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BMJ. 2007 July 28; 335(7612): 213.
PMCID: PMC1934484
Between the Lines

The lying king

Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

Dr John Arbuthnot was Queen Anne's personal physician and a close friend of Jonathan Swift and John Gay (of The Beggar's Opera). He was a polymath: as well as holding MDs from Edinburgh and Cambridge, he was a classical scholar and mathematician. He was a pioneer not only of medicine but of political science. Arbuthnot understood the way of the world so well that one of his works might serve as a guide to modern life.

In 1712, he published his Proposals for Printing A very Curious Discourse, in Two Volumes in Quarto, Intitled A Treatise of the Art of Political Lying, With an Abstract of the First Volume of the said Treatise. Alas, he never completed his great work, or even started it, but nevertheless left very useful hints to governments, opposition parties, and managers in the NHS. I would recommend a copious reprint and its dissemination to all those interested (or do I mean stakeholders?)—at public expense, of course. The work is very short, and even with all the necessary feasibility studies, pilot projects, inevitable overruns, and so forth, the cost wouldn't be more than a few millions. It would improve the quality of political lying in this country no end.

The Proposals treat several important philosophical matters, such as “Whether the right of coinage of political lyes be wholly in government.” The author concludes, very sensibly, that “as the government of England has a mixture of the democratically in it, so the right of inventing and spreading political lyes is partly in the people” and that “the abundance of political lying is a sure sign of true English liberty.”

Arbuthnot, an experienced physician after all, has much to say on the rules of what he calls Pseudology. He suggests that lies should be either miraculous (in modern terms, the promise of eternal life through genetic engineering) or terrifying (in modern terms, the elimination of the whole human race by a new virus).

“Terrible objects,” says Arbuthnot, “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 . . . once a year,” but that the too-frequent resort to scares “has produc'd great indifference in the vulgar of later years.” Here is a valuable lesson for epidemiologists.

Obviously, Arbuthnot had the future NHS in mind when he remarked: “No man spreads the lye with so good a grace as he that believes it.” However, he does warn the politician and the manager of the dangers of “believing their own lyes, which has prov'd of pernicious consequence of late,” among which is that of “having regulated their affairs upon lyes of their own invention.” The reason for this is that they have “too great a zeal and intenseness in the practice of this art, and a vehement heat in mental conversation, whereby they perswade one another, that what they wish, and report to be true, is really so.”

Lies, of course, like all other human inventions, should be fit for purpose. “As to the duration of lyes . . . they are of all sorts, from hours and days to ages; there are some which, like your insects, die and revive again in a different form; . . . good artists, like people who build upon a short lease, will calculate the duration of a lye surely to answer their purpose; to last just as long, and no longer, than the turn is served.”

Does this sound familiar? Perhaps a reprint isn't needed after all.

Obviously, Arbuthnot had the future NHS in mind when he remarked: “No man spreads the lye with so good a grace as he that believes it.”


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