The true history of lying

Is lying always a sin or is mendacity not just permissible but the very substance of social cohesion? The author of A History of Lying from the Garden of Eden to the Enlightenment traces its crooked path down the ages

Pulled from the latest headlines: “Mayor Caught in a Lie!” “Did Wall Street Lies Create Financial Downfall?” “Web of Lies Led to Murder of Husband!” “‘I Lied My Way to the Top’ Fake Harvard Grad Confesses!” Studies reveal that each and every one of us lies every few minutes, that lying has reached epidemic proportions threatening the very foundations of society, corroding our civil discourse, warping our politics.

Is lying more prevalent now than in the past, more insidious? There are more people in the world than ever before, so odds are good more lies are told than ever before. Television and the internet make it easier than ever to broadcast what we say to untold millions, billions, and given that so much of what we say is false and deceptive, no doubt whatever lies we tell fall on unprecedented numbers of innocent ears. Perhaps things are worse than ever before, that lies will be the end of us.

Or perhaps not.

Historical perspective is always a useful thing and if history tells us anything about lying it tells us that people have always thought there was too much of it and however much of it there was, there was always more of it now than there had ever been before. The 12th-century English courtier and future Bishop of Chartres, John of Salisbury, feared no time had ever been so dangerous for men of honest virtue. According to John, the royal and ecclesiastical courts of Europe teemed with every sort of deceiver and falsifier, with timeservers and wheedlers, gift-givers, actors, mimics, procurers and gossipmongers. The only thing that surpassed their variety was their number “for the foul inundation of their cancerous disease seeps into all so that there is rarely anyone left uncontaminated”.


Long before John, scripture had already warned that “every man is a liar” and after John, throughout the Middle Ages, into and beyond the Renaissance, few people would deny that the problem of lies had reached never-before-witnessed proportions. Writing late in the 16th century, the French skeptic Pierre Charron asked his readers to “observe how all mankind are made up of falsehood and deceit, of tricks and lies, how unfaithful and dangerous, how full of disguise and design all conversation is at present become, but especially, how much more it abounds near [the prince], and how manifestly hypocrisy and dissimulation are the reigning qualities of princes’ courts.”

Until the French Revolution, the problem of lying and hypocrisy often seemed to be experienced most keenly in the courts of the European elite, those hybrid spaces, both public and private, political and domestic, in which eager bureaucrats and all manner of hangers-on sought their fortunes. A zero sum game, fortune hunting required the self-serving courtier to deceive and slander his competitors, to fawn over and flatter his superiors.

A difficult balance to keep. As the English Renaissance writer Nathaniel Walker noted in The Refin'd Courtier, it was a matter of learning how to "demean ourselves acceptably" before our superiors, without appearing willing "to lick the very spittle from under their feet." In a place seemingly constructed to promote lying and flattery, a breeding ground for plots, conspiracies and coups, in which every friendly face might well conceal devious designs, how should a person respond? Is it acceptable to fight fire with fire, to lie to the liars? Again and again courtiers asked, is it ever acceptable to lie? and again and again they answered, Yes.

Actually, people rarely came out in whole-hearted favour of lies. Almost to a person, medieval and Renaissance writers condemned lies as vile and pernicious. There was tradition behind this opinion. The early fifth-century bishop Augustine had argued that every lie was a sin and every sin must be avoided. No good can come from evil, and even lies told with the best of intentions are sins nonetheless. Augustine’s definition would be repeated incessantly throughout the ensuing centuries, repeated so frequently that historians have too often argued that we can distinguish the Middle Ages from the Renaissance in terms of how people thought about lies. During the Middle Ages, so this story goes, every lie was prohibited (which is different than claiming no one lied – we always have and always will do all sorts of things we shouldn’t), whereas in the Renaissance people became a bit more realistic about what it takes to get on in the world.

But this is simply not the case. John of Salisbury thought there was nothing for it but for the virtuous man to lie to accomplish the good and to protect himself from the evil schemers that everywhere surround him. Christine de Pizan, often thought to be Europe’s first professional writer, had similar thoughts about princesses and noblewomen. The princess should never lie, true, but she must also do her best to maintain peaceful relations with her husband and the other members of the court, between the court and the commoners. When lies are needed to secure these worthy ends, then lie she must.

A sad truth supported this rather pragmatic line of ethical thinking. We live in a fallen and corrupt world, a world so morally adrift and complicated, knotted and entangled, that there are few, perhaps no, moral certainties, and all too many situations in which we will have no choice but to sin to avoid greater sins.

We need moral principles to guide our actions, but principles can conflict with one another, the demand that we be truthful in all our actions may run afoul the demand that we always act with charity towards others. In other words, courtly proponents of mendacity were, more often than not, skeptics and probabilists, finding refuge not in Aristotle’s ethics, but in Cicero’s rhetoric. Like a skilled orator, we must adjust our words and actions to the moment, to the circumstances. Depending upon the circumstances, even the most secure of moral principles may have to give way to others.

The seed of a new idea lay buried within these defences of courtly deceit, slowly germinating, growing and supplanting long-standing ideas about lies. Medieval writers like John and Christine argued that we must sometimes lie to protect ourselves, to protect the state. Theologians disagreed. Civil society, they argued, depends upon the assumption that we deal truthfully and honestly with each other. If we were to deem some lies acceptable, how could we ever trust anyone, trust that, even as you sign this contract, make this promise, you have not secretly judged this to be a moment of permissible mendacity?

This account of social harmony in no way matched the experience of the members of the European courts, neither in the Middle Ages, nor in the Renaissance. From their vantage point, lies seemed very much like the very substance of social cohesion. We lie to protect ourselves and to advance ourselves. We lie to avoid conflict and simply to grease the wheels of social interaction.

"The gentleman courtier is not subject to himself," wrote Philibert de Vienne in his mid-sixteenth-century satire, The Philosopher of the Court, "if it is necessary to laugh, he laughs, if it is necessary to grieve, he cries, if it is necessary to eat, he eats, and if it is necessary to fast, he fasts."

He says and does whatever the moment requires, regardless of how he feels or what he thinks. Medieval and early modern courtiers labelled this sort of sycophancy flattery, considered it little more than base mendacity, condemned it roundly, and recommended its practice absolutely. In his Renaissance bestseller, Civil Conversation, Stefano Guazo writes, "The world is full of and subsists by flattery, which is more in fashion than peeked beards and large ruffs. You see how all persons for the sake of peace, and to avoid contention, and that they may appear agreeable in company, comport themselves in the best manner they can to other men's talk and behavior." Without lies, they realised, society would fall apart.

So the next time we hear some pundit railing against lying politicians or read some study about the newfound prominence of lying in modern society, maybe we should look between the lines. Rather than worry about the fact that everyone lies, we should concern ourselves with the reasons why we lie. We will always be liars, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t always ask ourselves when it is acceptable to lie and when it isn’t.

A History of Lying from the Garden of Eden to the Enlightenment by Dallas G Denery II is published on January 28th by Princeton University Press