Oct/Nov 2015  •   Reviews & Interviews

A review of The Art of Political Lying by Jonathan Swift

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

The Art of Political Lying.
John Arbuthnot.
Kindle Edition from Editions Dupleix. 2013 (orig. 1713). 31 pp.
ISBN 979-10-92019-12-4.

The first mention of The Art of Political Lying appeared in Jonathan Swift's Journal to Stella in October of 1712. Swift had received an outline for a book of that title from his friend Dr. Arbuthnot. The final product, if one was ever intended, was projected to be a satire upon pseudo-scientific social tracts such as were then highly popular.

Doctor to the Queen, Arbuthnot is no longer much known, but considerable portions of works by the most famous satirists of the time were actually co-written by him, his name not appearing on the title pages. Arbuthnot was also a highly respected mathematician.

Rather than write the projected book, Swift wisely chose to write a review of what it might have been. The piece may have been the first ever satirical review of a non-existent volume. The review, then, is a satire of both pseudo-science and methods behind the lies habitually told by public figures.

If the reader here has never read an 18th century work, the going may prove to be difficult. It will help to know that "the revolution" refers to the English revolution of 1688. At that time, James II, the crypto-catholic English monarch was deposed and Protestant William and Mary invited to replace him. James II promptly defected to the French and sought an army in order to recover his throne. For this he (and his son after him) became widely known as "the Pretender." Rumors were constantly in the air, as late as 1712, and after, that a French army was being levied in order to invade England in James II's behalf.

Other facts are referred to with a frequency that belies their importance in London life. When Westminster is mentioned, the reference is to Parliament which sat there. When the "the other side of town" from Westminster is mentioned, the reference is to the London (Stock) Exchange.

Swift's review of the non-existent The Art of Political Lying is a minor classic. Perhaps the more intrepid contemporary readers will venture to read and enjoy it.


The Art of Political Lying

The author in his preface makes some very judicious reflections upon the original of arts and sciences: that at first they consist of scattered theorems and practices, which are handed about among the masters, and only revealed to the filii artis [subsequent generations in the art], till such time as some genius appears, who collects these disjointed propositions, and reduces them into a regular system. That this is the case of that noble and useful art of political lying, which in this last age having been enriched with several new discoveries, ought not to lie any longer in rubbish and confusion, but may justly claim a place in the "Encyclopaedia," especially such as serves for a model of education for an able politician. That he proposes to himself no small stock of fame in future ages, in being the first who has undertaken this design; and for the same reason he hopes the imperfection of his work will be excused. He invites all persons who have any talents that way, or any new discovery, to communicate their thoughts, assuring them that honourable mention shall be made of them in his work.


In the first chapter of his excellent treatise he reasons philosophically concerning the nature of the soul of man, and those qualities which render it susceptible of lies. He supposes the soul to be of the nature of a plano-cylindrical speculum, or looking glass; that the plain side was made by God Almighty, but that the devil afterwards wrought the other side into a cylindrical figure. The plain side represents objects just as they are; and the cylindrical side, by the rules of catoptrics, must needs represent true objects false, and false objects true; but the cylindrical side being much the larger surface, takes in a greater compass of visual rays. That upon the cylindrical aide of the soul of man depends the whole art and success of political lying. The author, in this chapter, proceeds to reason upon the qualities of the mind: as its peculiar fondness of the malicious and the miraculous. The tendency of the soul toward the malicious, springs from self-love, or a pleasure to find mankind more wicked, base, or unfortunate than ourselves. The design of the miraculous proceeds from the inactivity of the soul, or its incapacity to be moved or delighted with anything that is vulgar or common. The author having established the qualities of the mind, upon which his art is founded, he proceeds.

In his second chapter, to treat of the nature of political lying; which he defines to be, the art of convincing the people of salutary falsehoods for some end. He calls it an art to distinguish it from that telling truth, which does not seem to want art; then he would have this understood only as to the invention, because there is indeed more art to convince the people of a salutary truth than salutary falsehood. Then he proceeds to prove there are salutary falsehoods, of which he gives great a many instances, both before and after the Revolution; and demonstrates plainly, that we could not have carried on the war so long without several of salutary falsehoods. He gives rules to calculate value of a political lie, in pounds, shillings and pence. By good, he does not mean that which is absolutely so, but what appears so to the artist, which is a ground for him to proceed upon; and he distingiushes the good, as it commonly is, into bonum utile, dulce et honestum [good use, sweet and honorable]. He shows you that there are political lies of a mixed nature, which include all the three different respects; that the utile [useful] reigns generally about the exchange, the dulce [sweet] and honestum [honorable] at the Westminster end of the town. One man spreads a lie to sell or buy stock to greater advantage; a second, because it is honourable to serve his party; and a third, because it is sweet to gratify his revenge. Having the several terms of his definition, he proceeds.

In his third chapter, to treat of the lawfulness political lying; which he deduces from its true genuine principles, by inquiring into the several rights that mankind have to truth. He shows that people have a right to private truth from their neighbours, and economical truth from their own family; that they should not be abused by their wives, children, and servants; but that they have no right at all to political truth; that the people may as well all pretend to be lords of manors, and possess great estates, as to have truth told them in matters of government. The author, with great judgment, states the several shares of mankind in this matter of truth, according their several capacities, dignities, and professions; and shows you that children have hardly any share at all; in consequence of which, they have very seldom any truth told them. It must be owned that the author, in this chapter, has some seeming difficulties to answer, and texts of scripture to explain.

The fourth chapter is wholly employed in this question, "Whether the right of coinage of political lies be wholly in the government?" The author, who is a true friend to English liberty, determines in the negative, and answers all the arguments of the opposite party with great acuteness; that, as the government of England has a mixture of democratical in it, so the right of inventing and spreading political lies is partly in the people; and their obstinate adherence to this just privilege has been most conspicuous, and shined with great lustre of late years: that it happens very often that there are no other means left to the good people of England to pull down a ministry and government they are weary of but by exercising this their undoubted right: that abundance of political lying is a sure sign of true English liberty: that as ministers do sometimes use tools to support their power, it is but reasonable that the people should employ the same weapon to defend themselves, and pull them down.

In his fifth chapter, he divides political lies into several species and classes, and gives precepts about the inventing, spreading, and propagating the several sorts of them: he begins with the rumores [rumors] and libelli famosi [spreading libels], such as concern the reputation of men in power; where he finds fault with the common mistake, that takes notice only of one sort, viz., the detractory or defamatory; whereas in truth there are three sorts, the detractory, the additory, and the translatory. The additory gives to a great man a larger share of reputation than belongs to him, to enable him to serve some good or purpose. The detractory, or defamatory, is a lie which takes from a great man the reputation that belongs to him, for fear he should use it to the detriment of the public. The translatory is a lie, that transfers the merit of a man's good action to another, who is in himself more deserving; or transfers the demerit of a bad action from the true author to a person who is in himself less deserving. He gives several instances of very great strokes in all the three kinds, especially in the last, when it was necessary, for good of the public, to bestow the valour and conduct of one man upon another, and that of many to one man; nay even, upon a good occasion, a man may robbed of his victory by a person that did not command in the action. The restoring and destroying the public may be ascribed to persons who had no hand in either. The author exhorts all gentlemen practitioners to exercise themselves in the translatory, because the existence of the things themselves being visible, and not demanding any proof, there wants nothing to be put upon the public, but a false author, or a false cause; which is no great presumption upon the credulity of mankind, to whom the secret springs of things are for the most part unknown.

The author proceeds to give some precepts as to the additory; that when one ascribes anything to a person which does not belong to him, the lie ought to be calculated not quite contradictory to his known qualities; for example, one would not make the French king present at a Protestant conventicle; nor, like queen Elizabeth, restore the overplus of taxes to his subjects. One would not bring in the Emperor giving two months' pay in advance to his troops; nor the Dutch paying more than their quota. One would not make the same person zealous for a standing army, and public liberty; nor an atheist support the church; nor a lewd fellow a reformer of manners; not a hot-headed crack brained coxcomb forward for a scheme of moderation. But, if it is absolutely necessary that a person is to have some good adventitious quality given him, the author's precept is, that it should not be done at first in extremo gradu [all at once]. For example, they should not make a covetous man give away all at once £5,000 in a charitable, generous way; £20 or £30 may suffice at first. They should not introduce a person of remarkable ingratitude to his benefactors, rewarding a poor man for some good office that was done him thirty years ago; but they may allow him to acknowledge a service to a person who is capable still to do him another. A man, whose personal courage is suspected, is not at first to drive whole squadrons before him; but he may be allowed the merit of some squabble, or throwing a bottle at his adversary's head.

It will not be allowed to make a great man that is a known despiser of religion spend whole days in his closet at his devotion; but you may with safety make him sit out public prayers with decency. A great man, who has never been known willingly to pay a just debt, ought not all of a sudden to be introduced making restitution of thousands he has cheated; let it suffice at first to pay £20 to a friend who has lost his note.

He lays down the same rules in the detractory or defamatory kind; that they should not be quite opposite to the qualities the persons are supposed to have. Thus it will not be found according to the sound rules of pseudology to report of a pious and religious prince that he neglects his devotion, and would introduce heresy; but you may report of a merciful prince that he has pardoned a criminal who did not deserve it. You will be unsuccessful if you give out of a great man, who is remarkable for his frugality for the public, that he squanders away the nation's money; but you may safely relate that he hoards it: you must not affirm he took a bribe, but you may freely censure him for being tardy in his payments; because, though neither may be true, yet the last is credible, the first not. Of an open-hearted, generous minister, you are not to say that he was in an intrigue to betray his country; but you may affirm, with some probability, that he was in an intrigue with a lady. He warns all practitioners to take good heed to these precepts; for wont of which many of their lies of late have proved abortive or shortlived.

In the sixth chapter, he treats of the miraculous; by which he understands anything that exceeds the common degrees of probability. In respect to the people, it is divided into two sorts, the το φοβερον [flight inducing] or the τα θυμοειδες[heartening], terrifying lies, and animating or encouraging lies; both being extremely useful on their proper occasions. Concerning the το φοβερον [flight inducing] he gives several rules; one of which is, that terrible objects should not be too frequently shown to the people lest they grow familiar. He says, it is absolutely necessary that the people of England should be frighted with the French king and the pretender once a year; but that the bears should be chained up again till that time twelvemonth. The want of observing this so necessary a precept, in bringing out the raw head and bloody bones upon every trifling occasion, has produced great indifference in the vulgar of late years. As to the animating or encouraging lies, he gives the following rules: that they shall not far exceed the common degrees of probability; that there should be variety of them; and the same lie not obstinately insisted upon: that the promissory or prognosticating lies should not be upon short days, for fear the authors should have the shame and confusion to see themselves speedily contradicted. He examines, by these rules, that well-meant, but unfortunate lie of the conquest of France which continued near twenty years together; but at last, by being too obstinately insisted upon, it was worn threadbare, and became unsuccessful.

As to the το τεραδωδες [prognosticating], or the prodigious, he has little to advise, but that their comets, whales and dragons should be sizeable; their storms, tempests, and earth quakes, without the reach of a day's journey of a man and horse.

The seventh chapter is wholly taken up in an inquiry, which of the two parties are the greatest artists in political lying? He owns, that sometimes the one party, and sometimes the other, is better believed; but that they have both very good geniuses among them. He attributes the ill success of either party to their glutting the market, and retailing too much of a bad commodity at once: when there is too great a quantity of worms it is hard to catch gudgeons. He proposes a scheme for the recovery of the credit of any party, which indeed seems to be somewhat chimerical, and does not savour of that sound judgment the author has shown in the rest of the work. It amounts to this, that the party should agree to vent nothing but truth for three months together, which will give them credit for six months lying afterwards. He owns, that he believes it almost impossible to find fit persons to execute this scheme. Towards the end of the chapter he inveighs severely against the folly of parties in retaining scoundrels and men of low genius to retail their lies; such as most of the present news-writers are; who, except a strong bent and inclination towards the profession, seem to be wholly ignorant in the rules of pseudology, and not at all qualified for so weighty a trust.

In his next chapter he treats of some extraordinary geniuses, who have appeared of late years, especially in their disposition towards the miraculous. He advises those hopeful young men to turn their invention to the service of their country; it being inglorious, at this time, to employ their talent in prodigious fox-chases, horse-courses, feats of activity in driving of coaches, jumping, running, swallowing of peaches, pulling out whole sets of teeth to clean, &c., when their country stands in so much need of their assistance.

The eighth chapter is a project for uniting the several smaller corporations of liars into one society. It is too tedious to give a full account of the whole scheme: what is most remarkable is, that this society ought to consist of the heads of each party; that no lie is to pass current without their approbation, they being the best judges of the present exigencies, and what sort of lies are demanded; that in such a corporation there ought to be men of all professions, that το πρεπον [upstanding], and the το ευλογον [well-ordered], that is, decency and probability, may be observed as much as possible; that, besides the persons above mentioned, this society ought to consist of the hopeful geniuses about the town (of which there are great plenty to be picked up in the several coffeehouses), travellers, virtuosoes, fox-hunters, jockeys, attorneys, old seamen and soldiers out of the hospitals of Greenwich and Chelsea; to this society, so constituted, ought to be committed the sole management of lying; that in their outer room there ought always to attend some persons endowed with a great stock of credulity; a generation that thrives mightily in this soil and climate: he thinks a sufficient number of them may be picked up anywhere about the Exchange: these are to circulate what the others coin; for no man spreads a lie with so good a grace as he that believes it; that the rule of the society be to invent a lie, and sometimes two, for every day; in the choice of which great regard ought to be had the weather and the season of the year: your φοβερα [fearful] or terrifying lies do mighty well in November and December, but not so well in May and June, unless the easterly winds reign: that it ought to be penal for anybody to talk of anything but the lie of the day: that the society is to maintain a sufficient number of spies at court, and other places, to furnish hints and topics for invention, and a general correspondence of all the market towns for circulating their lies: that if any one of the society were observed to blush, or look out of countenance, or want a necessary circumstance in telling the lie, he ought to be expelled and declared incapable: besides the roaring lies, there ought to be a private committee for whisperers, constituted of the ablest men of the society. Here the author makes a digression in praise of the Whig party, for the right understanding and use of proof-lies. A proof-lie is like a proof-charge for a piece of ordinance, to try a standard credulity. Of such a nature he takes transubstantiation to be in the Church of Rome, a proof-article, which if any one swallows they are sure he will digest everything else; therefore the Whig party do wisely, to try the credulity of the people sometimes by swingers, that they may able to judge to what height they may charge them afterwards. Towards the end of this chapter, he warns the heads of parties against believing their own lies, which has proved of pernicious consequences of late; both a wise party, and a wise nation, having regulated their affairs upon lies of their own invention. The causes of this he supposed to be, too great a zeal and intenseness in the practice of this art, and a vehement heat in mutual conversation, whereby they one persuade another, that what they wish, and report to be true, is really so: that all parties have been subject to this misfortune. The Jacobites have been constantly infested with it; but the Whigs of late seemed even to exceed them in this ill habit and weakness. To this the author subjoins a calendar of lies, proper for the several months of the year.

The ninth chapter treats of the celerity and duration of lies. As to the celerity of their motion, the author says it is almost incredible: he gives several instances of lies that have gone faster than a man can ride post: your terrifying lies travel at a prodigious rate, above ten miles an hour: your whispers move in a narrow vortex, but very swiftly. The author says, it is impossible to explain several phenomena in relation the celerity of lies, without the supposition of synchronism and combination. As to the duration of lies, he says there are of all sorts, from hours and days to ages; that there are some which, like insects die and revive again in a different form; that good artists, like people who build upon a short lease, will calculate the duration of a lie surely to answer their purpose; to last just as long, and no longer, than the turn is served.

The tenth chapter treats of the characteristics of lies; how to know when, where, and by whom invented. Your Dutch, English, and French ware are amply distinguished from one another; an Exchange lie from one coined at the other end of the town: great judgment is to be shown as to the place where the species is intended to circulate: very low and base coin will serve for Wapping: there are several coffeehouses that have their particular stamps, which a judicious practitioner may easily know. All your great men have their proper phantateustics. The author says he has attained, by study and application, to so great skill in this matter that, bring him any lie, he can tell whose image it bears so truly, as the great man himself shall not have the face to deny it. The promissory lies of great men are known by shouldering, hugging, squeezing, smiling, bowing; and their lies in matter of fact, by immoderate swearing.

He spends the whole eleventh chapter on one simple question, whether a lie is best contradicted by truth, or by another lie? The author says that, considering the large extent of the cylindrical surface of the soul, and the great propensity to believe lies in the generality of mankind of late years, he thinks the properest contradiction to a lie is another lie. For example, if it should be reported that the pretender was in London, one would not contradict it by saying, he never was in England; but you must prove by eye-witnesses that he came no further than Greenwich, and then went back again. Thus if it be spread about that a great person were dying of some disease, you must not say the truth, that they are in health, and never had such a disease, but that they are slowly recovering of it. So there was not long ago a gentleman, who affirmed, that the treaty with France, for bringing popery and slavery into England, was signed the 15th of September; to which another answered very judiciously, not, by opposing truth to his lie, that there was no such treaty; but that, to his certain knowledge, there were many things in that treaty not yet adjusted.


[The account of the second volume of this excellent treatise is reserved for another time.]


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