A Brief History of Lying, 395 – 1723


A Brief History of Lying, 395 – 1723

November 13, 2013 / 5:00 pm - 7:00 pm / Add to Google
370 Dwinelle Hall

Dallas Denery, Associate Professor of History, Bowdoin College

Lying plays a surprisingly important part in popular accounts of Europe’s transformation from a medieval or pre-modern to an early modern society. According to these histories, Europe becomes modern when Europeans begin to lie, or, to be more precise, when they begin to argue that it is sometimes licit and virtuous to lie. This story offers a clear trajectory of historical development: a medieval world of faith in which every lie is believed to be sinful gives way to a more worldly, more self-interested early modern society in which lying becomes an acceptable strategy for self-defense and self-advancement. Unfortunately, much of this story is wrong. Not only did medieval writers disagree about the morality of lying, but early modern writers frequently justified mendacity in explicitly religious terms. From Augustine’s late fourth-century treatise, <em>On Lying</em>, to Bernard Mandeville’s controversial 1723 work, <em>The Fable of the Bees; or Private Vices, Publick Benefits</em>, this talk considers the changing role that lies were thought to play in human society.

Dallas G. Denery is an associate professor at Bowdoin College where he specializes in medieval and early modern European intellectual and religious history. His first book, <em>Seeing and Being Seen in the Later Medieval World</em>, examined the connections among thirteenth- and fourteenth-century religious practice, science and theology. While on leave last year at the University Center for Human Values, Princeton University, he completed a second book,<em> The Devil Wins: A History of Lying from the Garden of Eden to the Enlightenment</em>.

The Berkeley Public Forum on Religion is a program of the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion.

Introduction: Jonathan Sheehan, Professor of History and BCSR Director, UC Berkeley