Story posted June 14, 2004
It is nearly impossible to resist calling Dallas Denery a career liar. The Bowdoin College assistant professor of history has spent the last several years investigating the history of deception. In fact, he says, it may be as good a way as any of understanding Western intellectual history.
"When you look at changing attitudes about lying from early Christians such as Augustine, to Renaissance writers such as Machiavelli, and on to early modern scientists and philosophers like Descartes, you really can learn something about the origins of the Modern world," says Denery.
Denery is one of only 11 scholars selected to participate in a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar, "The Seven Deadly Sins as Cultural Constructions in the Middle Ages," at Cambridge University this summer. "Deception is essentially a form of hypocrisy," says Denery, grinning, "so I guess they figured they had to accept me." While in Cambridge, Denery also will begin research on his new book about the history of lying.
"Cambridge is one of the great Medieval resources in the world," he says. "To spend five weeks there working with other specialists and conducting my own research is the only way I could make progress on this new book. You simply cannot remain a specialist in your field if you do not have the opportunity to go abroad and get your hands on manuscripts. Much of this material has never made its way into print. I suspect a lot of it has not been examined in decades, centuries even."
Denery first began mining the intellectual history of the Middle Ages while doing his doctoral work at the University of California, Berkeley, in the '90s. Originally a philosophy major, Denery says he felt duped by a curriculum that started with the Greeks, skipped 1,600 years of Western civilization, then picked up again with Descartes. "You mean, no one thought of anything before Descartes?" he says. "I began to get suspicious. I decided that all the secrets had to be in the period no one was teaching me."
Naturally, he became a Medievalist. While studying 13th- and 14th-century manuscripts, Denery realized that debates over deception played a seminal role in connecting the so-called Dark Ages with the Age of Reason.
"Augustine would have said, 'Under no circumstances can you ever lie.' Period. Even if you were lying to save someone from being murdered," says Denery. "When he interprets biblical passages in which it would seem people are lying, he goes through them meticulously to show that no deception occurred.
"Then, in the 1200s and 1300s, slowly, people begin to say things like: 'Well, maybe if you don't feel holy, you should pretend you're holy as a good example to people.' In manuals for members of religious orders, there is a tacit sort of acceptance of certain forms of deception if it will help the success of your preaching. At the very same time, theologians and philosophers begin to wonder if God could deceive the faithful. Could God make the Devil look like Christ and then order you to worship the Devil as Christ?"
"Machiavelli is a landmark moment in the history of deception," notes Denery. "It's the basis of his entire work. What matters to the prince is the control of his state; in that context, deception becomes a tool one uses for the greater end of the state and the prince's power. Medieval political treatises are much different. They emphasize the need for the prince, the king or the courtier to model himself on Catholic moral values. By the 1500s, the entire playing field has changed and it is openly understood that courtiers have to lie to impress their patrons."
Denery believes that between 1100 and 1650 there was a gradual, though ultimately pronounced shift in Western attitudes about deception, a shift that radically altered spiritual and moral values and even the practice of science.
"Descartes is very important in crystallizing this shift," Denery explains. "He begins his greatest and most influential work with a simple thought experiment: 'What if God was actually an evil, deceiving God?' In that scenario, how could you know anything? What procedures would you need to implement to guarantee that you do not fall prey to his deceptions? It is not too much to say that Descartes' solution to this problem is the method of modern science."
Denery comes by his fascination with deception honestly. His first concept of the world, he said, was framed by the Watergate scandal. "My mom had me watch the Watergate hearings in the third grade. I'd complain, it was summer after all, and she would say, 'Just watch it, this is important.' I'm not sure how much I understood, but I did come away with the idea that everyone in power lies as a matter of course."
All lies are not the same, however, and in their variations Denery is re-examining Western political, religious and scientific thought throughout the ages. "It's a matter of teasing out the interesting details," he says.
Rather than leaving him cynical, Denery's research seems to be deepening his sense of human potential. "My work is always part of a more general question: How did we get to be the way we are? I always hope that if I can understand the different forces that have shaped the way we think now, I can gain a better sense of who we are and what our options are."