Lies, damned lies?

“Does my bum look big in this?” Charity probably requires a lie in reply. To the Gruppenführer asking about the Jew in your attic, you cannot respond truthfully without conspiring in evil. The most interesting problems of mendacity are moral.

In A History of Lying, however, Juan Jacinto Muñoz-Rengel counts moral propositions – among a long list of alarmingly different utterances – as what he calls lies, on the grounds that morality is a name for the self-interested conventions of objectionable elites. He tells us that he is interested in lies only “in a nonmoral sense”. Nietzsche is one of the few people he mentions with approval, or without sneering. Instead of applied ethics, therefore, he offers purported history – but not of the concept of lying, nor of the uses of deceit, for history, as historians understand it, hardly interests him more than morality. His “history” is a litany of alleged lies, so all-encompassing as to be self-subverting. Science, he claims, lies habitually; so do religions; so do Christians and atheists alike. Art and literature lie – not just aberrantly but pervasively and necessarily. Metaphors are lies. Love is a lie, and Cupid’s darts are dipped in dopamine. Monogamy is not recommendable on objective grounds, but is a Christian and colonialist conspiracy. “All our knowledge”, says the author, “is based on lies” – which, if so, would make “knowledge” a misnomer. “Everything”, he assures us, has been “moved by a thoroughgoing inclination to lie.”

The conclusion is tiresomely predictable and nonsensical: of “everything being a lie” except Descartes’ famous truism – but even that is vitiated by our author’s doubts about the truthfulness of doubts. Not only is “the idea of ​​truth… empty of meaning” in Muñoz-Rengel’s mind, but “the thing we call truth” – our author proclaims with breathtaking innocence or mick-taking impertinence – “does not exist.” As Roger Scruton says in Modern Philosophy: “A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ‘merely relative’, is asking you not to believe him. So don’t”.

The feeling grows that we are entering a strangely loopy Wonderland, where only a fool would follow, as we marvel at Muñoz-Rengel’s apparent inability to make elementary distinctions. He seems unable to tell the difference between lies, which are by definition calculated to deceive, and other forms of falsehood. Follies and fancies, stories and superstitions, misapprehensions and myths, simulation and selectiveness, plagiarism and pretension, stratagems and spoofs, illusions and honest errors all tumble into the same Procrustean bed. The author condemns “the faculty of being able to feel one thing and say another”, apparently unaware that I can, without lying, think he is a cretin, but say only that he is misguided. Mental reservation may be misleading, but it does not lead to lies.

In dismissing arguments for the existence of God or the immortality of the soul, Muñoz-Rengel confuses what is undemonstrable with what is dishonest. He even classes as lies the deceptive camouflage with which evolution equips predators and their prey. But the tiger does not lie when he puts on his stripes, or the leopard his spots: no other trim could be truer to their natures. One might as well blame the hippo for his girth or the shark for his appetite. Medieval and early modern lawyers did prosecute animals, including rats and locusts, but out of a generous conviction that the creatures could exercise a form of moral discrimination that is, alas, unavailable to them. Indifference to difference is glaring in a writer who strings together “unicorns, angels, the Gorgons, the Leviathan, the Loch Ness Monster, Atlantis, Lilliput, Neverland” as notions “scientifically disproven”. How Swift and Barrie might rejoice at their inclusion in such company!

The author excels himself when he avers – and, despite the temptation to lie, I have not made this up – that “we lie when we consider what clothes to wear.” I may lie to my rival or my wife, or even to my God, but I have always maintained scrupulously neutral language in addressing my hats and socks.

We can hardly expect a writer convinced of the universality of falsehood to bother with facts. I have never seen so many outrageous misrepresentations in so short a book. We might forgive Muñoz-Rengel for hailing Descartes as “the founder of rationalism”, or calling Lewis Carroll a “country parson”, or thinking that the Templars originated as escort squads for traveling relics, or saying that male humans are attracted to females’ waists “seventy per cent narrower than their hips”, or supposing that self-referentiality is “a purely kind [sic] of human awareness”, for these are errors any ill-schooled or imperfectly literate child might make. We may even excuse him for not knowing that the Greek word γάμος means “marriage”. Obviously Muñoz-Rengel, like average youths in Catholic parishes, is under-catechised, but it is still disappointing to find him saying that there is no evidence that Christ could write (what was he doing in the sand in John 8?), or that St Paul refers to no events in Christ’s life, or that a century went by after the latter’s death before anyone mentioned him in a surviving source, or that icons or statues are necessarily idols.

In the throes of his denunciations of the Church’s lies, amid tellingly excessive protestations, Muñoz-Rengel loses all grip on logic: the claims of the gospels are false, he alleges, because the texts are unreliable; but other doctrines of the Church are false too, he adds, because the gospels do not mention them. Such claims and doctrines may be true or false, but they cannot be so only on the grounds of mutually contradictory arguments.

Errors are perhaps pardonable, even in the context of a study of untruths. I might overlook the affected superiority with which the author condescends to Plato, Aristotle, Anselm, Aquinas and other giants, or – in some ways even more deplorably – to “the African tribes” and “primitive man” whose culture he regards as “coarse “. I will endorse such truths as he utters, which are all truisms: that lies are prevalent in politics, advertising and self-deceit; that disinformation is rife; that the internet echoes with error and multiplies opportunities to delude; and that most of the opinions that squirm in the web are worthless. He can be commended for awareness that only the brazen scale of mendacity is greater in the postmodern era than in the Palaeolithic. Lying’s history is static: the lies of Eden resemble those of Mar-a-Lago and Madison Avenue.

What revolts me most, however, is the author’s presumption in thinking he can impose so obvious an imposture on readers. We get a hint of his real agenda on page 1, where he invites us to “suppose … everything this narrator says … is a lie”. Epimenides could not have wound himself into a tighter cocoon. If only the joke were entertaining, or executed with enough subtlety to work! Juan Jacinto Muñoz-Rengel used to write cute stories. In A History of Lying the farceur has forgotten how to be funny.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto’smost recent books areStraits: Beyond the myth of Magellanand (with Manuel Lucena Giraldo)Un imperio de ingenierosboth published this year

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