- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2001

By Jeremy Campbell
Norton, $26.95, 362 pages

There was a time when schoolboys and -girls across the English-speaking world knew the poet John Keats' "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." It was one of the more common English essay questions in examinations: "Discuss these lines." But the times have caught up with, and overtaken, both poet and the examiners. Truth no longer sits on a pedestal like the Grecian Urn in the famous "Ode," and postmodernist thought has questioned whether words are primarily a means of communication, never mind whether Keats can be given credit for his.
I could have begun the previous paragraph with "There was a time not so long ago …," meaning before recent decades befouled a more civil society, but that would have been fanciful, something akin to the infant's illusion of central position, or grown men and women believing that their brief hour upon the stage is the one that matters most. The argument about whether mankind can know the truth and how aberrant is truth's opposite, the lie, has been contested throughout recorded history.
Today, writes Jeremy Campbell in the Introduction to his "The Liar's Tale: A History of Falsehood," "We have come full circle from the ancient thesis that truth and goodness are inseparable twins." Keats, harking back to the ancient Greeks, meant beauty and goodness as being essentially the same thing in just that sense, but Mr. Campbell takes a very different view of the matter. Early in his meaty and cheerfully provocative pages, he calls upon George Steiner and that critic's belief in the indispensability of our powers of deception and self-deception in civilization's rise, and he quotes Mr. Steiner along such lines as that, "Language is the main instrument of man's refusal to accept the world as it is."
According to this view, which is Mr. Campbell's theme in his book, we lie of necessity: in order to survive, have social relations, as a matter of mental health and in the arts. This is not a work that will be of much comfort to people who believe in revealed truth, or to those sticklers who will not engage distinctions such as "truth" versus "meaning" and strict honesty versus creative myth-making. Obviously, a fine line has to be walked here for, as the author is quick to note, society requires a foundation of honesty to exist at all, and so does the "liar" or nonconformist of whatever stripe in order to flourish in it.
I am scampering in these paragraphs over a concentrated text that demands the reader's close attention. Evelin Sullivan's book, "The Concise Book of Lying" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), which I reviewed last month, provided a history of lying from the Garden of Eden forward and in a personal, one could also say social, style. Mr. Campbell, while the Washington editor of London's Evening Standard newspaper, seems at heart more scholar than journalist. Some readers will recall his earlier books, "Grammatical Man," "Winston Churchill's Afternoon Nap" and "The Improbable Machine." "The Liar's Tale" is transparently the result of many years' work, its 20 chapters closely surveying the problematic aspects of humans' wanting to know the truth, whatever their biological limitations in that regard.
The impact of Charles Darwin's almost reluctant conclusions about the successful outcomes of deviancy in nature is set in its 19th-century context. Thomas Carlyle protests, though he is known to have had his doubts, that, "Lying is not permitted in this universe." This stream of scientific change (progress would not be the right word here) gets traced down through the thinking of a wide variety of commentators that includes Samuel Butler, Karl Popper and George Bernard Shaw, plus present-day preoccupations with new positivist (utopian?) notions such as those of sociobiology. The question of whether nature itself is good, or red in tooth and claw and to be avoided or transcended, is traceable to this part of the story.
Going back to Homer's world of "ruthless necessity," Mr. Campbell discusses the matter of the Logos, and turns to Hercalitus and Parmenides. His next chapter touches upon the development of rhetoric and what Benjamin Jowett called "the Absolute Talker." Plato's anti-Sophist shadow hangs over the Middle Ages, until the idea of authoritarian "truth" runs up against of a more individually-minded nominalism in the likes of William of Ockham, opening a new fissure in Christian thought. In later pages, the idea of simple truth, as in the rise of evangelicism, gets an airing, and the question of whether truth is "discovered" or do we make it up as we go, is asked.
The career or "reason" is familiar enough, though David Hume doubted Rene Descartes', or anyone else's, ability to know truth and introduced into the debate the "imp" of common sense. Reason, in its pure form "a sort of philosophical Titanic" in Mr. Campbell's phrase, lost its shininess as the Englightenment ran its course and was, first, undermined by Counter-Enlightenment thinkers. Then came the notorious trio which Paul Ricoeur called the masters of suspicion, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud.
Today's psychotherapist tries to help patients create usable self-myths rather than digging for truth about themselves, and philosophical thinkers from the French Julia Kristeva to our own Richard Rorty doubt the point of bothering with truth at all.
Much the same story goes for the debate over the virtues of plain language versus more ornate, in their relation to the truth. I mentioned that argument reaching back to Plato and the Sophists; it comes up again with the English Puritans, who, after the Restoration and influenced by the scientist Robert Boyle, founded the Royal Academy, known for its members' plain talk.
The role and nature of language becomes crucial in the 20th century ever since Ferdinand de Saussure's "Course in General Linguistics" came out. Language and its characteristics, such as syntax, and its limits, have dominated poetry in the work of Stephane Mallarme, modern philosophy in the thought of G.E. Moore, Bertrand Russell and in a very different way the later Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Wittgenstein's pursuit of the truth through what he called "language games" carries a measure of pathos inasmuch as during his early life as a schoolteacher he hit a little girl for misbehaving in class, but when she complained to the headmaster, Wittgenstein denied having hit her. The memory haunted him.
More recently, the enormous influence of Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and other theoriists of language and literature requires no new elaboration by me. On other arts fronts, the contributions of such as Oscar Wilde's turning accepted premises inside out, and Pablo Picasso's taking representative figures apart and rearranging them, speak to recent chapters in the questioning of truth in relation to falsehood.
The uses of falsehood, from Fascism to Freud and beyond get the book's later chapters, and after much reading one arrives back at the present day, having indeed come full circle in book as well as history. As regards the decline in our own day of the concept of the truth, Mr. Campbell, tough but chipper in his way, sees it as making life more complex but not without its possibilities for good. His is a troubling book it had to be, and one senses was meant to be and I am very glad to have read it.

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