The Chronicle Review

Lies, All Lies


January 12, 2015

Practically speaking, I’ve always been interested in lying. But I remember when the subject first caught my intellectual attention: I was 11 or 12, in a Waldenbooks, and the shelves of the philosophy section—I’ve walked straight to that aisle since I was a kid, with my dad, who loved philosophy, though he was kicked out of college after only one semester—were lined with copies of Sissela Bok’s best-selling Lying. I was nervous even to pick it up, fearing, as many people do, that taking an interest in lies would expose that I was a liar.

The Devil Wins: A History of Lying from the Garden of Eden to the Enlightenment

By Dallas G. Dennery II (Princeton University Press)

This is one of the curious facts about lying. It’s treated a lot like the subject of masturbation was at around the same time. Among my friends, everyone suspected that all of us masturbated, but when one kid, my closest buddy—now a respected psychiatrist—tried to bring it up honestly, we laughed at him and nervously changed the subject.

This is how we handle embarrassing open secrets about popular "vices." And we lie even more often (a lot more often) than we masturbate. In Dallas G. Denery’s excellent new history of Western thinking on deception, The Devil Wins, he cites a recent study that shows that "during every 10 minutes of conversation, we lie three times and even more frequently when we use email and text messaging."

Furthermore, Denery argues, this is not a trivial fact about human nature. "Christian writers from the earliest days of the Church to the seventeenth-century writings of Blaise Pascal, John Milton, and beyond would have agreed with [Bernard of Clairvaux] that the problem of the lie, of lying, was the problem of human existence itself."

It’s a funny thing about lying: We all do it, and we all damn it. In many traditions, both Western and Eastern, it is considered among the most blameworthy of acts. Think of your reaction when someone points out a lie you’ve told or accuses you of deception. I have friends who could laugh off being called an adulterer but would storm out of the room if I said, "You’re a liar."

But suddenly a lot of people are talking about lying. Denery’s book is part of an influx of fine new academic work on deception that’s being done in a variety of fields and having an impact both within academe and in the larger world of intelligent readers. The psychologists Kang Lee and Gail Heyman are studying the lies that children tell parents and that parents tell children. Dan Ariely’s The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty (2012) looks at why and how commonly we lie through the lens of behavioral economics. The playful On Bullshit (2005) was an international best seller by one of the 20th century’s most perceptive philosophers, Harry Frankfurt.

Recent groundbreaking essays on lying and self-deception have appeared from the ethicist Alan Strudler and the philosopher Alfred Mele, and Gerald Dworkin has written a manuscript, "The Care and Management of Lies." Perhaps the most engaging book written in the past few years is the sociobiologist Robert Trivers’s The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life (2011).

One failing of much of the current work is that it is largely uninformed by the 2,000-plus years of writing on deception that has already been done by many of our greatest thinkers. Denery’s book is noteworthy because it is the first systematic study of the history of Western thought on the subject. Most studies of lying nod to Plato’s idea of the gennaios pseudos, or "noble lie," and perhaps to Augustine’s detailed classification of lies or to his controversial suggestion that "it is not a lie when truth is passed over in silence." And just about everyone mentions Kant’s almost universally contested thesis that it is always wrong to lie, even to a murderer at the door.

But Denery takes a close look at lesser-known thinkers as well, such as John Chrysostom, a fourth-century archbishop, some of whose homilies discuss the Devil’s lies to Eve through her conversation with the serpent. Eve was chosen by the Devil because, as a woman, she was more likely to believe his lies, according to Chrysostom, and Denery devotes an entire chapter—perhaps the best and most surprising in the book—to the proposition, popular in Western history, that "there are liars and there are women, and every woman is a liar." Almost every Western theological philosopher traces the deceptive character of women back to Eve, but who knew that Tertullian wrote a third-century treatise, On Female Apparel, attacking, among other things, makeup?

Denery explores analyses of an enormous variety of deceptions, and does so with an erudition that is never pedantic or monotonous. He is an entertaining writer, with a healthy skepticism about the dogmatic condemnation of lying as always, or even mostly, morally blameworthy.

His most ambitious thesis is a genealogical one, in Nietzsche’s sense of the word (I think Nietzsche would have loved this book): that our Western understanding of deception has undergone a radical change from Augustine’s time to Rousseau’s. For Augustine, lying is always wrong and is an expression of our fallen state; for Rousseau, "the occasional lie" can be justified because we have been forced into deception by our decadent society. "If there is a before and an after in the history of lying, then Rousseau’s Discourses may well mark the moment when the one becomes the other," Denery writes. "With Rousseau, deception and lying become natural problems, problems with natural causes and, hopefully, natural solutions."

Indeed, Rousseau proposes some solutions in Émile, his treatise on the education of children, when he insists that—contrary to the notions of his own day, but in agreement with psychological research in the 21st century—most children lie because they are coerced into doing so by their own parents. I have called these "broken-cookie-jar lies": What kind of deceptive behavior is a parent engaging in when he or she asks a young child, caught with a cookie in hand and a broken jar on the floor: "Now, who is responsible for that?"

Every scholar who works on deception must read Denery’s book, as should anyone who has an interest in the long tradition of vilification of women as the deceptive sex. And now that Denery has taken us all the way to the Enlightenment, we can only hope that there will be a follow-up volume: The Devil Wins Again: Lying From the Enlightenment to the Present Day.

Clancy Martin is a professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. His latest book, Love and Lies, will appear from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in February.