developed Western infrastructure with full police power over its territory… and it can’t surveil a bit of coast and its half of what is, compared to the sea distance between Indonesia and Australia, a creek between it and the UK?

If Indonesia was a province of France, we’d be up to our ears in SIEVs unless we had a diesel submarine project as leverage; the UK would have been fine if they had had that project instead.

As God, the source of morality, doesn’t live in chronological time, there’s no reason why a punishment can’t be permitted to happen before a crime that will happen. Or before some other swifty yet to be hatched, given the perp's now revealed character. If Indonesia were run by France, the border hijinks would have been on us. So, ‘Maudit lui’ to M. Macron and the cheval he rode in on.

Will Biden tell France it’s being clumsy with the UK or is Boris going to be under the bus too?

roy chen yee | 29 November 2021  

I am unsure what to say of politicians who lie or don't tell the truth, who are hypocrites (saying one thing but doing another), who mis-speak, who do not answer the question asked, who make grand statements, who claim to be Christian while clearly doing things Christ would never have countenanced. Black is White. The PM is "appalled" by sexism uncovered within the Parliament - his own Office part of the problem - hideous treatment of asylum-seekers, talking up - in jingoistic style - the idea of war with China...everyday another rort or heartless tale of financial or mining skulduggery revealed. The PM also says: "I don't believe I lie" while those who keep score on his lies (as the US did of Donald Trump's lies - over 20,000 I read at one stage) "Shanghai Sam" one blatant example - 17 times - believe he is something of serial teller of untruths. I bounce with distaste from one revelation to another - I feel I cannot trust those who should be looking after us all. This is my rant moment. This is also the moment I expect the liars and rorters to tell us all that the Devil made them do it!

Jim KABLE | 30 November 2021  

It has always been the tradition of the British upper classes to have a mistress. Look at the career of the Prince of Wales, now married to a descendant of a former Royal mistress. Christine Keeler was another exploited working class lass. It was the middle class who were moral and even then...The late Lord Longford had the happy habit of 'absolving' people who had done him no wrong. He always sounded like an eccentric Church of Ireland cleric to me. Perhaps he should have stayed in the Church of his birth and tried to bring peace to Northern Ireland? I thought him a rather hollow windbag and mediocre politician.

Edward Fido | 01 December 2021  

Standards have definitely slipped in recent decades. Back in the 1960s junior Minister Andrew Peacock offered to resign over some advertising done by his then wife Susan. No question of corruption or illegality was involved; he just thought it was the right thing to do. I’ve read Peacock offered his resignation to PM Gorton, who refused it. He also raised it with Opposition Leader Whitlam, who told him not to worry about it, it would not be an issue. Higher standards all round.

Higher standards also set by Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke in expecting their Ministers to do the right thing or lose their jobs. The rot really started in the Howard years when Ministers who misled Parliament realised they could count on support if there was a political advantage to be had.

Of course I’m talking Federally. At the State level, the Bjelke and Askin stories, among others, set a whole different tone. And some local government folk seem to draw their inspiration from the Rum Rebellion.

Let's hope that for every Tricky Dickie there is a Profumo or a Peacock.

Brett | 08 December 2021  

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