Of Cloaking, Colouring and Varnishing: Prasanta Chakravarty


“Then leave Complaints: Fools only strive
To make a Great and honest Hive.
T’enjoy the World’s Conveniences,
Be famed in War, yet live in Ease
Without great Vices, is a vain
Eutopia seated in the Brain.”

Bernard Mandeville (The Grumbling Hive, 1705)

Salutary falsehoods for a promising end, anyone? Try telling this to the ever righteous Anna Hazare or to the followers of Vaclav Havel, whose campaign assurance to ‘live in truth’ in the year 1989 so moved his virtuous flock. There is a politics of virtue and then there is realpolitik – or so we are told. Or is virtue above politics and vice below? What the deuce marks the ambiguous space in between?! That is what has been relentlessly, and ruthlessly, scanned by two masterful recent additions to the canons of contemporary Western political philosophy: Martin Jay’s The Virtues of Mendacity: on Lying in Politics and David Runciman’s Political Hypocrisy: the Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond.

At one level, both scholars acknowledge and emphasize the dangers of the ‘ethical turn’ in political studies.

 Politics is fundamentally about conflicts. All other considerations must circulate around this premise. And while that does not mean less of imagination, philosophy or culture, it does mean that the company of these is welcome only if they consider seriously the motives that trigger the ‘political’ mode in actors and institutions; if they consider varieties of gamesmanship in human interactions. To this end, the authors identify two intertwined phenomenon – lying and hypocrisy – and map their political implications.

In 1712, the British physician and wit John Arbuthnot published A Treatise of the Art of Political Lying, as a lesson in the sound rules of pseudology. After offering several categories of political lying and tactics, he cautions against its excessive use: “…where there is too great quantity of worms, it is hard to catch grudgeons,” he quips. But the antidote to excessive lies is not speaking the truth. Taking into consideration the extent of the cylindrical surface of our souls, the properest contradiction of a lie is another lie, Arbuthnot concludes.

And this – our inclination to spice things up and garnish words and events – Jay reminds us, is hardly ‘unnatural.’ It goes back to the never-ending hide-and-seek between the predator and the prey that involves camouflage, mimicry and other forms of playing with the truth. The evolutionary biologist Dario Maestripieri says that both humans and rhesus monkeys have ‘Machiavellian intelligence.’ Similarly, children must learn to be sincere (by being honest and straightforward) and dissemblers (by being polite, modest and discreet) at the same time. A reliable indicator of autism seems to be a marked incompetence in the arts of hiding, pretending, dissembling and lying.

But cooperation and altruism can be natural too, right? So, the naturalism argument might not go too far. The real point is that dissembling does not merely serve evolutionary ends. It is essentially and deeply, both social and individual. On a certain plane, hedging plays a crucial role in sociability—travelling beyond mere duplicity or deception. In fact both hypocrisy and lying have their roots in the theatre (hypokrisis: playing of a part). Are people who play parts potentially unreliable—full of hoax and humbuggery? But what about the spectators who unabashedly revel in their willingness to be fooled, mixed with a satisfaction at seeing through the trick? It is only that pure politics, in slight difference to pure theatricality, as Kari Palonen notes, “…is a kind of play without a pre-written manuscript, without a director, without fixed roles and actors, who also contest with each other as regards the style of the play.”

But is theatricality – that is to say, modes of concealing and cloaking – fundamental to human interaction? Are our real selves fictive? Is immediacy always mediated by a symbolic order? Perhaps it is not a bad idea to keep a certain tension between truth-telling and lying alive. In any case, a variety of lies are only ‘white’ – or, as the French say, ‘pious.’ Primary (not even polite) socialization itself involves gaining a savoir-faire that relativizes truth-content in interactions. Philosopher David Nyberg famously pronounced that trust in friendship does not mean trust in the truth-content of your friend’s statements, but reliance on her tact of discretion, her wisdom in holding her counsel in tricky situations or her nudging resourcefulness in making things happen. It is equally obvious that frequently one purpose of mendacity is to maintain secrecy—a sphere of interiority that resists the probing world. Cloaking and lying then form a cosy pair, fundamentally complicit.

But the underlying point that circumscribes such cultural issues and connects lying and duplicity to politics is the question of morality. Jay rightly refers to Henrik Ibsen’s idea of the life-lie, a form of destructive self-delusion that allows a person to face unbearable reality at a slight tangent: “You take away the life-lie from the average man, and you take away his happiness with it,” observes a character in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. But what if moral considerations outweigh motives of happiness, wonders Jay. Could lying ever be morally justifiable? Actually, the crux of the moral censure comes from the fact that when I lie to you, I don’t merely see you as an object to be deceived by regarding you as an obstacle or a means to an end. I strike at the very root of our mutuality in a deeper sense. I do not just dismiss you as a person but appeal to you as a person and then use that against you. The intensity of the moral outrage comes from this dual misrepresentation: of being both sincere and a liar. No wonder there is a deep-rooted link between lying and violence since not unlike violence, deceit too works as much on belief as on action.

So, the moral outrage against lying comes from breaching individual and communicative trust. And this point has been underlined time and again by some important minds, often Christian—from Augustine through Aquinas up to the Puritans (and Jansenists on the other side) there prevails a ‘holy watchfulness’: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour,” the ninth commandment, is a dictum that the ascetic-virtuous have always taken rather seriously. The mouth that belieth, killeth the soul. Sanctification is always soul serving! A recent example of this attitude and belief, coming from a very different ethical-ascetic direction (and one feels both Jay and Runciman’s scholarly target in some ways) is Michel Foucault’s ideal of parrhesia—unflattering truth-telling to those in the power, offering criticism where it is warranted. This mode is the techne for an exemplary philosophic life. Parrhesia exemplifies the winning power of truth over political power.

The other morally censorious mode against mendacity of course stems from the Kantian rational. Jay jokingly says about Kant’s inflexibility against lying that he always advocated clean hands, no matter how dirty the game being played! He would prefer violence (often imperial, as we know) to lying and will make no compromise with the internal moral guide of duty (pflicht). For Kant, it is the ethical, and not the juridical command, that needs to be obeyed by the noumenon. The lie simply does not conform to practical (moral) reason in Kant. But what sort of constricted view of responsibility is this? What if truth or lie not be maxims of will but simply actions? How can such moral imperatives be applied to imperfect and messy human actions? And what about conflicting moral imperatives when they are equally powerful?

It is this messy world that both Jay and Runciman identify as the political, a world which the votaries of virtue and rationality detest—angry and befuddled at the riotous everyday world of give and take, of strategies and antagonisms, of secrecy and subterfuge, of contracts and governance, of conterfactuality and language games, of the symbolic and fictive. It is this tremendous and zealous bluff of the ethical and rational in politics that these works seek to undo.

In fact, the politiques never fulminate with the same furore that lying and hypocrisy generate periodically in the public sphere. Oscar Wilde exalts in lying when he says that dabblers in mere misrepresentation are but amateurs. The temper of the true liar is frank and fearless with a superb sense of irresponsibility and a healthy disdain for proof. In this sense politics is far from cunning and manipulation. To begin with, it is not only that those who govern or represent participate in mendacity. The powerless and adversarial too practice ‘arts’ of resistance all the time. Heterodoxy is in fact much about tactical dissimulation—where the distinction between truth and lie is often made to disappear.

But there are petty lies and the more watertight world of the utopic and fictitious. The politics of antagonism, in spite of the rival world of virtuosity, often rely on propaganda which is well worked out. Agonists, more forthrightly, stress shifting alliances and rivalries between states—and truth is ‘stretched’ all the time in state diplomacy. Good governance itself is a kind of noble lie. It was this idea that Leo Strauss, though a Platonist himself, understood perfectly as he repeatedly argued for reinstating the esoteric and the ambiguous in politics. Of course there are benign and injurious versions of lying and ambiguity and these distinctions should be the proper subject of study for the student of the political. For instance, Jean Michael Rabate made a fine distinction between the totalitarian big lie and the alternative lie of the political dreamer: “Whereas the big lie was an expression of man in his guise as Homo faber, the fabricator of a world that was like finished object, more modest lies were sign of man as free actor, with the world still open to change.”

It is this crucial difference that takes us to cognate ‘ordinary vices’ in human and institutional interactions – say, bullshitting or hypocrisy. David Runciman takes up the question of hypocrisy. What are the hypocrisies that are unavoidable in modern, morally pluralistic democracies and what are intolerable? One of the major breakthroughs in Runciman’s book is to shift the discussion of political integrity and hypocrisy from both the Machiavellian and Nietzschean traditions and firmly put it back within the Anglo-American world. His book is about Hobbes and Mandeville, Sidgewick and Betham, Jefferson and Orwell. But the primary question remains focussed: how to solve the central liberal problem of keeping the mask in place while being aware of what lies behind it. To begin with, all lies are not necessarily hypocritical because hypocrisy often turns on questions of character and not on issues of coincidence with truth. Hypocrisy is about creating a kind of persona. Rather, Runciman is interested in distinguishing between different kinds of hypocrisy. Quite provocatively he says, “We need to know what sorts of hypocrites we want our politicians to be, and in what sort of combinations.”

His point of departure is Thomas Hobbes’ massive royalist treatise on the English civil War—Behemoth. Hobbes’ primary butts of attack are the pious and vainglorious Puritans and Anglicans. The moral sanctimony of the godly is but a façade for practising dubious politics and religiosity, he is convinced. The pious revolutionary saints are in fact consummate political operators—tough on the primary loyalties of their congregations, but lax about their private failings. This is pure hypocrisy. Hobbes had a particular dislike for words like conscience, democracy, piety and so forth for their political vacuity. But how can one take seriously the pronouncements on hypocrisy from the writer of De Cive and Leviathan? Advocates of hypocrisy may find it hard to be taken seriously, because if they really believe what they preach, then it renders their own words unreliable. Here Hobbes has a made a central distinction between two kinds of hypocrites—those who mask/conceal and those who colour/varnish. While cloaking is pure and reflective duplicity, an everyday practice—say, the sovereign representative, in personating the commonwealth, puts on a kind of mask. Colouring, by contrast hides vices in order to give one’s actions a moral hue—especially to something (say, religion) which is otherwise colourless or arbitrary. In this mode, piety makes a mockery of performance itself. If pious frauds in politics are hypocritical, it is because of the piety, not because of the fraud. This is an exercise in self-deception, something Hobbes tries to expose in Behemoth.

Francis Bacon, in his essay ‘Of Simulation and Dissimulation,’ exploits a similar sentiment when he insists that it is necessary to separate mere concealment from conscious deception. Dissimulation means concealment or holding something back (cloaking). Simulation requires going out of your way to put something in the public domain that you know to be false (colouring). Bacon summarizes the intricate argument: “The best composition and temperature is to have openness in fame and opinion; secrecy in habit; dissimulation in seasonable use; and a power to feign, if there be no remedy.” One has to be flexible – so that a reputation for honesty is preserved while a capacity for deception is retained.

Self-deception is an important cog in this whole business. Concealing vice as virtue is one basic level at which most of us parade our social existence. At a higher level is concealing the truth about being a hypocrite and at the same time pretending that the parade itself is a form of genuinely virtuous, and self-denying behavior. At the heart of Runciman’s tour de force is a realization of this sophisticated version of the game—not merely concealing the vice, but concealing one’s consciousness of the concealment, only to make it more perfect. Hypocrisy is not just a matter of motive then but of self-awareness and coming to terms with it. William Hazlitt, targets Samuel Taylor Coleridge by making a distinction between cant and hypocrisy: “Mr. Coleridge is made up of cant, that is of mawkish affectation and sensibility; but he has not sincerity enough to be a hypocrite, that is, he has not hearty dislike or contempt enough for anything, to give the lie to his pulling professions of admiration and esteem for it.” Hazlitt is hinting at Coleridge’s lack of self awareness as far as hypocrisy is concerned.

The real question then would be to wonder whether we really want to be led by individuals who lack the guile of the seasoned politician, and so are capable of being self-deceived. Does that mean politics is all about cardsharps and hucksters? Far from it. This is what Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter in the early days of John Adams’ presidency: “If the game sometimes runs against us at home, we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost.” Runciman brilliantly glosses: Politics is a game played with principles, and shot through with luck.

The temptations of anti-hypocrisy or truth-telling are pervasive. To wriggle free, clean up and produce some sort of permanent ethical insulation against ordinary vices in politics appears periodically—often rerouted through prophets and saints. Pity, such faux-confessionary ideas about getting rid of degradation and crisis in the political arena will remain a pipedream—a remarkably misguided spree, a strategic abstraction. So will grandiose and elevated ideas of democracy. Such premium on virtuosity is bound to lead to a cycle of hectoring and denial, accusation and counter-denial, finally leading to a level of sanctimony that is simply unsustainable. And yes, the fact that someone is lying or something is a mask does not mean they cannot be used to unmask something else. One invests in a different kind of redemptive, heroic or utopian politics if one begins with the grey. It is really not worth worrying about whether an act or situation is hypocritical or mendacious, but it is important to note whether such acts are self-conscious, well-thought-out and acutely scathing, or are mere acts of fashion and tittle-tattle.

Select Bibliography:

William Ian Miller: Faking It (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

David Nyberg: The Varnished Truth: Truth Telling and Deceiving in Ordinary Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

Judith Shklar: Ordinary Vices (Cambridge, M.A.: Bellknap Press, 1984).

Sissela Bok: Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (London: Quartet, 1980).

Harry Frankfurt: On Bullshit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

Bernard Williams: Truth and Truthfulness (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

Don Herzog: Cunning (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

Ruth W. Grant: Hypocrisy and Integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the Ethics of Politics. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1997).

Perez Zagorin: Ways of Lying: Dissimulation, Persecution and Conformity in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press, 1990).

Kari Palonen: Re-Thinking Politics: Essays from a Quarter Century. (Finnish Political Science Association, 2007).

Dario Maestripieri: Machiavellian Intelligence: How Rhesus Macaques and Humans Have conquered the World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

5 thoughts on “Of Cloaking, Colouring and Varnishing: Prasanta Chakravarty”

  1. Interesting article. I think, the acts of concealment and deception used, respectively, as tools of defence and offence, are the products of mental evolution. In other words, they are one of the early manifestations of intelligence. Ethics and morality are their consequences which evolve to protect a society from the negative effects of concealment and deception of individuals. It does not mean that society cannot collectively practice the concealment and deception, as these so called vices become virtues when dealing with competing societies. In brief, the acts of concealment, deception, ethics and morality are inherently related and not mutually exclusive. One can only expect that those who lead the society, whether socially or politically, use them for its overall good.


  2. Ah yes. Another plate of half-ideas scrambled in purple prose and garnished with glibly quoted scraps of ‘research’, a standard from this contributor. Dear Kafila, as a fan and a regular reader, may I beg for SOME quality control? First, if you must have English professors who write this badly, please edit them. I’ll demonstrate with a few paragraphs – the fish is a ‘gudgeon’ not a ‘grudgeon’. It ought to be ‘canon’ of Western philosophy, otherwise we readers imagine clergymen. One phenomenon; two phenomenA. The “politics of antagonism” cannot be the opposite of “politics of virtuosity” because virtuosity is NOTHING TO DO WITH VIRTUE. Check a dictionary. While you’re at it, check ‘cognate’, too. I could go on for pages; it’s almost unreadably poor English. I despair, however, of someone who can write – and the editor/s who can clear – ” the politiques are never fulminate with the same furore”.

    But more importantly, the content. Nobody who knows ANYTHING about biology and sociology casually tosses off opinions on whether dissimulation is natural or learned – that’s just jaw-droppingly stupid, and reading one specialist and sticking his name in your bibliography does not give you authority. Why do people feel the urge to do this? I’m a psychologist; would anyone applaud my multidisciplinarity if I stuck Karl Popper or someone in my reading list and started declaiming on Plato’s shortcomings? Dragging in autism is similarly puzzling, off-topic and unsupported.

    Finally, one of the great un-answered questions in Indian political discourse – what, precisely, is a liberal? The word describes distinct political allegiances in the US and the UK, but a totally different set in each country. The US liberal will have certain stances on abortion, gun control, military expenditure, progressive taxation etc. The UK liberal will have different priorities and different opinions on them. In India? As far as I can tell the word is entirely meaningless in itself and used with merry abandon both as a pejorative and commendation. You can say ‘those guys are communal and I’M liberal’, and ‘those guys are liberal, I’M a radical’. But when Prof.Chakravarty’s massive screed on politics says “the central liberal problem (is) keeping the mask in place while being aware of what lies behind it”, he’s begging the question. TWO questions rather: (A) Kindly define ‘liberal’ for the purposes of this statement, with explicit reference to political beliefs on various issues. In other words, don’t use waffle-y definitions which just mean ‘people who don’t agree with me’. (B) You do realise this contradicts your other assertion, that this is central problem of all of humanity?


    1. Masumiyat, I will leave it to the author to respond to your larger comment if he wishes to. But as somebody who posted this, I can only say thanks for pointing out the typos. I did do some rudimentary editing (if I know the author to have posted on the site before, I don’t edit very finely), but I could have been more assiduous, undoubtedly. All of us at Kafila do this part-time and have full-time jobs, so editing does suffer sometimes, although I speak strictly only for myself. I do want to point out, very humbly that where we notice typos even after we have posted, we do correct them. Prasanta in fact sent me an email asking me to do so in the case of the sentence, “politiques are never fulminate”. We did this before your comment; you unfortunately read the earlier version on the site.
      As for the other points (about content and language in general) I will leave it to Prasanta.
      Please don’t despair and do continue to engage, we take constructive criticism very seriously :)


  3. This article, sadly, is too full of alienating jargon. Why don’t academics pay attention to the craft of language? Why not vary the sentence length? Why not work to improve readability?


  4. Special thanks to kafila for publishing such a thoughtful piece. The beauty of this piece is that it is not arguing for realpolitik and yet making a very serious intervention in mature political thinking. I thank the writer for bringing to our notice the two books and the concepts too.

    Roohi Ranjan Bhargava, North Dakota


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