One of the most significant facts about us may finally be that we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end in the end having lived only one.1 —Clifford Geertz
Once, a king decided that a certain prisoner should be executed. Having lost hope in being pardoned, the prisoner began to insult the king. The king asked those around him what the prisoner said. One of his viziers, whose kindness made for “pleasant company,” responded with a lie, reporting to the king that the prisoner had actually pleaded for mercy. “O commander of the world,” the vizier declared, “the prisoner says, ‘And those who restrain their anger and pardon people,’” quoting part of a Qurʾanic verse that praises those who forgive others and act excellently.2 The king, moved by these words, decided to pardon the prisoner.
Through this story, which begins his masterpiece The Rose Garden (Gulistān), Sa¢dī—or more completely, Musharrif al-Dīn Muśliĥ Sa¢dī (d. ca. 690/1291), often considered the greatest moralist of Persian literature—explores the ethics of lying. The story continues that another vizier, however, intervened: “To speak anything but the truth in the presence of the king does not befit my kind. He insulted the king and hurled obscenities at him.” Hearing this, the king grimaced and replied, “I prefer that lie to this truth that you’ve uttered because that was aimed at best interests, while this was rooted in vice.” Sa¢dī then offers a choice saying of the wise: “A lie that furthers what is best is better than a truth that arouses sedition.”