Dr. John Arbuthnot

  The Art of Political Lying



Thanks to an excellent article in Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dr._Arbuthnot, I am relieved of the task of giving any more than a brief introduction.  John Arbuthnot, (1667-1737) was born in Scotland.  He had a distinguished career as a classical scholar and mathematician, and took MD degrees from both Edinburgh and Cambridge.  In 1706 he was appointed personal physician to Queen Anne (reigned 1702-1714).

Arbuthnot was a good friend of Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, John Gay, and other poets and writers, with whom he formed the Scriblerus Club.  He is said to have been the funniest and most affable member of this select literary group, but he preferred to give hints to others rather than seek fame himself.   The present treatise was long attributed to  Swift,  but  became known to be authored by Arbuthnot after Swift's  Journal to Stella was discovered. [1]

From 1701 onwards England in alliance with the Holy Roman Empire and the Dutch had been at war with France and Spain, the War of the Spanish Succession.  This war had been launched by William III and the Whigs, the party then in power.  By 1709 Queen Anne had come to detest the Whigs, as she suspected that the commander-in-chief, the Duke of Marlborough, and his wife (formerly the queen's best friend) were manipulating her and prolonging the war for their private gain.  The Whigs fell, and the Tories formed a government.  Arbuthnot was at the very center of these events.  Party strife was very high through all these years, and things certainly were "interesting."

The Tories' aim was to end the war with France.  Jonathan Swift joined the cabinet as de facto minister of propaganda and wrote many pamphlets and papers to persuade the public to make peace.  His friend Arbuthnot helped also by writing The History of John Bull (available at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/2643).  The personification of Britain as "John Bull" is Arbuthnot's invention.  Another poet and friend---and also the leading British economist---Matthew Prior, negotiated and concluded the Peace of Utrecht in 1713, and so the futile slaughter was ended at last.
Arbuthnot's essay of 1712 (still before the Peace) takes the form of a fake prospectus for a book.  The Augustan satirists loved fakes and put-ons.  Its satire is not savage, like Swift's, nor are its observations more than mildly cynical.  Its humor is dry, and the whole piece may strike a modern reader as too genial.  Please note that Arbuthnot uses semi-colons and colons in a way peculiar to his time and extinct now.  There is also a sprinkling of Greek, in Unicode.  This should display in Times New Roman unicode font, but one can pick up a free Unicode Greek font at http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~pinax/greekkeys/Atheniandownload.htm

But Arbuthnot---and Swift---stood at the very heart of power in their day and knew what power was.  Many features of modern political life first took shape in the years around the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, and I believe that era is worth study.  The Tory writers were deeply concerned with the nature, technology, and effect of propaganda and publicity.  It is to their credit that they used this skill (that has by now acquired such a bad name) to end a useless and wasteful war and make a peace that satisfied all sides.

See also Swift's essay in the Examiner of Thursday, November 9, 1710, in which he allegorizes Arbuthnot's idea. http://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/swift/examiner/chap14.htm

My copy-text for  the first posting of The Art of Political Lying was taken from The Works of Jonathan Swift, edited by Thomas Roscoe, H. G. Bohn, London, 1850.  As  of  this date  I have inspected a copy of the original in  Yale's Beinecke Library and  made corrections to the text and formatted it to bring it nearer  to the typography of the original.  The reader will note that in at least one case the use of capitals is not mere convention but makes an ironic point.


Otto Steinmayer, Lundu, Sarawak, 2 Nov 2005  /  Stonington, Connecticut

3 April 2006

Go to Otto Steinmayer's Home Page


THere is now in the press a curious piece, entitled pseudologia politike ; or, A Treatise of the Art of Political Lying Consisting of Two Volumes in 4to.

The Proposals are,

I. That if the Author meets with suitable Encouragement, he intends to deliver the First Volume to the subscribers by Hilary Term next.

II. The Price of both Volumes will be, to the Subscribers, Fourteen Shillings, Seven whereof are to be paid down, and the other Seven at the delivery of the Second Volume.

III. Those that Subscribe for Six, shall have Seventh gratis; which reduces the price to less than Six Shillings a volume.

IV. That the Subscribers shall have their Names and Places of Abode Printed at length.

For the Encouragement of so useful a Work, it is thought that the Publick should be inform'd of the Contents of the First Volume, by one who has with great Care perused the Manuscript.


The Author, in his Preface, makes some very judicious Reflexions upon the Original of Arts and Sciences; that at first they consist of scatter'd Theorems and Practices, which are handed about among the Masters, and only reveal'd to the Filii Artis,[2]  till such time as some great 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 enrich'd with several new Discoveries, ought not to Lye any longer in Rubbish and Confusion, but may justly claim a place in the Encyclopædia, 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.

 The First Volume consists of Eleven Chapters.

    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 Lyes. 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 Catoptricks, 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 side 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 great 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 establishd 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 Falshoods, for some good End.  He calls it an Art to distinguish it from that of telling Truth, which does not seem to want Art; but then he would have this understood only as to the invention, because there is indeed more Art necessary to convince the People of a Salutary Truth than a Salutary Falshood.  Then he proceeds to prove that there are Salutary Falshoods, of which he gives a great 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 those Salutary Falshoods.  He gives Rules to calculate the Value of a Political Lye, 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 sufficient Ground for him to proceed upon; and he distinguishes the Good, as it commonly is, into Bonum utile, Dulce & Honestum.[3]  He shews you that there are Political Lyes of a mix'd nature, which include all the Three in different respects : that the Utile reigns generally about the Exchange, the Dulce and Honestum at the Westminster End of the Town. One Man spreads a Lye 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 explain'd the several Terms of his Definition, he proceeds,

    In his Third Chapter, to treat of the Lawfulness of Political Lying; which he deduces from its true and 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 œconomical 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 to their several Capacities, Dignities, and Professions; and shews you, that Children have hardly any share at all; in consequence of which, they have very seldom any Truth told them.  It must be own'd that the Author, in this Chapter, has some seeming Difficulties to answer, to explain texts of Scripture,  and a Sermon lately preach'd before Her Majesty at Windsor.

    The Fourth Chapter is wholly employed in this question, Whether the Right of Coinage of political lyes 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 Lyes is partly in the People; and their obstinate Adherence to this just Privilege has been most conspicuous, and shin'd 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 Lyes into their several Species and Classes, and gives Precepts about the Inventing, Spreading, and Propagating the several sorts of them: He begins with the Rumores, and Libelli famosi,[4] 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 End or Purpose. The Detractory, or Defamatory, is a Lye which takes from a Great Man the Reputation that justly belongs to him, for fear he should use it to the Detriment of the Publick. The Translatory is a Lye, that a transfers the Merit of a Mans 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 the Good of the Publick 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 be rob'd of his Victory by a Person that did not Command in the Action.[5]  The Restoring and Destroying the Publick may be ascrib'd 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 Publick, 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 any thing to a Person which does not belong to him, the Lye ought to be calculated not quite contradictory to his known qualities; Ex. gr. One would not make the French king present at a Protestant Conventicle; nor, like Queen Elizabeth, restore the Overplus of Taxes to her 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 Publick Liberty; nor an Atheist support the Church; nor a lewd Fellow a Reformer of Manners; nor a hot-headed, crack-brain'd 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 Authors Precept is, that it should not be done at first in extremo gradu.[6]   For Example: they should not make a covetous Man give away all at once Five thousand Pounds in a charitable, generous way; Twenty or Thirty 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 allowd the merit of some Squabble, or throwing a Bottle at his Adversary's head.

It will not be allow'd 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 publick 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 introducd making restitution of Thousands he has cheated; let it suffice at first, to pay Twenty Pounds 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 Pardon'd 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 Publick, 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 want of which Many of their Lyes of late have prov'd abortive or short-liv'd.

    In the Sixth Chapter, he treats of the Miraculous; by which he understands any thing that exceeds the common Degrees of Probability.  In respect of the People, it is divided into two sorts, the to phoberon, or the to thymoeides,[7]  Terrifying Lye, and Animating or Encouraging Lye, both being extremely useful on their proper Occasions. Concerning the to phoberon, he gives several Rules; one of which is, that terrible Objects should not be too frequently shewn 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 chain'd up again till that time Twelve-month.  The want of Observing this so necessary a Precept, in bringing out the Raw-head and Bloody-bones upon every trifling Occasion, has produc'd great Indifference in the Vulgar of late Years.  As to the Animating or Encouraging Lyes, he gives the following Rules:  That they shall not far exceed the common degrees of Probability, and that there should be variety of them, and the same Lye not obstinately insisted upon: that the Promissory or Prognosticating Lyes 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 Lye of the Conquest of France which continued near twenty Years together;[8]  but at last, by being too obstinately insisted upon, it was worn threadbare, and became unsuccessful.

As to the to teratodes, or the Prodigious, he has little to advise, but that their Comets, Whales and Dragons should be sizeable; their Storms, Tempests, and Earthquakes, without the reach of a Day's Journey of a Man and Horse.

    The Seventh Chapter is wholly taken up in an Enquiry, Which of the two Parties are the greatest Artists in Political Lying.  He owns the Tories  have been better believed of late; but, that the Whigs have much the  greater Genius's amongst them.  He attributes the ill success of the Whig-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 the Whig 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 Lyes; such as most of the present News-Writers are, who, besides 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 Eighth Chapter he treats of some extraordinary Genius's, who have appear'd 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 Lyars 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 Lye is to pass current without their Approbation, they being the best Judges of the present Exigencies, and what sorts of Lyes are demanded: That in such a Corporation there ought to be Men of all Professions, that the to prepon and the to eulogon, that is, Decency and Probability, may be observ'd as much as possible: That, besides the Persons above-mentioned, this Society ought to consist of the hopeful Genius's about the Town (of which there are great plenty to be pick'd up in the several Coffee-houses) Travellers, Virtuoso's, Fox-hunters, Jockeys, Attorneys, Old Sea-men 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 endow'd 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 pick'd up any where about the Exchange: these are to Circulate what the other Coin; for no Man spreads a Lye with so good a Grace as he that believes it.  That the Rule of the Society be to invent a Lye, and sometimes two, for every Day; in the Choice of which great Regard ought to be had to the Weather and the Season of the Year: Your phobera, or terrifying Lyes, 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 any thing but the Lye 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 Lyes: that if any one of the Society were observ'd to blush, or look out of Countenance, or want a necessary Circumstance in telling the Lye, he ought to be expell'd, and declar'd incapable.  Besides the roaring Lies, there ought to be a private Committee for Whispers, 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-Lyes. A Proof-Lye is like a Proof-Charge for a Piece of Ordnance, 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 every thing else. Therefore the Whig-Party do wisely, to try the Credulity of the People sometimes by Swingers,[9]  that they may be 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 Lyes, which has prov'd of pernicious Consequence of late, both a Wise Party, and a Wise Nation having regulated their Affairs upon Lyes of their own Invention. The causes of this he supposes to be, too great a Zeal and Intenseness in the Practice of this Art, and a vehement Heat in mutual Conversation, whereby they perswade one 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 seem ev'n to exceed them in this ill Habit and Weakness.  To this Chapter, the Author subjoins a Calendar of Lyes proper for the Several Months of the Year.

    The Ninth Chapter treats of the Celerity and Duration of Lyes. As to the Celerity of their Motion, the Author says it is almost incredible: He gives several Instances of Lyes that have gone faster than a Man can ride Post: your Terrifying Lyes 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 Phænomena in relation to the Celerity of Lyes, without the supposition of Synchronism and Combination. As to the Duration of Lyes, he says there are of all sorts, from Hours and Days to Ages; that there are some which, like your 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 Lye 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 Lyes; how to know when, where, and by whom invented: Your Dutch, English and French Ware are amply distinguish'd from one another; an Exchange-Lye from one Coin'd at the other End of the Town; Great Judgment is to be shewn as to the Place where the Species is intended to Circulate: Very low and base Coin will serve for Wapping: there are several Coffee-houses that have their particular Stamps, which a judicious Practitioner may easily know. All your great men have their proper Phantateustics.[10]  The Author says he has attained, by Study and Application, to so great Skill in this Matter that, bring him any Lye, he can tell whose Image it bears so truly, as the Great Man himself shall not have the face to deny it. The Promissory Lyes of Great men are known by Shouldering, Hugging, Squeezing, Smiling, Bowing; and Lyes in Matter of Fact, by immoderate Swearing.

    He spends the whole Eleventh Chapter on one simple question, Whether a Lye is best contradicted by Truth, or another Lye.  The Author says, that, considering the large Extent of the Cylindrical Surface of the Soul, and the great Propensity to believe Lyes in the generality of Mankind of late Years, he thinks the properest Contradiction to a Lye is another Lye.  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 farther 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 sign'd the 15th of September; to which another answered very judiciously, not by opposing Truth to his Lye, 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 reserv'd for another time.



[1] (Swift took the MS of this pamphlet to the printer, Morphew, who printed most of the works by Tory authors of that period. ) ---He thus speaks of it in his "Journal to Stella" of Oct. 9, and Dec. 2, 1712:---"Arbuthnot has sent me, from Windsor, a pretty discourse upon lying; and I have ordered the printer to come for it. It is a proposal for publishing a curious piece, called, 'The Art of Political Lying,' in two volumes. &c.. and then there is an abstract of the first volume, just like those pamphlets which they call The Works of the Learned." "The pamphlet of Political Lying is written by Dr. Arbuthnot, the author of  'John Bull.' It is very pretty, but not so obvious to be understood."  From Roscoe's note.

[2] "sons of the art," i.e., the initiated

[3]  "the good that is useful, that which is sweet, that which is honorable"

[4] "rumors and libellous pamphlets"

[5] "Major-general Webb obtained a glorious victory over the French, near Wynedale, in the year 1708. He was sent with 6000 of the confederate troops to guard a great convoy to the allied army, besieging Lisle: Count de la Motte came out from Ghent, with nearly 24,000 men, to intercept them; but major-general Webb disposed his men with such admirable skill that, notwithstanding the vast superiority of numbers, by the pure force of order and disposition, the French were driven back in two or three successive attempts; and after having lost 6000 or 7000 men, could be brought to charge no more. This may justly be reckoned among the greatest actions of that war: but the duke of Marlborough's secretary, in his letter written to England, gave all the honour of it to general Cadogan, the duke's favourite, who did not come up till after the engagement. This was so resented by general Webb, that he left the army in disgust; and coming into England to do himself justice, received the unanimous thanks of the house of commons for his eminent services by that great action; which was also acknowledged, in a distinguishing manner by the king of Prussia, who bestowed on him the Order of Generosity. " ---Roscoe

[6] "in the highest degree, extravagantly"

[7]  Arbuthnot translates his own Greek.

[8]  "During the reigns of king William and queen Anne."---Roscoe

[9]  "Something forcible or effective, esp. something very
big; a 'whopper.' "---OED

[10]  Arbuthnot's pseudo-pedantic coinage, on themodel of "hermeneutics" probably meaning "art of interpreting images," where image is as used in "The US is campaigning to improve its image in the Middle East."