4 March 2015


Dallas G. Denery II. The Devil Wins: A History of Lying from the Garden of Eden to the Enlightenment. Princeton University Press, 2015

This book is a history of responses to the question: Is it ever acceptable to lie? The author notes that it no longer means for us what it meant for people who lived through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Reformation. Scientists have established that "deception is written into the very fabric of nature". For humans evolution seems to have favoured those of us who deceive better than others.
One of the questions this book tries to answer is how the religious attitude that lying is a sin slowly gave way to the idea of it as a natural phenomenon. As Denery puts it in a highly quotable sentence: "The Devil's greatest victory, even if it meant his own self-annihilation, was to set in motion the long slow process that would one day make a corrupted world seem like the world God had meant to create all along."
The method used in this book is to consider the questions abut the moral and social aspects of lying from different perspectives, including the Devil, God, theologians, courtiers, and women.
Starting with the Devil, It seems that the main problem for Bible scholars and theologians was in trying to make sense of the first three chapters of Genesis. The Jewish exegete Philo of Alexandria interpreted the story of the temptation by the serpent in the Garden of Eden as an allegory, with the serpent as a symbol of base desire, Eve as a symbol for the senses, and Adam as a symbol of reason. The third-century theologian Origen noted that pagan critics of Christianity made fun of literal interpretations. However, Augustine and most subsequent Catholic and Reformation theologians argued for the story of Adam and Eve as referring to real historical events. It seems to me that the main reason for this is that the Bible might otherwise come to be seen as nothing but folklore, being useful in arguments about ethics but having no great relevance to religious belief and practice.
The 16th century Italian Protestant convert Jacobus Acontius told readers of his book about the Devil (which appeared in English translation in 1648, titled Satan's Stratagems or the Devils Cabinet-Counsel Discovered) that religious disagreements arose because, while all Christians accepted the truth of the words of the Bible, they disagreed about the meaning. This problem, that the same words can have different meanings to different people, is developed at some length. There is much about the use of this by some people to deceive others by saying things that are true but are likely to be given different meanings by those they are speaking to. For example, the Dominican Johannes Nider, in his discussion on hypocrisy, asks if a person sins who simulates sanctity to edify his neighbours, and concludes that it depends on his intentions. Like other theologians he drew distinctions between concealing and deceiving. He explained, "A person verbally lies when he signifies what is not, not when he is silent about what is, which is sometimes allowed."

Historians see response to illusory deception and uncertainty as an explanation to account for Europe's transition from a medieval society to an early modem one. Long-held religious, cultural and scientific beliefs had become unusable, or even untenable. The debate on the problem of uncertainty focused on two distinct types of response, those that favoured the theoretical intellect, and those that favoured the practical intellect. Descartes concluded that most things were uncertain and that one should accept as true only those opinions that are undoubtedly true and incapable of being false.
Most thinkers, though, preferred the practical approach, where each problem must be solved by rational thinking and argument. The more practically minded people were well aware of the dangers of always telling one another the truth, and the whole truth. Denery remarks that the entire tradition of court writing had recognised the value of lies, whether virtuous, pious, necessary or expedient. A chapter is devoted to women and begins: "There are liars and there are women, and every woman is a liar." This describes the often over-the-top misogyny of male writers accusing women of being habitual liars, and how women writers responded by expressing similar opinions about men.
The book concludes by describing how thinking about lying has moved from religion to philosophy. "The ground shifts, and the question of lying finds itself irrevocably shifted from God and the Devil." -- John Harney

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