Devil's Advocate, to play

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'To play devil's advocate' is a very old idiomatic expression stemming from a literal court role in the 14th century.

Meaning

Someone who plays devil's advocate (or the devil's advocate) is arguing against a popular or familiar view or is simply arguing for the sake of arguing.

When you are playing the devil's advocate, you are not actually against the argument you are opposing, but are simply trying to help establish its value by presenting an opposing argument, or to help a conversation along. By being the devil's advocate, you are willingly putting forth the "devil's point of view" or, in other words, the wrong or bad point of view.

Get thee behind me, Satan

"Get thee behind me, Satan!"
"Chill, man, I'm just playing devil's advocate."

Painting by J.J. Tissot owned by Brooklyn Museum

Get thee behind me, Satan

"Get thee behind me, Satan!"
"Chill, man, I'm just playing devil's advocate."

Painting by J.J. Tissot owned by Brooklyn Museum

Usage Examples

"Judging from their few conversations, John seemed to be completely against Edward's chosen candidate but when the candidate won, John was just as happy as anyone. It became clear that John had just been playing devil's advocate."

"I like red as much as the next guy, but, just to play devil's advocate, let's say we choose a neutral color, instead."

Origin

The Devil's Advocate or advocatus diaboli, also called Promoter of the Faith, was a real role in the Roman Catholic Church, starting during the late 1500's. This official was the man responsible for opposing the canonization of a saint by presenting views against the candidate, thus advancing the devil's point of view. This process was put in place in 1587 by Pope Sixtus V, and used to make sure that the proposed candidate was deserving of sainthood, by teasing out any problems with their character or the supposed reasons for their being granted sainthood. If the candidate stood up to all these arguments, they were canonized.

This process was abolished by Pope John Paul II in 1983, to make the process of canonization less complex.

The devil's advocate passed into general usage as an idiomatic expression in the mid 1700's.

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