In Rousseau’s First Discourse, and in Machiavelli’s The Prince, there is a shared belief that telling the truth has a circumstantial obligation and some situations require not doing so. Whether it is for the benefit of yourself or others, telling the truth is a decision that must be analyzed for each circumstance. Machiavelli describes a conditional approach to telling the truth as he describes how a prince must be deceptive like a fox in order to gain power. Rousseau offers a similar idea of the benefits of deception in his First Discourse, and therefore both philosophers are similar in this way.
Machiavelli outlines in detail that a prince should emulate both a lion and a fox, “because the lion does not defend itself from snares and the fox does not defend itself from wolves,” (Machiavelli, 69). He follows by clarifying that if a prince only chooses a lion he misses the concept entirely. A wise prince should recognize when their decisions will have negative ramifications, which is the reasoning for wanting traits of the fox, in addition to the ability to scare wolves as the lion.
This describes that deception has as much importance as the façade of a lion to scare enemies; for one without the other is inadequate. Furthermore, the idea that it is okay to not tell the truth, is expanded upon when Machiavelli continues, that, “men are so simple and so obedient to present necessities that he who deceives will always find someone who will let himself be deceived,” (Machiavelli 70).
Through this quote, Machiavelli is saying that a prince is able to decide when to be truthful and when to deceive, for there are always people who will allow themselves to be deceived by the prince in nature. Machiavelli adds by talking of, “how many peace treaties and promises have been rendered invalid and vain through the infidelity of princes; and the one who has known best how to use the fox has come out best,” (Machiavelli 70). This makes an even more convincing argument as to how telling the truth and deception have circumstantial and situational approaches.
From a different perspective, Rousseau describes his views on telling the truth through a situation in which the benefit is not for self-preservation, but to benefit another person. This is introduced in First Discourse, as Rousseau describes the role of the individual in society, claiming that benefit can be distributed among others as well. In other words, individual actions have ramifications, and telling the truth is applicable in this way. Rousseau discusses a scenario of a suicidal man asking his friend for his knife to be returned. The suicidal man asks for the knife back, and the friend lies in order to save the life of his suicidal man. In this circumstance, the friend is not only saving the life of his friend, but is doing so through a lie. The aspect of both the suicidal man and the friend belonging to the same society also applies into the analysis of this case, as the friend is not only saving the life of his friend, but is preserving their society as well. Rousseau is illustrating that by avoiding telling the truth, certain situations have a more positive outcome than if telling the truth was the only option.
Rousseau and Machiavelli confront the issue of telling the truth in two different ways, yet both share the view that it is situational. In The Prince, deceit is appropriate for princes who seek to maintain power and benefit their principality optimally. In First Discourse, by lying to his suicidal man, the friend was able to save his friends life and preserve their society. Had he told the truth and returned the knife, his friend may have committed suicide as the case implies, which shows the shared view that telling the truth depends on the circumstances of situations.