Another treatment of one of humanity’s oldest traits (also see Jeremy Campbell, above).
Considering how common lying is, it’s a wonder that there are not more popular accounts of it. Sullivan (Four of Fools, 1995, etc.) has done us a service with her compact and literate take on our ancient capacity for deception. Beginning at the beginning with lying’s biblical pedigree, she places deception at the very dawn of human consciousness. Moving on to the how’s and why’s of lying, she discusses in detail why people lie and how they do so effectively. Holding up Othello’s Iago as the “perfect liar,” Sullivan illustrates the many tactics of the deceiver as employed by Shakespeare’s most odious villain. She also elucidates the similarities in the arts of lying, fiction, and acting—explaining, for example, why the Bard had such a talent for describing scoundrels. The often-high personal and social costs of lying (whether they entail the loss of personal credibility or the poisoning of social and political life) take up much of the analysis, and Sullivan discusses the various strategies, ancient and modern, used to confound deceivers and get at the truth. She questions the reliability of modern lie-detector tests, comparing them to the medieval tradition of the ordeal—wherein the truth or falsehood of a man’s word was determined by how well he endured a variety of unpleasant torments. (The ordeal itself is the subject of an entire chapter, with a detailed account of its underlying theological logic as well as its more sanguinary aspects.) One of the most fascinating chapters catalogues the uses of deception in the natural world—underscoring that the power of misdirection is not a human monopoly.
A true pleasure: Lying has come in for its fair share of philosophical analysis, but rarely has it been so well written about, or had more light shed on its true nature.