The Chronicle Review

The Lie Guy

Julie Denesha for The Chronicle Review

Clancy Martin, chair of the philosophy department at the U. of Missouri at Kansas City, doesn't miss the luxury-jewelry business. Not even the highly remunerative deception part.
December 05, 2010

You'd think I'd get used to being called a liar. After all, I've written a candid, semiautobiographical novel about being a scam artist, been interviewed in the media about my former life of lying, cheating, and drinking, even edited a prominent philosophical collection on deception. But when a colleague recently ridiculed me about being known as a liar, my feelings were hurt. I have a new life. I've been clean and sober and "rigorously honest" (as we say in AA) for two years. Still, to tell you the truth (honestly!), I earned my reputation fair and square.

In the Internet age, a sordid past is a matter of very public rec­ord—for that matter, of public exaggeration—and if you write fiction and memoir about your worst days, as I did (and continue to do), even your students will take the time to read the racy parts (or at least excerpts in online interviews of the racy parts, or YouTube interviews about the racy parts).

God bless and keep tenure—I'd probably hesitate to be frank in this essay without it—although, to be fair to my institution, the ignominious stories about me and my novel were out before my committee granted me tenure. "It takes an odd person to work on lying," my late mentor (and friend and co-author), the philosopher Robert C. Solomon, once told me, himself having written one or two of the best papers on the subject.

When I was 26 years old, in 1993, I dropped out of grad school at the University of Texas at Austin—I was on a fellowship, staring day after day at my stalled dissertation among stacks of books and papers from the Kierkegaard Archive in the Royal Library in Copenhagen—to go into the luxury-jewelry business. I decided to burn all of my bridges. I didn't fill out any forms. I didn't have the ordinary courtesy even to contact my two dissertation directors, Solomon and Louis H. Mackey. I just vanished.

I told myself that it was a conscious strategy, to prevent myself from going back, but I also knew the truth: that I was simply too ashamed to tell them that I had gone into business for the money. Like many of our deceptions, mine was motivated by cowardice: "Tell the people what they want to hear," or, if you can't do that, simply don't tell them anything at all.

A few years later, my next-door neighbor (my wife and I had just moved in) caught me in the driveway and asked, "Hey, Clancy. Did you go to grad school at the University of Texas?"

"I did, that's right." I was already uncomfortable. I opened the door of my convertible. The Texas summer sun frowned cruelly down on me.

"I'm an editor of Bob Solomon's. He told me to say hello."

Busted. This was Solomon's way of calling me on my b.s. It was his personal and philosophical motto, adopted from Sartre: "No excuses!" Take responsibility for your actions. Above all, avoid bad faith. Look at yourself in the mirror and accept—if possible, embrace—the person that you are.

But I was on my way to work, and Bob Solomon, at that point in my life, was the least of my problems. I had him stored neatly in the mental safety-deposit box of "people I had not lied to but had betrayed in a related way."

The jewelry business—like many other businesses, especially those that depend on selling—lends itself to lies. It's hard to make money selling used Rolexes as what they are, but if you clean one up and make it look new, suddenly there's a little profit in the deal. Grading diamonds is a subjective business, and the better a diamond looks to you when you're grading it, the more money it's worth—as long as you can convince your customer that it's the grade you're selling it as. Here's an easy, effective way to do that: First lie to yourself about what grade the diamond is; then you can sincerely tell your customer "the truth" about what it's worth.

As I would tell my salespeople: If you want to be an expert deceiver, master the art of self-deception. People will believe you when they see that you yourself are deeply convinced. It sounds difficult to do, but in fact it's easy—we are already experts at lying to ourselves. We believe just what we want to believe. And the customer will help in this process, because she or he wants the diamond—where else can I get such a good deal on such a high-quality stone?—to be of a certain size and quality. At the same time, he or she does not want to pay the price that the actual diamond, were it what you claimed it to be, would cost. The transaction is a collaboration of lies and self-deceptions.

Here's a quick lesson in selling. You never know when it might come in handy. When I went on the market as a Ph.D., I had six interviews and six fly-backs. That unnaturally high ratio existed not because I was smarter or more prepared than my competition. It was because I was outselling most of them.

Pretend you are selling a piece of jewelry: a useless thing, small, easily lost, that is also grossly expensive. I, your customer, wander into the store. Pretend to be polishing the showcases. Watch to see what is catching my eye. Stand back, let me prowl a bit. I will come back to a piece or two; something will draw me. You see the spark of allure. (All great selling is a form of seduction.) Now make your approach. Take a bracelet from the showcase that is near, but not too near, the piece I am interested in. Admire it; polish it with a gold cloth; comment quietly, appraisingly on it. You're still ignoring me. Now, almost as though talking to yourself, take the piece I like from the showcase: "Now this is a piece of jewelry. I love this piece." Suddenly you see me there. "Isn't this a beautiful thing? The average person wouldn't even notice this. But if you're in the business, if you really know what to look for, a piece like this is why people wear fine jewelry. This is what a connoisseur looks for." (If it's a gold rope chain, a stainless-steel Rolex, or something else very common and mundane, you'll have to finesse the line a bit, but you get the idea.)

From there it's easy: Use the several kinds of lies Aristotle identified in Nicomachean Ethics: A good mixture of subtle flattery, understatement, humorous boastfulness, playful storytelling, and gentle irony will establish that "you're one of us, and I'm one of you." We are alike, we are friends, we can trust each other.

The problem is, once lying to your customer as a way of doing business becomes habitual, it reaches into other areas of your business, and then into your personal life. Soon the instrument of pleasing people becomes the goal of pleasing people. For example, who wouldn't want to buy a high-quality one-carat diamond for just $3,000? (Such a diamond would cost $4,500 to $10,000, retail, depending on where you buy it.) But you can't make a profit selling that diamond for $3,000—you can't even buy one wholesale for that amount. Since the customer can't tell the difference anyway, why not make your profit and please the customer by simply misrepresenting the merchandise? But that's deceptive trade! There are laws against that! (There's a body of federal law, in fact: the Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Texas awards triple damages plus attorney's fees to the successful plaintiff.) Aren't you worried about criminal—or at least civil—consequences? And how do you look at yourself in the mirror before you go to bed at night?

During my bleakest days in business, when I felt like taking a Zen monk's vow of silence so that not a single lie would escape my lips, I often took a long lunch and drove to a campus—Southern Methodist University, Texas Christian University, the University of Texas at Arlington—to see the college kids outside reading books or holding hands or hurrying to class, and to reassure myself that there was a place where life made sense, where people were happy and thinking about something other than profit, where people still believed that truth mattered and were even in pursuit of it. (OK, perhaps I was a bit naïve about academic life.)

I was in the luxury-jewelry business for nearly seven years, and though I don't believe in the existence of a soul, exactly, I came to understand what people mean when they say you are losing your soul. The lies I told in my business life migrated. Soon I was lying to my wife. The habit of telling people what they wanted to hear became the easiest way to navigate my way through any day. They don't call it "the cold, hard truth" without reason: Flattering falsehoods are like a big, expensive comforter—as long as the comforter is never pulled off the bed.

It seemed that I could do what I wanted without ever suffering the consequences of my actions, as long as I created the appearance that people wanted to see. It took a lot of intellectual effort. I grew skinnier. I needed more and more cocaine to keep all my lies straight. And then, one morning, I realized that I had been standing in "the executive bathroom" (reserved for my partner and myself) at the marble sink before a large, gilt Venetian mirror every morning for days, with my Glock in my mouth (in the jewelry business, everyone has a handgun). I still remember the oily taste of that barrel. Before I confronted the fact that I was trying to kill myself, I had probably put that gun in my mouth, oh, I don't know—20, 30 times. I said, "Enough."

I called Bob Solomon. That was in May of 2000.

I was relieved when he didn't answer his phone. I left a message: "I'm sorry, Dr. Solomon. I'd like to come back." Words to that effect, but at much greater length. I think the beep cut me off.

When he called back, I was too frightened to pick up. I listened to his voice-mail message. He said, "Clancy, this is not a good time to make yourself difficult to get ahold of."

I called again. He let me off easy. (He was perhaps the most generous person I've ever known.) I caught him up with the past six years of my life. He told me to call him Bob, not Dr. Solomon: "We're past that." Then he said, "So, why do you want to come back?"

"I want to finish what I started, Bob."

"That's a lousy reason. Try again."

"I need to make a living that's not in business. I hate being a businessman, Bob."

"So be a lawyer. Be a doctor. You'll make more money. It's not easy to get a job as a professor these days, Clancy."

"It's the one thing I really enjoyed. Philosophy was the only thing that ever truly interested me. And I have some things I want to figure out."

"Now you're talking. Like what? What are you thinking about?"

"Lying. Or failure. I feel like I know a lot about both of them right now."

(I was writing a long essay about suicide, which, come to think of it, might have been more to the point at the time. But I didn't want to scare him off.)

A beat.

"Nobody wants to read about failure. It's too depressing. But lying is interesting. Deception? Or self-deception? Or, I'm guessing, both?"

"Exactly. Both. How they work together."

With the help of a couple of other professors who remembered me fondly, in the fall semester of 2000, Bob Solomon brought me back to the philosophy doctoral program at Austin, and I started work on a dissertation called "Nietzsche on Deception." One of the other graduate students—Jessica Berry, now one of philosophy's best young Nietzsche scholars—called me "the lie guy," and the moniker stuck.

I went to work on deception not because I wanted to learn how to lie better—I had mastered the art, as far as I was concerned—but because I wanted to cure myself of being a liar. What had started out as a morally pernicious technique had become a character-defining vice. I had to save myself. I needed to understand the knots I had tied myself into before I could begin to untangle them. (It seems like an odd solution now. At the time, I thought I was too smart for therapy.)

It's an old idea, of course: The Delphic injunction "Know thyself" is an epistemological duty with moral muscle, intended for a therapeutic purpose. Throughout the history of philosophy, until quite recently, it was thought that the practice of philosophy should have a powerful impact on the philosopher's life—even, ideally, on the lives of others. So I studied deception and self-deception, how they worked together, why they are so common, what harms they might do, and when, in fact, they may be both useful and necessary. Think, for example, about the misrepresentation, evasion, and self-deception involved in falling in love. Who hasn't asked, when falling in love, "But am I making all this up?" Erving Goffman would have agreed with the joke—I think we owe it to Chris Rock: "When you meet someone new, you aren't meeting that person, you're meeting his agent."

I was lucky: I was awarded my Ph.D. in 2003, and I got a job. Being part of a university as a professor was very different from being a student, even a grad student. Suddenly you have power. In business—especially in retail—the customer has all the power. But students are nothing like customers, although they are starting to act more and more that way, I've noticed, and have eagerly adopted the motto "the customer is always right." My fellow professors wore their power like a crown. They didn't feel the need to pull a smile out of anyone.

I was still going from classroom to committee room trying to please everyone. I don't think it harmed me or anyone else, particularly: It was simply unnecessary. As that sank in, I became disoriented. It reminded me of when I was in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the 1990s, trying to hire the world's best (and most underpaid) jewelers. No one cared about your money. The concept hadn't yet sunk its teeth into the post-Communist soul. Similarly, in academe, no one paid much attention to the capital—charm—I was accustomed to spending in my daily life.

In fact, charm could even be a hindrance. In my first year, I was asked by a senior colleague to be the research mentor to a philosopher who had been hired around the same time. After talking about my research, my colleague added, "You are mostly who you seem to be." This from a man who prided himself on being only who he seemed to be—as though we are all only one person!—and as a way of letting me know that he had "seen through me," that he "was not prey to my charms." Also, no doubt he was gently letting me know that I didn't have to pretend to be someone other than I was.

In my old life, everyone was always trying to be more charming than everyone else—even the gruffness of certain wholesalers was (everyone understood) only pretense, the pose of authenticity, the rough exterior that hid the honest, caring heart. To be charming was among the highest virtues.

But now the chair of a science department at my university—a person whom I like very much, and who is enormously charming—and other colleagues often seem suspicious of charm in anyone. Charm is what you expect from administrators, and they, we all know, are not to be trusted. Administrators are just glorified salespeople who can't publish (so the story goes). A charming student is a dishonest student, an apple polisher.

If I was a bit rude to people, however, if I acted superior, if I had the right mix of intellectual distance and modest moral disdain, I was suddenly a member of the club. I had to be the opposite of eager to please. Other people must be eager to please me. And if they were, I should be suspicious of them. They should be subservient without being (obviously) obsequious. They can flatter, but never as a salesperson flatters; I want flattery only from my equals. This from people who were regularly checking to see how many hot peppers they'd earned. Or who fretted—or, still worse, pretended not to fret—about their teaching evaluations.

I got Bob Solomon on the phone again.

"Bob, the professor business is even sleazier than the jewelry business. At least in the jewelry business we were honest about being fake. Plus, when I go to conferences, I've never seen such pretentiousness. These are the most precious people I've ever met."

"Come on, Clancy. Did you really think people were going to be any better in a university?"

"Um, kind of." Of course I did. "And it's not that they're not better. They're worse."

"Well, you may have a point there." (Bob was always very tough on the profession of being a professor.) "Focus on the students and your writing. The rest of it is b.s." (That was a favorite expression of Bob's, as it is of a former colleague of his at Princeton, Harry Frankfurt.)

"With the students, I still feel like I'm selling." (I was very worried about this.)

"You are selling. That's part of what it is to be a good teacher." (Bob was in the university's Academy of Distinguished Teachers and had won every teaching award in the book. He also made several series of tapes for the Teaching Company.) "To be a good teacher, you have to be part stand-up comic, part door-to-door salesman, part expert, part counselor. Do what feels natural. Be yourself. Are your students liking it? Is it working for you?"

"Yes." They liked it all right, maybe a bit too much. "And I think they're learning."

"Then forget about the rest of it. Just have fun. That's the best reason for doing it."

Stendhal wrote: "With me it is a matter of almost instinctive belief that when any ... man speaks, he lies—and most especially when he writes." I still like to tell a good story. But doesn't everybody who loves teaching? How else are you going to liven up the classroom when students' eyes are always turning to their iPhones or laptops?

People often ask me now if I miss the jewelry business. My brother and I rode elephants in the mountains of northern Thailand to buy rubies from the miners. I flew to Hong Kong to buy a rope of gigantic black South Sea pearls—each nearly the size of your thumb—and a precious antique jade bracelet from a dying Chinese billionairess, and flew to Paris two days later to sell it to a customer. I walked through the winding, crowded streets of Jerusalem with my diamond wholesaler, talking about the two-state solution. I stayed at the Four Seasons, the Mandarin Oriental, or private mansions of friends. I lived shoulder-to-shoulder with celebrity clients, flew first class, had my suits custom-made, vacationed in Bali or wherever I wanted. More important—thinking of my life today—I didn't worry about whether my daughters might have to take out student loans.

And the truth is, a lot of the time, that life was fun. The people were rich, noisy, outrageous. When I opened a new store, I felt like I'd created something special.

Would I go back? Do I miss it? No. Sometimes—I write this looking out my office window at the 100-year-old trees outside, their boughs barely lifting and falling in the autumn wind—I feel like a monk who has retreated from a world that was too much for him. "The greatest part of virtue lies in avoiding the opportunity for vice," St. Augustine teaches us.

Maybe I'm persisting in a kind of self-deceptive naïveté that Bob wouldn't have approved of, but you could say that my livelihood now depends on telling the truth. Back then I was arms-and-shoulders deep into life, and now at times I feel as though I am only skating on its mirrored surface. But I'd be afraid to go back. I feel peaceful now. It's less work to be me, and to have me around. I don't feel the need to lie. Most of the time.

Clancy Martin is a professor and chair of the philosophy department at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. He is editor of The Philosophy of Deception (Oxford University Press, 2009) and author of, among other works, the novel How to Sell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), now out in paperback, and Love, Lies, and Marriage, forthcoming in 2012 from the same publisher.