Book Review: People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck, M.D.
But everyone lies.
There aren’t many people who want to be called out when they screw up or want something really badly, so they think, A little lie. What’s the big deal?
It seems easier that way. That’s the number one goal for a lot of people: make things as easy as possible.
So everyone commits a few “sins” at some point in their life, like lying. So what?
It’s hard to argue since we’re told we shouldn’t judge lest we be judged. But lying is the problem.
Nobody is perfect.
That’s true. Every day we hear stories about psychopaths, sociopaths, people who don’t have a conscious, and we gloss over them or think, They’re the evil ones: the murderers, the thieves.
But what I’m saying is that they’re not necessarily evil.
So you’re saying that it’s the people who lie that are evil?
Yes. When they lie to themselves.
“For most of us, if there is evidence around us that might point to our own “sin” and imperfection…we usually come to recognize that something is wrong, and we make some kind of self-correction. Those who do not, I call ‘people of the lie’ because one of their distinguishing characteristics is the ability to lie to themselves, as well as others, and to insist on being ignorant of their own faults and wrongdoings.”
Peck cautions us in his first sentence: “This is a dangerous book.”
(I agree, but not for all of the same reasons. It was written in 1983, and we have made a lot of headway in our efforts to be inclusive since then, so readers will notice that some of the language is offensive. Some people may also struggle with the author’s beliefs, and some of the ideas may be foreign, but I hope that you will be able to separate out those aspects of the book from the core message.)
Peck goes on to say, “(This book) has potential for harm. Handle with care.”
He says this because people “who are evil judge others as evil.”
Since we hear people randomly calling other people evil all the time, we have to understand that there is a difference between simply calling someone evil and the nature of the people who actually are.
“It is exceedingly rare…that we can pass judgment on a person as being evil after observing a single act; instead, our judgment must be made on a whole pattern of acts as well as their manner and style.”
Peck explains that no one can escape from judging others, and naming something correctly gives us a certain power over it.
This was true for me as I tried to understand the confusion I experienced in my relationships with people in my family and at work.
One of the things I realized is that most of the time problems, personal issues, and our confusion about them don’t jump out at us.
Instead they seem to live quietly underground, slowly growing out of control until they have become monsters.
For a long time, I wasn’t able to understand that I was looking at a small part of a monster, like its fingernails, which it had neatly painted because it wanted to keep up good appearances. Since I couldn’t see the entire thing I couldn’t make a judgment. Even as I was able to see more, again it didn’t seem to be all that threatening. It was like the metaphor of the blind men and the elephant, but in the early stages, I was alone. There wasn’t anyone around who might have been able to help me understand what I was seeing, so there was no way for me to even begin to identify it.
Of course some people have been told about the monsters of evil or they learned about them on their own, so they know they grow like weeds, that they have spreaders that travel far and wide, constantly popping up and mutating all around us. But from what I have seen as I have acquired more understanding is that not enough people know what they really look like.
They “usually appear quite ordinary to the superficial observer”…and the evil they perpetuate rarely manifests itself in obvious ways…“it is seemingly ordinary, superficially normal, and even apparently rational. Those who are evil are masters of disguise.”
Evil people are “unable to acknowledge their own imperfection. They believe that there is nothing wrong with them, that they are psychologically perfect human specimens. They must explain away their flaws by blaming others.”
In this book, Peck shares a collection of stories that help us understand the nature of evil.
His definition: that which is in opposition to life. He says, “In short, it has to do with killing…specifically murder — namely unnecessary killing, killing that is not required for biological survival.”
(I realize that people who are pro-life may see this and raise their voice to proclaim, “See, abortion is evil.” But Peck doesn’t stop there, so if anyone does that, they will be misrepresenting his position. If you only read part of a page or part of a book you’re liable to be making a false claim.)
Peck goes on to say, “When I say that evil has to do with killing, I do not mean to restrict myself to corporeal murder. Evil is also that which kills spirit. There are various essential attributes of life — particularly human life — such as sentience, mobility, awareness, growth, autonomy,* and will. It is possible to kill or attempt to kill one of these attributes without actually destroying the body…we may ‘break’ a child without harming a hair on its head.”
Peck says that one of his mentors, social psychologist Erich Fromm, “was acutely sensitive to this fact when he broadened the definition of necrophilia to include the desire of certain people to control others — to make them controllable, to foster their dependency, to discourage their capacity to think for themselves, to diminish their unpredictability and originality, to keep them in line…he demonstrated a ‘necrophilic character type’ whose aim it is to avoid the inconvenience of life by transforming others into obedient automatons, robbing them of their humanity.”
Since evil people “cannot admit to weakness and imperfection in themselves, they must appear to themselves to be continually on top of things, continually in command.”
Peck says it may seem like it’s a better moral option to cheat the rich rather than the poor, but it is still cheating. There are differences in the law between defrauding a business and making up an excuse for not taking care of a chore when you’ve stopped at a bar. But he says, “It is a mistake to think of sin or evil as a matter of degree…They are all lies and betrayals.”
However, Peck says, “evil deeds don’t make someone evil, it is someone’s “absolute refusal to tolerate the sense of their own sinfulness.” 
The evil refuse to suffer over the “painful awareness of their sin, inadequacy, and imperfection” so they “cast their pain onto others through projection and scapegoating.”
While evil people think they are faultless, Peck still thinks they have a sense of their evil nature and desperately want to cover it up.
Since they believe they are above reproach, they will attack anyone who points out their personal failings, doing anything they can to avoid having any awareness of them. “They sacrifice others to preserve their self-image of perfection.”
Fromm says, “the longer (they) continue to make the wrong decisions, the more (their) hearts harden. With each step along the wrong road it becomes increasingly difficult for them to admit that they are on the wrong road, often only because they have to admit that they must go back to the first wrong turn….”
These individuals are not the ones who have “an absence of conscious,” Peck says. Evil people are not “psychopaths or sociopaths.” He says those groups of people don’t worry that much about anything. They attempt to hide their crimes, but they aren’t planned very well.
The people Peck identifies as evil are “unceasingly engaged in an effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity.” He says, “The words ‘image,’ ‘appearance,’ and ‘outwardly’ are crucial to understanding the morality of evil. Their ‘goodness’ is all on a level of pretense.”
“While they lack any motivation to be good, they intensely desire to appear good.”
As I read through the case studies, many of Peck’s observations reminded me of what I have experienced, such as:
• Having someone continually forget the details of the truth of what had happened.
• Seeing that their “narcissism made them dangerous…because it deprived them of the restraint that results from empathy and respect for others.”
• Recognizing that someone “excluded the reality of me,”…I was “no more a psychological reality than a piece of furniture,”…they “couldn’t even see me.”
• Assuming it to be my stupidity.
• Having to continually deal with the “irritating chaos and confusion” left in their wake.
• Realizing that it was “Not one lie, not even two, but three lies all twisted around each other in a short sentence.” Peck says, “It is, I suppose, a form of genius that one can almost admire for its perversity.”
Peck also talks about issues in group dynamics. He says:
“Evil individuals will flee self-examination and guilt by blaming and attempting to destroy whatever or whoever highlights their deficiencies. The same malignant narcissistic behavior comes naturally to groups.”
• People in groups tend to abdicate responsibility to someone else.
• The conscious of the group as a whole often becomes so fragmented and diluted as to be nonexistent.
• People in groups tend to become more immature, and immature people are more prone to evil than mature ones.
• There is a natural tendency for people to “regress in response to chronic stress.”
• “The role of the follower is the role of a child.”
• In order to create group cohesiveness, leaders use narcissism. They make members feel proud of themselves by creating an enemy or hatred of an out-group, and focus on the deficiencies or sins of the out-group.
• “The failing group is the one likely to behave most evilly.” “Group leaders in all places and ages have…routinely bolstered group cohesiveness in times of failure by whipping the group’s hatred for foreigners or the ‘enemy.’”
• If they are caught, they will attempt “to destroy the evidence.”
• “Each side believes the other is the aggressor and itself the victim.”
“It’s not their sins, per se, that characterize evil people, rather it is the subtlety and persistence and consistency of their sins. This is because the central defect of the evil is not the sin, but the refusal to acknowledge it. If necessary, they will even destroy others in the name of righteousness.”
Peck reminds us, quite often, that the first thing we need to do is to look at our own failings.
He says, “Attitudes have a kind of inertia. Once set in motion, they will keep going, even in the face of evidence. To change an attitude requires a considerable amount of work and suffering.”
So we can’t simply expect this from others.
All we can do is create safe spaces for ourselves and our loved ones and share what we have learned with those who are willing to listen. Then we can only hope that more and more people will recognize that “in order to be loved it is our responsibility to make ourselves lovable.”
In my Facebook group, Books Everyone Should Read to Know Thyself (& Others), I have reviewed a number of books that identify the different ways people try to control us, as well as some that show how we can learn to accept others for who they are because of what they can teach us. Of course, we should always hope that people choose to support one another to grow in love as they make their way along their unique paths.
Log into Facebook to start sharing and connecting with your friends, family, and people you know.
___________________________________________________________________*Autonomy: “independence or freedom, as of the will or one’s actions, i.e. the autonomy of the individual.”
Freedom. What every person seeking an abortion wants. Freedom. The ability to be in control of their own lives. To be able to restore their bodies to the state it is was in before they made a mistake out of naivety, were assaulted, or had their contraception method fail.
1) Peck, M. Scott. People of the Lie. The Hope for Healing Human Evil. Touchstone, 1985, 75.
2) Peck, M. Scott. The Road Less Traveled A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth. Touchstone, 1978, 38.
3) Peck, M. Scott. People of the Lie. The Hope for Healing Human Evil. Touchstone, 1985, 9.
5) Ibid; 255.
6) Ibid; 104.
7) Ibid; 68, 256.
8) Ibid; 47, 104.
9) Ibid; 121, 255.
10) Ibid; 42.
11) Ibid; 42–43.
12) Ibid; 43.
13) Ibid; 124.
14) Ibid; 70–71.
15) Ibid; 71.
16) Ibid; 123.
17) Ibid; 70–74, 76.
18) Ibid; 81–82.
19) Ibid; 75.
22) Ibid; 106.
23) Ibid; 136.
24) Ibid; 137, 163, 165.
25) Ibid; 179.
26) Ibid; 165.
27) Ibid; 107.
28) Ibid; 226.
29) Ibid; 218.
31) Ibid; 222.
32) Ibid; 220.
33) Ibid; 223.
34) Ibid; 225.
35) Ibid; 226.
36) Ibid; 241.
37) Ibid; 248.
38) Ibid; 69, 255.
39) Ibid; 240.
40) Ibid; 161.
41) “Dictionary.com.” Autonomy, Dictionary.com, www.dictionary.com.