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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: June 2019

8 - Truth, Lies, Deception, Esotericism: The Case of St. Augustine

from Part 2 - St. Augustine and Ancient Political Philosophy


Seneca was a hypocrite. Varro was a liar. Conquered by pride, Porphyry denied truths that he understood well. Th e classical philosophers disseminated lies and deceived ordinary citizens, largely out of cowardice, but also in order to create a specious civic unity and to further projects of imperial domination. It was for these reasons, among others, that Augustine lambasted their writings in the first ten books of The City of God. Augustine's denunciations of lying in works such as Against Lying and On Lying are well known; at the end of his career, in his Retractationes (2.26, 2.86), Augustine again reinforced his repudiation of lying. In The City of God, he explained the wider human context that made sense of these ideas. His chief point was that lies, deception, and falsehood significantly detract from human happiness: “Nor will the soul be truly happy, no matter how long its happiness may last, if, in order to be happy, it must be deceived” (10.31). The implication is that human beings are unlikely ever to be happy, because of our inclination to resist the clear truth (10.31). Ignoring the truth is an inescapable human tendency because of our fallen condition.

It is this tendency that alone explains why those who think clearly, like Augustine, must expound and clarify their ideas at such length and, of course, honestly (2.1), and in a spirit of openness and candor (5.26). Out of care for his fellow human beings (e.g., 1.9, 5.19), Augustine devoted the ground-clearing part of The City of God, books 1 through 10, to laying bare the deceptions of pagan statesmen and philosophers, to criticizing those deceptions as the work of demons, and to exposing the role of deception in furthering projects of self-destructive pride. In short, through emphasizing honesty and truthfulness, Augustine sought to subvert the entire classical Greek and Roman order founded on “civil religion,” falsehoods, and deceit. That is why he began his long work by shining a light on the pervasiveness of such practices at Rome: “Away, then, with concealments and deceitful whitewashings! Let these things be examined openly” (3.14). We cannot help sympathizing with his attachment to investigating the truth and to speaking openly about it.