The art of fiction and political lies

This year we commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of a man who, more than any other, trained the modern world in the art of fiction. In 2016 we also seem destined to pass another milestone: the low tide mark for truth in politics. While the two points may seem unrelated, it turns out that Miguel de Cervantes has a lot to tell us about why politicians lie so unrepentantly, and why their lies are so resistant to being debunked by mere facts.

To begin with, it makes sense to distinguish lies from fiction. A lie is a false statement that the speaker knows is false, and with which he or she intends to deceive the receiver. Fiction, in contrast, is made of false statements that the receiver knows are false but listens to anyway for the sake of entertainment. But fiction is also much more than that. For us to be satisfied and moved by fiction, we expect it to engage our emotions in ways that feel real without being real. We need to believe in the characters we are encountering at the same time that we know what we are experiencing is not happening, at least not now, and at least not to us.


When a politician lies — for instance by repeatedly asserting that illegal immigrants are flooding across our southern border or that it would be beneficial or even feasible to stop Muslims from entering the United States — he is empowering his lies with some of the belief that makes fiction so effective, but without nuancing them with the knowledge of their falsity that protects us from fiction's allures.

Cervantes wrote fiction at a time when politicians, in his case institutions like the Hapsburg monarchy and the Inquisition, were propagating beliefs that helped buttress the crumbling foundations of their power. These institutions fed an overtaxed peasantry the belief that its "old Christian blood" made it superior to neighbors of Jewish descent. Neighbors with Muslim origins were eventually exiled en masse in an act of almost apocalyptic scapegoating for Spain's financial and political woes.


Weaned by personal disappointment from his own beliefs, Cervantes put these sorts of big, public lies into his books along with characters who believed in them, and then suffered the consequences. The result was an imaginary world populated by characters who feel more real to us because they share our blindness and perplexity. But that world also helped train a slowly growing reading public in the subtle art of believing something while knowing it not to be true. By making characters his readers could believe in, he created an art form that helps clarify what they should believe in.

Today's political class benefits from a public that has unlearned that art. Their lies have all the appeal of fiction, all the thrall of religious belief, without the clarifying knowledge of their falsity. Citizens treat politicians like beloved characters from a novel: Donald Trump is "real" because "he says what everyone is thinking"; he's "authentic." In other words, Mr. Trump is a well wrought fictional character that his public has forgotten is fictional. This is the most treacherous and effective kind of lie.

As the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz wrote a century or so after Cervantes published Don Quixote, that ode to belief and lucidity that would become the first modern work of fiction, if someone "reads more imaginative novels and listens to more strange stories, then he can be said to have more knowledge than the other, even if there is not a word of truth in all that he has seen and heard ... provided that he takes nothing in these stories and pictures to be true which really is not so."

Leibniz was writing from a vantage built on the lessons of Cervantes' fiction. Perhaps this year, as we commemorate his life and our inheritance, we should consider the power that fiction has not only to enchant, but to demystify, to infect our beliefs with the self-knowledge that keeps us from being enthralled to them.

William Egginton is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University and author of "The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered In the Modern World" (Bloomsbury Publishing, February 2016). His email is