16.02.25, Denery, The Devil Wins

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Edwin D. Craun

The Medieval Review 16.02.25

Denery, Dallas G., II. The Devil Wins: A History of Lying from the Garden of Eden to the Enlightenment. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. pp. xi, 331. ISBN: 978-0-691-16321-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Edwin D. Craun
Washington and Lee University, Emeritus

The inevitable question fronts Dallas Denery's The Devil Wins, forming the title to his introduction: "Is it ever acceptable to lie?" (1). There might be many ways of writing a history of responses to this insistent question, and this book contains several of them--and more, for it covers not only lying itself as communicating something false with an intention to deceive but also flattery, hypocrisy, dissimulation, concealing the truth, and much more. It is, in short, a history of deception, not surprising from a historian of ideas whose work has centered on epistemological uncertainty from his first book, Seeing and Being Seen in the Later Middle Ages, which read confessionalia and perspectivist optics together. As this loose grouping and the very phrasing of the question indicate, Denery is not very interested in the semiotics of lying (What makes an act of speech a lie?) or in ethical analysis (What is the moral character and gravity of a given lie?). Instead, bookended by the serpent's words in Eden as interpreted in patristic exegesis and by Rousseau for whom society itself is the source of deceit, The Devil Wins sets forth lucidly the arguments of texts that grapple with how human beings should live in a world full of deception. To counter the common scholarly narrative contrasting Augustinian-inflected medieval prohibitions of lying with early modern acceptance of dissimulation, Denery chooses his texts not only from biblical exegesis, theology, and philosophy, but from conduct books, political treatises, dialogues about the status of women. Indeed, he writes five separate narrative histories of lying, each extended from Christian antiquity (never before that, even where Aristotle and the Stoics might be drawn in) to the eighteenth century, each focused on a different figure in light of another question: For whom is it acceptable to lie?: the Devil (not fitting all too well this second question of "for whom"), God (more properly, "Can God lie?"), human beings in general, courtiers, and women. While he sets aside the status of fiction (Do poets lie?) and politics (When is it acceptable for a political leader to lie?), who could complain that The Devil Wins lacks reach and ambition?

To counter the "popular narrative" of a medieval/early modern divide on lying, Denery writes a general history. Figures, like St. Bernard or Bernard Mandeville, are briefly identified--"perhaps the most famous religious figure of the twelfth century" (4) for the former. The story of the Fall in Eden is told over several pages. Aphoristic sentences open and close sections. Scholarly debates are ignored; indeed, scholarship is consigned to brief notes. Well-known texts, like Augustine's Contra mendacium and Christine de Pizan's Book of the City of Ladies, are foregrounded. Yet any medievalist is bound to learn a great deal from The Devil Wins: the great range of texts, unexpected and illuminating pairings (Bernard Mandeville and the Jansenist theologian Pierre Nicole), Denery's unfailingly patient exposition, and the increasingly fruitful interchange between his several histories guarantee this.

Denery's first two chapters, "The Devil," and "God," work from the Gospel and Paulinian contrast of the Devil's destructive falsehoods and God's creative truth. The first--dominated by Augustine, Nicholas of Lyra, and Luther--constitutes a brief history of the faulty exegesis initiated by the serpent. While medieval exegetes explore the riddles and gaps of the Genesis story of deception and fall, Luther focuses on the serpent's additions to God's word, tempting Eve to evade the simple obedience it demands. While for Luther exegetical difference results from struggles between the Devil's cunning and the one, true, literal meaning, Denery tellingly uses Acontius to show how that difference could create, in later writers, suspicion of "any claim to exegetical certainty" (57). "God" sets forth the tension, running throughout the Middle Ages, between the theologians' just, good, and omnipotent God and the biblical God who seems, at least, to deceive even the faithful in specific historical circumstances. While medievals resolve inconsistencies by developing God's prudence and the limits of human perception, Luther and Calvin find fraud acceptable if it accomplishes what an unknowable God wills. In the kind of final twist that makes this book so interesting, Denery traces how Descartes sets aside the God of the Bible who speaks to, and interacts with, humans, replacing him with a beneficent God who, far from deceiving us, invites us to know truth through the natural laws he has established.

"Human Beings" is the heart of this book. Denery traces how tension between Augustine's absolute prohibition of lying and lies by biblical figures drives Catholic thinkers down through Pascal as they search for premises to support ways of explaining those lies. (And I write "Catholic" advisedly for he omits, without explanation, Reformation writing.) Denery understands how Augustine saw every lie as a turning from God as truth and the speaker's inner word, although that ontological approach tempts Denery to scant the importance of consequences in Augustine's ethics of lying. Even more penetrating is his exposition, first, of Dominican thinkers for whom just doings with others create another frame for evaluating lying (that is, a frame other than that of God as truth) and, then, of Franciscans who develop the primacy of the speaker's intention. Finally, in a trenchant account of the successors to these scholastics, chiefly Antoninus of Florence and Navarrus, he shows convincingly that dissimulation may be seen as virtuous, depending on calculated outcomes and good intentions--a move that renders licit such devices as the equivocation and mental reservation so deplored by Pascal.

In his final chapters, Denery turns to two social groups commonly branded as arch-deceivers in medieval culture: courtiers and women. In the first he challenges the historiographical account that locates modernity in the early modern court's loss of confidence in traditional beliefs and institutions. John of Salisbury and Christine de Pizan, he argues, already advocate practicing a prudent deception that modifies ethical principles to suit circumstances because only then can the courtier and court lady fulfill their duties in an undecipherable and treacherous world. Renaissance conduct books extend the value of strategic lying by presenting it as so beneficial to the speaker and others that lies actually make civil society possible. "Women" turns first to the well-trodden ground of "Matheolus" and Christine de Pizan, of women as born liars, deception rising from their very bodies, and of a defense of women's constancy and prudence arising from women's own experience. What may be new for medievalists is how Denery lays out the strategies of early modern Venetian women writers who expose men as habitual liars in their very lying about women as congenital liars and in their preoccupation with adornment, emblematic of their verbal deceptions. Finally, he intertwines courtiers and women by considering Madame de Scudéry's salon culture, in which women create social and political harmony in a competitive world by concealing self-interest through complaisance and nonchalant conversation.

As I have indicated throughout this review, readers who know well certain texts will learn little from Denery's three-to-five page expositions of their arguments about deception. Nevertheless, the sheer generic and chronological range of material guarantees that any reader will encounter exciting new arguments about deception, set forth with clarity and analytical rigor (the latter especially as the book moves on). Moreover, a trenchant conclusion not only synthesizes all the material but uses Rousseau to argue that the real shift in the history of lying comes when its beginning lies not in Genesis but in humankind's movement from a state of nature to socialization. This important book's reach and ambition is amply vindicated in this conclusion in which the old alternatives--spanning Christian antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the early eighteenth century--of rejecting or accepting a mendacious world yield to a third way: being true to one's sentiments, even when one lies, as a natural solution to a natural problem.

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