Self-Deception in Proverbs, Dostoevsky, and the Avetts

An interesting thread appeared this morning while doing some reading in Proverbs. The thread runs through Proverbs, Brothers Karamazov, and an Avett Brothers song, and I think it’s worth explaining.


In Proverbs 14:8 there is a word at the end of the verse that is normally glossed something like “deceit” or “treachery.” So the verse would read,

The wisdom of the wise is to understand his way; the folly of fools is deceit (מִרְמָה).

But what would that mean, the folly of fools is deceit or treachery? In poking around a lexicon, I found what I think is a more fitting gloss: “self-deception or disillusionment.” This makes more sense in context, I think:

The wisdom of the wise is to understand his way; the foolishness (אִוֶּלֶת) of fools is self-deception (מִרְמָה).

It fits with the idea of Proverbs 15:21 as well:

Foolishness (אִוֶּלֶת) is a joy to those who lack sense, but a person who knows what they’re doing walks the line.

All this reminds me of what I’ve been reading in Brothers Karamazov lately.

Brothers Karamazov

There is a chapter in this book that focuses on the father, Fyodor Pavlovich, and the chapter is titled “The Old Buffoon.” You hear the echoes of Proverbs already.

In this chapter, the family has come to see a very respected monk in the community. The family is a mess, and the monk has graciously agreed to help moderate a dispute. The father is inflamed in loud-mouthed, showy shenanigans. He’s a charlatan, and he’s in full-blown distraction mode, completely out of his mind. In the midst of all this, for whatever reason, he suddenly bursts out and asks the elder, “What should I do to inherit eternal life?” They don’t know whether he is serious or not, but the elder responds soberly:

… And above all, above everything else—do not lie … Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others. Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love, and having no love, he gives himself up to passions and coarse pleasures, in order to occupy and amuse himself, and in his vices reaches complete bestiality, and it all comes from lying continually to others and to himself.

The idea of self-deception or lying to yourself comes up multiple times in the following chapters. The wise man in Brothers urges the fool to steer clear of self-deception.

Avett Brothers

This brings us to another set of brothers, the Avetts. In one of their most recent songs they call to us with a message that might sound strange to many. It did to me the first time I heard it.

Tell the truth to yourself, and the rest will fall in place.

Here are Apple Music and Spotify links if you want to listen. Like the interchange between Fyodor Pavlovich and the elder, the Avetts ask a similar question and offer a similar answer:

I want to make amends, but where do I start? Tell the truth to yourself, and the rest will fall in place.

So What?

Well, first, it’s just neat when you find a thematic thread running through your reading and listening. There is more significance here, however, than a literary connection.

Many of us are in fresh ways here at the beginning of the year striving to better ourselves, whether that is through resolutions or themes or diets and exercise. Many of us are sincere in our desire. It didn’t start yesterday. These are strivings and passions that have pushed us to try and start over and try again for months or years. But as we take steps toward the light and away from our own dark places, we see something very disappointing about ourselves. We don’t think the same way the first half of the day as we do the second half of the day. Our resolutions and our resolves are strong in the morning, but when we are tired and the stress of the day is felt in full force, we tell ourselves a different story. Who is telling the truth? The morning you or the evening you?

If you see this struggle within, you see a personal, real-life example of double-mindedness. You know that Bible language, right? James writes,

A double-minded person is unstable in all their ways. (James 1:8)

The good news is that James also tells us God is not like that. People often misunderstand James. Yes, he says things that are hard to hear, but he has a theology that will catch you when you fall. He tells us we are unstable, but he offers a true crutch. Just a few verses earlier, James speaks of God as a wisdom giver offering stability to the unstable. The best part is that James says God is single-minded (ἁπλῶς) in his intent to help (James 1:5).

If any person lacks wisdom, let them ask from God who gives to all people without reservation (ἁπλῶς) or reproach.

In Proverbs and Dostoevsky and the Avetts, we see the old buffoon within, but thank God we aren’t left to ourselves. The true Elder isn’t double-minded towards us and is intent on helping.