Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


IAS Lies: Equivocation, Then and Now

by Joe Stadolnik


7 May 2019

Igreja da Venerável Ordem Terceira do Rosário de Nossa Senhora às Portas do Carmo, Pelourinho, Salvador. Photo: Christian Brodie


When Paul Simon played London for the last time this past July, he sang a lyric that had been replaying in my head during my year coordinating the ‘Lies’ thread as a Junior Research Fellow at the IAS. The line, from his 1990 song ‘Obvious Child’, poses a rhetorical question:

Some people say a lie is a lie is a lie—
but I say, ‘Why?
Why deny the obvious child?’[1]

What is in fact ‘obvious’ here is that one lie can actually be quite different from another, and from a third; what is undeniable is that lies cannot be so easily accounted for by tidy moral equivalence or sweeping simplification. The lyrical little argument in ‘Obvious Child’ — that a lie isn’t a lie isn’t a lie — insists upon distinctions among lies, which may be sorted into kinds as well as taking various forms. Every lie can be appraised for its particular ethical implications or judged differently depending on whether it is pressed into the service of self-preservation or of malicious deceit. The criteria of such appraisals have taken distinct shape, too, as different kinds of lying have been condemned or rationalized to suit the circumstances of history.

The music video produced for ‘Obvious Child’ sets this argument for lying’s variety against a backdrop recalling one specific historical circumstance: Simon sets his song against the baroque church architecture and rococo facades of Pelourinho Square in Salvador de Bahía, Brazil. Accompanied by the Afro-Brazilian percussion collective Olodum, Simon implies that ‘a lie isn’t a lie isn’t a lie’ beneath the early modern Catholic churches founded by Jesuits and Franciscans. This architecture hearkens back to a moment when older notions of truth were felt to be left behind or forsaken; among these were older Christian ideals. Long before commentators declared us to be living in a post-truth political culture, the essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) considered dissimulation to be ‘among the most notable qualities of this age’.[i] Niccoló Machiavelli (1469–1527) made astuzia — a faithless, dissembling kind of cunning — a political virtue; courtiers survived by the maxim, ‘one who does not know how to dissimulate does not know how to live’ (qui nescit dissimularenescit vivere). Historian Perez Zagorin described the manifold rationalizations contrived to justify such dissembling practices, along with the arguments levelled against them, as comprising ‘a submerged continent in the religious, intellectual, and social life of early modern Europe’.[ii]

While the moral compromises of the dissimulating life did not apparently much trouble the consciences of Machiavellian princes or courtiers, they did worry the Jesuit missionaries of the age. The same missionary project that sponsored the construction of a grand baroque basilica in the public square in Salvador de Bahía found Jesuits in Protestant England ministering in secret to a Roman church forced underground, a task which involved some necessary dissimulation when under interrogation. Andrew Hadfield, in his Lying in Early Modern English Culture, describes how English Jesuits rationalized certain kinds of lying in certain situations, against the grain of Catholic moral doctrine.[iii] In particular, Jesuits defended verbal equivocation: a duplicitous speech practice that exploited ambiguities of language in order to be true in some sense, but also conveniently misreadable in another. For instance, one manual on equivocation provides Jesuits and those who would harbour them with a useful example:

‘If one shoulde be asked whether such a straunger lodgeth in my howse, and I should aunswere, “he lyeth not in my howse,’ meaning that he doth not tell a lye there, althoughe he lodge there.”’[iv]

So the speaker utters the word ‘lie’ with one meaning in mind, while the hearer understands it to mean something entirely different. Admittedly, equivocation was a last resort, only to be used when the full, direct truth would endanger the speaker. Despite this, little lies like these were believed to help avoid the greater sin of outright lying committed in the interest of self-preservation. Through the use of such strange devices, Jesuits in Elizabethan England could plausibly believe that they were telling the truth; this sort of a lie wasn’t a lie wasn’t a lie.

Some people said otherwise. The English Jesuits’ casuistry provoked counterarguments from Protestants at home and fellow Catholics abroad. Where equivocators saw a deft way with half-truths, critics saw sophistry. Jesuit missionaries were painted as compulsive, and thus quite practised, liars who had elevated ‘crafty aunswering’ to an art. This all might seem just a quibbling debate, but even only as a historical curiosity, these Elizabethan arguments over Jesuit equivocation bear witness to the ways in which new kinds of lies can occupy public discourse, threaten a prevailing political order, or trouble an assumed cultural attitude toward truth. This was a time of anxious reckoning with lying before our ‘post-truth’ one, which likewise conceived of its peculiar estrangements from a notion of truth as its defining feature.

Caravaggio, The Denial of Saint Peter, c. 1610, 94 cm × 125.4 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

[1] Paul Simon, The Obvious Child, 1990 (extract)

[i] ‘Du Démentir’, in Les Essais, 5th ed., book II, ch. 18 (1588), p. 285v.

[ii] Perez Zagorin, Ways of Lying (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1990), 14.

[iii] Andrew Hadfield, Lying in Early Modern English Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). Professor Hadfield spoke at IAS in April 2018.

[iv] Henry Garnet, Treatise on Equivocation (1595), pp. 48–49; cited in Hadfield, 83.


In 2017–2018, Joe Stadolnik was a Junior Research Fellow at the IAS, where he was a co-organizer of the ‘Lies’ research thread. 
Joe Stadolnik is a postdoctoral researcher at the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, University of Chicago. 

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