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  • The Devil Wins: A History of Lying from the Garden of Eden to the Enlightenment by Dallas G. Denery II
  • Jeffrey Burton Russell
The Devil Wins: A History of Lying from the Garden of Eden to the Enlightenment. By Dallas G. Denery II. (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2015. Pp. xiv, 331 $29.95. ISBN 978-0-691-16321-5.)

The devil is the original great deceiver, and here he gets top billing in the title of a book that is only tangential to him. Nor is the book a history of the lies that have been told from the beginning (which would be impossible: only God knows), but rather a history of the ideas about lying.

This is a splendid book. Dallas G. Denery II has a wide grasp of recent works as well as deep and critical knowledge of scores of theories about lying from the Old Testament through the Enlightenment. It is also original as the first successful attempt at a full history of the subject.

The book centers on the question “Is it ever acceptable to lie?” and explores in detail the views of many theologians, philosophers, political theorists, and other writers. The author’s ability to understand and critique these ideas is subtle and discerning. He realizes that ideas have consequences in themselves while always showing their social context.

Writing about broad swathes of the history of ideas makes one choose between a chronological or topical organization, and a compromise is always necessary. The author opts for the more topical. In the first chapter he treats the supernatural origins of lying from the Old Testament to Martin Luther and John Calvin. The second chapter deals with the question of whether God can lie and why he might do so. The third chapter centers on St. Augustine and on subsequent Christian interpretations. This may be the most important chapter, as it shows how later Christian writers modified Augustine’s absolute prohibition on prevarication, eventually to the point of casuistry. The fourth examines “courtiers”—that is, political theorists from John of Salisbury through Christine de Pisan to the Enlightenment. The fifth, on “women,” has a different angle from that of the other chapters: it is much less about women’s concepts of lying than about misogynist blaming of women for lies.

In the important conclusion, Denery demonstrates the change from a theological and supernatural attitude toward lies to a secular one, a shift from seeking absolute truth to social (and hence ultimately either relativist or totalitarian) views: “Between Augustine and Rousseau everything seems to have changed” (p. 251). One of the few problems in the author’s work is that in the last paragraphs he [End Page 889] attaches himself to the secular, relativist attitude. This is the prevailing academic prejudice, but it ignores two things: many intelligent people still prefer the Christian view; and history shows that every prevailing view, including contemporary secularism, will eventually become outmoded.

The best among the many virtues of the book is its successful combination of history and philosophy. What answer can be given to the question “Is it ever permissible to lie?”? Readers could hunt around for whichever approach they like best; or they could make up their own (although they could hardly invent one that has not been thought of before). But either of these options would rest on flimsy bases. The most defensible and firm answer is what this book presents: the historical treatment of the most important answers human thinkers have given to the question over time. The ultimate answer can be provided only by God; short of that, the human answer is what we’ve got, and when we have the full panoply of human answers, we are as close to the truth as we can ever be. The truth about lying is the history of how humans have treated lying.

A reservation that both the author and this reviewer understand is that an even fuller answer would involve an examination of attitudes toward lying in other cultures—Chinese, for example, or Arabian. Perhaps some future genius will provide that; meanwhile, Denery’s book is by far the best treatment ever.

Jeffrey Burton Russell


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pp. 889-890
Launched on MUSE
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