This carefully argued, intelligently written volume offers readers a clear and logically developed exposition of the thought of Augustine on the lie as well as a remarkable synthesis of the best-known male thinkers of the Western world on the subject of lying. Author Paul J. Griffiths divides his work into two major parts and one smaller concluding section. In Part One, "Augustine on the Lie," Griffiths details aspects of Augustine's thought in six areas: lying, being, sinning, speaking, disowning, and story telling. In Part Two, "Augustinian Readings," Griffiths analyzes the work of Plato, Aristotle, Chrysostom, Jerome, Cassian, Aquinas, Kant, Newman, and Nietzsche. In each case, Griffiths attempts to create as clear an account as possible of each writer's position on the lie. Since no writer's thought exactly duplicates that of Augustine's, Griffiths demonstrates the deficiencies of each one's account when compared to the indisputable master, Augustine. Part III's few pages serve as a crisp summary both of Augustine's position on lying and Griffiths' perceived flaws of the other writers.
For Griffiths, that which places Augustine in a separate (and superior) category is his clear definition of a lie, his consistent prohibition of it, and his casting it in the context of God's grace. None of these elements may be subtracted. For Augustine, "the lie is deliberately duplicitous speech, insincere speech that deliberately contradicts what its speaker takes to be true" (31). Exclusions from this category include nonverbal actions, silence, error, jokes, and figurative language. Included in this category are "mental reservations or some similar device at or immediately after the time of utterance [that] cannot remove duplicity, and cannot, therefore, remove a lie when one is present" (37). Griffiths clearly explains and leaves no doubt about what constitutes a lie for Augustine.
Griffiths explains in some detail how, according to Augustine, human beings differ from God. God is being, and anything that is not God necessarily derives from God and is, consequently, less than God. Even being itself is not a quality independent of God. We sin when we abandon God, when we replace God with a desire for creatures: "Sinners turn toward the object of desire as though it were sufficiently succulent to be enjoyed in its own right. In so doing they turn away from God by isolating what is desired from what in fact makes it desirable" (59). Sin is so serious that it may never be chosen for any reason. Sin is at all times to be avoided, even if it would save someone's physical life. Indeed, for Augustine, consequentialist arguments can never justify sinful acts. Griffiths describes how Augustine thinks that the lie "relates speech and thought inappropriately, improperly, sinfully, and in doing so ruptures God's image in us" (73). It follows, then, that a lie may never be told for any reason.
Griffiths states in the Introduction to the text that "the book is argumentative, but it is not an argument. It is instead an attempted seduction" (20). Augustine's clarity and consistency are indeed seductive as is Griffiths' ability to present Augustine's thought in accessible language. When one ponders the positions of the other great thinkers included in this volume, one cannot help but note that the giants of the intellectual world who followed Augustine were not convinced by his position. While sometimes witty, Griffiths at other times may be a bit overbearing in his unyielding loyalty to his master. The reader's overall impression, however, must be one of admiration for the way that the author brilliantly assesses each writer's corpus on lying, only to find him wanting in some area when compared to Augustine.
I believe that this book would be very useful in a graduate course in moral theology. Its breadth, depth, and clarity recommend it as a wonderful addition to any theological library.