'The Devil Wins' Gives Us the Honest Truth About Lies

This is an interesting historical survey of how Christian theologians have handled the thorny issue of truth and lies.

The Devil Wins: A History of Lying From the Garden of Eden to the Enlightenment

Publisher: Princeton University Press
Length: 352 pages
Author: Dallas G. Denery II
Price: $29.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-01

So a man, a woman and a serpent walk into a garden. And there’s this tree in the middle of the garden, right? With big juicy apples. Organic, non-GMO, beautifully tempting apples. And God tells the man “Don’t eat this or you’ll die!” and the man tells the woman “We can’t eat this or we’ll die!” and the woman tells the serpent “We can’t eat this or we’ll die!” and the serpent says “Naw, you can eat it sure, you won’t die!” and the woman tells the man “We can eat it, we won’t die!” and so they eat an apple and then all hell breaks loose.

Well, it’s an age-old story, no matter how you tell it. And centuries – millennia, depending who you talk to – after it was written, the fallout still continues. What went wrong? Who’s to blame for what? How do we deal with this original disaster? Like a Geraldo episode writ large across millennia and spanning the greater part of the world, this singular story has sparked countless interpretations and arguments.

The well-lettered (and incomparably named) historian Dallas G. Denery II has synthesized one particular strand of this mess, and applied a broad analytical lens to the issue. He’s interested in the matter of lying. What does this story—and its varying interpretations by different groups throughout history—tell us about how our society conceptualized lying? How did this story—and the way theologians and priests and others took it up and engaged with it—help shape social understandings of lying and deception: what these concepts meant, when they were appropriate or not, and what the varying nuances and shades of gray actually were at different points in time and place?

The book takes the form of five distinct yet interrelated essays, each of which explores the notion of ‘lying’ in different theological and social contexts. The first chapter, for example, explores the role of the Devil in all this, and the lie that started it all, regarding that infamous apple in the Garden of Eden that (according to one interpretation) God told Adam to tell Eve not to eat lest they die: "You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."

Well, the Devil didn’t entirely lie, hey? Their eyes sure were opened (and it was while they were hiding their newly discovered nakedness that God realized something was afoot. Unless he knew all along?—but hold that thought for later). But this is an important distinction: did the Devil lie, or simply mislead? And why did Eve believe the lie? Was she gullible? Arrogant? Curious? Ambitious? And why did Adam believe Eve when she said it was okay to eat the apple? Did he believe her? Or was he just smitten with passion (platonic passion, mind you – no carnal lust in Eden, remember!) and didn’t want to fight with her and thought he could sort it out with God later?

Well, you get the idea. Much ado about an apple, and centuries of theologians and priests and philosophers have been at war (sometimes literally so) ever since. Picking over the relevant verses with a fine-tooth comb, every element of the story has produced complex interpretive debate—what biblical scholars refer to as ‘exegesis’. For example, why Eve? Why didn’t the Devil go tempt Adam? If the Devil wanted to prove something, wouldn’t tricking a man have had more of an oomph? (Because: medieval minds.) Maybe he went for Eve because he knew she’d be easier to persuade because she got the whole apple story second-hand from Adam, anyway (or so the biblical reader assumes).

These were more than just abstract debates. This latter notion, for example, offered a useful tool for priests in pointing out that first generation converts to the faith were suspect and easier to mislead into new heresies, because their faith was newer and more fragile, just as Eve was the newer and therefore more fragile human who (presumably) heard the ‘truth’ about the apple second-hand.

In Chapter Two, Denery turns his attention to God. So, the Devil may have said the first lie, but hold on now. Isn’t God supposed to be all-powerful? Does the fact that he let the Devil lie and ruin all of creation indicate that God is actually not all-powerful? Or did God actually let the Devil lie? Knowing how it would all turn out? Because… of destiny? Does that mean God thinks it’s okay to allow lying under certain circumstances? Like, when he’s predestined it to be so? Maybe because short-term evil can lead to long-term good? (Now that’s opening a can of worms!)

Such questions preoccupied the medieval mind (in fact, minds that came along much later than the medieval period, too), and led to such profound prognostications as that of 12th century Peter Lombard: “Evil things are not done with God willing or unwilling, but with him not willing, because it is not subject to God’s will that an evil be done or not done, but that he allows it to be done, because it is good to allow evil things to be done; and he allows it entirely willingly, not willing evil things, but willing to allow that they be done, because evil things are not good, nor is it good for them to be or be done.” (Mull over that for a bit. If you think of it as a rap battle, it’s a bit easier to digest.)

The third part of the book shifts focus to humanity, and the complications all this post-apple discourse engendered in humans’ dealings with each other. For examplez, in a world where being of the wrong sect could get you, or your neighbour, burned at the stake, was it okay to lie when soldiers of the Inquisition knocked at the door and inquired about your religious beliefs? Or that of your neighbour? What if telling the truth could get you, your family, your neighbours killed? Is it okay to lie then?

One of the ideas that emerged from this question was the notion that humans had different obligations toward God (not to lie) and toward each other (not to tell truths that would get each other killed or cause suffering). Thus, we see the diverging spiritual world and human world in modern thought. The importance of intention also emerged (was the intent of the lie to harm? To help? To help yourself? To help others? Was the lie ‘pure’, i.e., morally neutral?).

Some theologians developed complex hierarchies of lies categorized according to their sinfulness. Another idea that emerged was the notion of mixed speech. “Did you just steal the cookie from the cookie jar?” asks the teacher. “No! I did not just steal the cookie from the cookie jar,” replies the student in a defiant voice, silently adding the unspoken thought “I actually stole it two hours ago!” Well, you get the idea.

The medieval world’s mental acrobatics might seem trite by today’s standards, but they represent the efforts of a society struggling to reconcile its religious ideals with its complex daily realities. And such mental acrobatics also set the stage for developments in the fields of politics, diplomacy and statecraft.

Which is the focus of Denery’s fourth chapter: the world of courts and courtiers (or as John of Salisbury described them in 1159, “flatterers, wheedlers, and gossipmongers”). How did all those nobles and their staff and families and hangers-on handle the complex relations of court and statecraft, which often required complicated engagements with truth, lies, and every nuance in between? With great difficulty and complexity, is the answer (as well as infinite creativity), and Denery explores some of the intriguing theological and political theories this produced.

By the time of 16hth century writer Nathaniel Walker, times had changed indeed, and now there was such a thing as “a commendable kind of deceit”. Adults could lie to children, doctors could lie to patients; you could tell lies to save people’s lives or even their souls (lying to convert them to the “true” faith -- whichever yours happened to be -- was perfectly fine mof course). You could even, he notes, lie to a friend in order to avoid his invitation to go see that play you’ve been really dreading. “Charity is better than Truth” became the commonplace maxim of the period (well, that’s one excuse to get out of seeing 50 Shades of Gray!).

As the years progressed, handbooks for life at court began to openly discuss the virtues of charitable deceptions, and offer advice on how to pull them off authentically. Eventually the thought even struck some writers: when it comes down to it, doesn’t faking virtue have the same positive outcome for society as actually being virtuous? Is there really a difference?

In the final and perhaps most fascinating chapter, Denery looks at how the theological mind associated women with lies, deception and sin. This too dates back to that apple kerfuffle, with Eve taking the lion’s share of the blame. This eventually led to extreme misogynist extrapolations in the medieval era, with thinkers even drawing on scientific explanations to try to find evidence of women’s supposedly inferior nature. Denery traces the roots of this philosophical, scientific misogyny back to Aristotle, although it was greatly intensified by early and medieval Christian theologians.

Against this misogynist backdrop which depicted women as inherently lying and deceitful, voices of resistance rose. He looks at the work of Christine de Pizan, Moderata Fonte, Lucrezia Marinella, and Madeleine de Scudery, among others—all women (one could even call them feminists) who wrote powerful books refuting the misogynistic texts of the period. More than that: they gave as good as they got, calling out the inherent wickedness of men, from their lying and war-mongering to their deceitful politicking and even their obsession with fancy pants, ties and wigs. “In men, everything is feigned: looks, sighs, colors, words, deeds. You can never discover the truth of their souls or tell whether they are acting sincerely—except when they are perpetrating some particularly grave offence against women,” writes Fonte (in the late 1500s).

What emerges through all five chapters is a fascinating trajectory that takes us from a time when lies were considered by some theologians to be absolutely and categorically sinful, to an age when it was widely accepted that modern society depended on them. This even gave birth to the practice of ‘complaisance’—the increasingly forgotten art of going along with somebody else’s ideas or wishes even if you disagree with them, for the sake of maintaining peaceful, polite society. Such notions were the product of a society that had come to a growing consensus that virtue was often fake, that sometimes we even deluded ourselves as to our own sincerity, and that therefore we must practice polite deceptions in order to all get along together. The literary classes concluded that “[t]he success of civil society depends on concealing intentions and interests behind white lies, false pleasantries, and insincere gestures,” writes Denery.

He concludes with the arrival on scene of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant, whose writings indeed underscore just how far the lie has traveled. Rousseau accepts that sometimes lies happen and instead of dressing up the fact with elaborate justifications, let’s simply recognize that sometimes we don’t live up to our ideals, for various reasons. The important thing, he suggests, is that we need to be sincere and true to ourselves—to trust our instincts and judgements about what the moment calls for. It’s not a divine problem, he says, but a human one. And Kant, when he discusses the story of Genesis and that infernal apple, reminds his readers that trying to find truth in this account is not “a serious activity but merely… a healthy mental recreation.”

Denery’s effort is in part to demonstrate the wide variety of perspectives which existed on the matter of lies and deception, and how they were manipulated to serve a variety of purposes both practical and ideological. In doing so, he offers a new trajectory for explaining the process of how lying shifted from being a divine problem, to being our problem as human beings. A work that spans the better part of two millennia is going to be far from exhaustive, and Denery admits it; nonetheless his selective examination of specific theological strands succeeds in demonstrating the vivid debates these ideas produced.

It’s an interesting book — well researched, fluidly written, and persuasively argued -- but perhaps of more limited interest than it tries to portray itself as. A scholarly (yet accessible) work, it will appeal primarily to those of a theological or philosophical bent, or with interests in religion and Christianity. For a broader audience, the relevance of some of these debates may appear less apparent.

Still, as the reader will learn, appearances can be deceiving, and there are no doubt some eternal truths to be found here. Some of the themes underlying these theological debates still consume us today, albeit in different guises. Is it dishonest to omit details? Or to tell the truth, when you know it’ll lead people to do something that’s against their best interests? Or by the same token, is deception okay when it leads to positive outcomes? Is accidentally misleading people better than intentionally misleading people, and is misleading people better than lying?

We may not couch our contemporary musings in debates about apples and serpents, but Denery’s intriguing study demonstrates that we still haven’t sorted out some of these eternal, burning questions.

Splash image: Funny devil by © ValentinT from


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