Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Devil’s Advocate

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 16, 2011

Originally, the devil’s advocateAdvocatus Diaboli — was a person employed by the Roman Catholic church to argue against someone being made a saint. This began with Pope Sixtus V in 1587 with the Office of Promotor Fidei — where the Advocatus Diaboli could be found — and abolished by Pope John Paul II in 1983.

Over the years, devil’s advocate has come to mean any person who pretends to be against an idea or plan that many support in order to spur people on to discuss the matter in greater detail and to think about it more carefully before locking the idea into place or putting the plan in motion.

On May 19, 2009 the Coventry Evening Telegraph ran a story entitled, “Shock Jock Barry’s Tough Talk.”  The story began with this:

Barry Champlain’s late-night radio show is listened to by insomniacs, “nut jobs and psychos,” the lonely and the desperate. Night after night, Barry pushes them to breaking point, as he plays analyst, confessor and devil’s advocate.  Alex Comer plays the late night talk jockey who specialises in subverting the airwaves in Talk Radio.

On June 6, 1962 the Toledo Blade published a story entitled, “No Solution Can Be Seen For China’s Food Problem.”  The article was written by Keyes Beech who was temporarily taking over for Doris Fleeson who, according to the newspaper, had been injured in an automobile accident and would by away for a few days.  The article began with:

Even if you play the devil’s advocate, it’s next to impossible to find anything good to say about Communist China.  Today’s news is all bad.  The overwhelming fact of China in 1962 is that people are hungry or afraid of hunger.  Fear of famine was the force that drove 70,000 Chinese to seek refuge in British Hong Kong, a capitalist utopia on the Red Communist doorstep.

The Providence, Rhode Island Evening News of July 3, 1914 carried an obituary for Joseph Chamberlain (1826 – 1914) on page 2.  It was entitled, “Joseph Chamberlain, Noted Briton, Dead.”  The reason for so much interest in Mr. Chamberlain was due to the fact that not only was his third wife, Mary Endicott, daughter of William C. Endicott, Secretary of War for during the presidency of Stephen Grover Cleveland (1837 – 1908), but he had been the British representative to the American-British Joint High Commission.

During the campaign of 1892 Mr. Chamberlain worked with great effect, and subsequently in the Commons he was to the forefront in all the assaults on the Irish government bill and clashed frequently with Mr. Gladstone.  The home rules, considered him a renegade, and this rankling he aggravated by his rasping tactics.  During debate on the bill, one night in July, 1893 Mr. Gladstone tartly compared him with “the devil’s advocate.”  The next night in debate Mr. Chamberlain retorted so caustically that T.P. O’Connor yelled at his, “Judas! Judas!” followed presently by a free fight on the floor between several members — a rare outbreak in probably the most staid legislative body in the world — accompanied by vigorous hissing by the galleries.

From the above excerpt, we see that the expression devil’s advocate was used in 1914 and, based on the quote in the excerpt, in 1892.  Going back another 40 years, the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle published a news article entitled, “Carlyle on Jesuitism” on January 17, 1852 that read in part:

And as this Ignatius, I am aware he is admired, and even transcendently admired, or what we call worshipped, by multitudes of human creatures, who to this day expect, or endeavour to expect, some kind of salvation from him; — whom it is so painful to enrage against me, if I could avoid it! Undoubtedly Ignatius, centuries ago, gave satisfaction to the Devil’s Advocate, the Pope and other parties interested, was canonised, named Saint, and raised duly into Heaven officially so-called; whereupon, with many, he passes, ever since, for a kind of god, or person who has much influence with the gods.

H.W. Fowler published “The King’s English” in 1908 and attributes the expression devil’s advocate to 1760, however, he does not provide a reference source for the claim.

The first formal mention Idiomation could find of the devil’s advocate is in the canonization of St. Lawrence Justinian in 1690 under Pope Leo X (1513-21). Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of the expression devil’s advocate  and believes that 1690 is the earliest to be found.

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