The Way We Lie Now

Clancy Martin praises Dallas G. Denery’s The Devil Wins for being the first systematic history of Western thought about lying, noting that one of the book’s more intriguing arguments is 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?”